The Need to Teach the History Behind Current Events Has Rarely Been Clearer. Here’s How Some Teachers Are Getting ReadyHistorians in the News
tags: racism, teaching history, Protest
Not even a week into summer vacation, Ron DeGregorio’s students were asking to be back in the virtual classroom.
As protests unfolded following the May 25 death of George Floyd, DeGregorio, 31, who teaches Government at a high school in the Toledo, Ohio, area, began to get messages from students who wanted to talk about the relationship between current events and what they’d learned in school. But no such extra session has yet taken place, in part because of the teacher’s hesitation when it comes to broaching the subject in a classroom setting. “I’m not exactly sure what the best route is on a sensitive subject currently unfolding,” DeGregorio says. “It’s a double-edged sword; if you don’t bring it up, then you’re almost as guilty in a different way. I’m thankful there’s a buffer of the summer to figure that out.”
His hesitancy isn’t new. In a 2017 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 90% of American teachers claimed they were comfortable talking about slavery in the classroom, but open-ended follow-up questions revealed a “profound unease around the topic.” But this summer, he’ll have some extra help figuring out how to be have those tough discussions when school resumes: the National Constitution Center (NCC) is taking its annual Summer Teaching Institutes online this July.
As teachers face a new sense of urgency when it comes to teaching topics related to current events, the Philadelphia-based NCC hopes to arm middle- and high-school teachers like DeGregorio with the knowledge needed to ground their discussions in a deeper understanding of the history of topics ranging from slavery and Reconstruction to federalism and women’s suffrage. And in doing so, the effort also offers a window into difficult conversations happening worldwide.
One factor is on their side: teachers say students are suddenly more interested than ever. During its spring programs for students, held against the backdrop of the battle over reopening states, the NCC noticed more student interest than usual in learning about how local and state government powers differ from federal government powers. “Five years ago, it would have been like pulling teeth to talk about federalism,'” says Kerry Sautner, Chief Learning Officer at the National Constitution Center. “We’re always teaching the core pieces of the Constitution but the interest and current conversations around it are so much more heightened.”
“It started to click,” echoes Lauren LeBato, 26, an AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher in Lake Charles, La., of her students realizing, amid stay-at-home orders, how national and state policies can compete with one another.
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