Aliza Saunders//The Raider Review
October 24, 2017
Fake News. Why’d Hillary Lose? Respect Our Troops. Obama plays hoops. Nuclear War. Let’s Aid the Poor. #TakeAKnee. Plant a tree. Email Scandals. Twitter handles. Buzz words like these and countless more appear in speeches, on social media, in newspaper articles, and on television stations. News is constantly circulating around us, so it only makes sense that in our classrooms we discuss these ever-present ideas.
There’s almost no doubt that the recent presidential cycle and the issues in the news each day can add some spice to classroom discussions or even lectures, whether it be about immigration and assimilation, the complexities in 1984, or the tax code. But bearing in mind the diversity of the student body, how do teachers effectively integrate contemporary and sometimes politically-charged topics into their lessons?
“Every student walks into the classroom affected by the politics and by society,” Ms. Street said. “I want to give students an opportunity tolook at the context of what is happening around them and to opening discuss the different points of view.”
Ms. Street, a six year veteran of the World Language Department, focuses on the idea of global competence and stresses the importance of cultural, not just language, proficiency. “When we take a global competence approach to learning, what we do is try to breakdown the barriers that may interfere with understanding,” she said. “Being able to look at situations through various ‘lenses’ and having the ability to respect these views is key to maintaining and reaching a functional, tolerant, and productive global relationship.”
In practice, Ms. Street often opens her classroom up for discussion about topics ranging from the challenges of assimilation to the cycle of poverty in Latin America, all in Spanish, of course. She wants her students to understand why learning a language is so important, so incorporating current events help foster that connection, she says.
Incorporating these contemporary topics is not only home to Spanish classes, but also to the English Department. Both English 10 GT teachers, Ms. Bonomo and Mr. Vennard, teach George Orwell’s 1984, a famous novel covering themes from oppression to freedom to privacy.
“It’s very difficult to teach that book apolitically; I don’t really attempt to,” Ms. Bonomo said. “I try to teach it in such a way that my leanings are not evident, but students naturally make connection between that book and what’s going on in our contemporary world.”
Ms. Bonomo noted that through these connections, whether it be through music or the media, often make the literature more relevant to the students.
Mr. Schmitz, who teaches U.S. history and economics, relates historical topics to those going on today. When teaching about Reconstruction, the era directly following the Civil War, Mr. Schmitz discusses how African Americans were treated in the South at the time and how they are treated now, considering the progress, or lack thereof, that has been made.
Ms. Bonomo ties in current events to other literatures she teaches, as well. Last year in her English 10 class, Ms. Bonomo taught Monster, a novel that follows an African American teenager’s murder trial, and she had her students examine bail reform, which was actually being considered by the Maryland legislature at that time. Ms. Bonomo showed her students a video and gave them editorials to read about bail reform that presented the students with both sides of the issue.
What can be difficult, however, is exactly that: presenting both sides. Of course, teachers have their own opinions, but it is their job as a teacher to present the topics “in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice, [where] students are able to form and express their own opinions on the issue without jeopardizing their relationship with teachers or the school,” according to Howard County Policy 8050: Teaching Controversial Issues.
Ms. Street understands this challenge of teaching current events, but she doesn’t let it prevent her from making language seem relevant to her students. She acknowledges her own perspectives as a first generation Portuguese-American, but she never forces these perspective on her students; she wants her students to ultimately make up their minds about these current events.
Similarly, when Ms. Bonomo teaches a charged topic, she is even more aware to select material that comes from both sides of the issue.
Sometimes, however, teachers unintentionally insert their own views into discussions. After a potentially heated or controversial conversation, both Mr. Schmitz and Ms. Bonomo reflect on what they said. If they noticed that they inserted their personal opinions, both teachers work to change that for the next class period or
for future discussions.
Of course, when students are often very informed and passionate, there are bound to mishaps. “There have been a few times when our discussion circles have gotten a bit heated, but with the correct prompting, questions, and referencing our norms there has never been a time when I feel students leave class feeling uncomfortable or offended,” Ms. Street said.
Ms. Bonomo mentioned times when, in classroom discussions, students have taken their peers’ words to heart: “I do think if we take something personally, we should want to change other people’s minds,” she said. “That becomes my role of trying to help them be able to express themselves as effectively and persuasively as possible.”
Essentially, teachers are the facilitators of these discussions, offering learning advice to students, providing students with research to further their understanding of the topics, and fostering a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. “After all, a teacher is merely a facilitator helping kids work through the learning process,” Ms. Street said. She has been working for three years with the Howard County Cultural Proficiency Program, and is now considered a Facilitator. She utilizes both her training and skills from this program in the classroom.
“The current political climate naturally lends itself to much debate. I think we are doing students a disservice by avoiding discussing these issues. Again, I go back to all kids are in some way shape or form affected by what’s happening around them,” Ms. Street said. “It is my job to work through this with them by giving them tools to be critical, look through various lenses and use multiple sources to make up their own pros and cons lists and to develop an appreciation for people who for who they are.”
Like Ms. Street, both Mr. Schmitz and Ms. Bonomo looks for ways to teach students how to critically look at and examine sources, whether it be diary accounts from Native Americans or clickbait articles on Facebook.
“My attitude is [that] my students are going to be with me for a year; they’re going to be global citizens for a lifetime, so it’s not up to me to tell them, but rather to show them how to evaluate what’s a good argument and what’s a poor source, what’s a good source and what’s a poor source,” Ms. Bonomo said.
Mr. Schmitz has always found it crucial that students learn how to examine their sources, but he says it’s even more important in today’s society. “It’s always been important to have a mentality of trying to find or know the truth,” he said. “I think it’s particularly important now to understand what’s going on or to try and figure out why or how we got to wherewe are now.”
It’s pretty safe to say that we live in a politically tense time, where our ideological values often mesh with our opinions and perspectives on the world. So, it is key that we educate ourselves and learn how to become thoughtful, open-minded global citizens ourselves.
“One day, you all will be the ones making decisions that will impact the world. It is critical that you be able to learn and work with from various cultural backgrounds,” Ms. Street said. “This can only be done effectively if you are prepared to interact with others in a way that embraces differences and allows a sense of empathy towards others’ experiences.”