Sunday, November 18, 2018

Using the Past to Navigate the Present

            One of the most fulfilling parts of my administrative work this year has been observing classes and learning from my fellow educators. I’ve been assigned to observe teachers in a few different departments, one of them being social studies. As I’ve sat through many classes in this discipline, I’ve realized that students are gaining more than facts and dates in today’s social studies classes. They are gaining, from their teachers, a chance to understand the present through the lens of the past. Never has that been more needed than at this time.

            At their best, social studies teachers avoid the sound bites, the pundits and the social media comments. They focus instead on depth of study and of thought. They encourage reflection, deliberation and collaboration. They help students re-discover the reality that nothing has ever come easy in America, that despite our freedoms and opportunity we often take steps forward and backward at the same time.

            The students in these classes read stories of individuals who have never given up on the promise of America. They study leaders who were unwilling to stop reaching toward the promise of the Declaration, toward a fuller and more just Constitution, and toward an electoral process that represented everyone. They write essays and DBQs and take part in class discussions and presentations about the constant tug and pull of American history.

            The challenges of this divided nation are growing by the day. It’s reached a point where many of us can feel this underlying vibe of stress connected with our national events and political sphere. Even on our best days, many of us still feel the static queasiness of “What’s next?” In relating that feeling to the teens in my school, I wonder if one social studies class per day is enough at this point. These classes, as great as they are, have curricula to cover. Our kids have questions about issues all over the map, literally and figuratively. We owe it to them to answer those questions.

Book groups, discussion clubs and additional humanities-based study are all emerging in my school as well. Some teens are recognizing that as lifelong learners they’ve got a responsibility to deepen their understanding of the challenges we face. At my church, we’ve had teen discussion groups related to race this year, and we’ve combined conversation, video and reading to try and understand America’s history of race relations. My church is definitely not the only extracurricular group offering students the chance to think about American history. Pop culture is doing its part, too, from film to television to music videos. Streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify offer many volumes of though-provoking media. And yes, there are still books that students are reading – and enjoying – on their own.

Education is grounded in the free association of ideas and the belief that our students can become our next leaders. As we work toward that goal, it’s essential that we recognize that different eras bring different responsibilities. This time period calls for a deep dive into history, journalism, literature and media, to gain a stronger sense of where we are, how we got here, and how we can move forward. As I see this at play throughout and beyond my school, I see many reasons to hope. The only way forward is to keep exploring both yesterday and today.

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