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When teachers skirt tough issues

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It began as a nagging suspicion during Kathy Simon's years as a high school English teacher: that she and her colleagues weren't teaching what really mattered.

A discussion of "Macbeth" helped confirm her concern. After a student dutifully recited the famous lines: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage...," Ms. Simon helped the class with the vocabulary, talked about the metaphor of acting, and discussed iambic pentameter. But the underlying question of the text - whether life has meaning - never arose.

It's a scenario replayed in far too many classrooms, says Simon. In her present position as director of research and professional development at the Coalition of Essential Schools in Oakland, Calif., Simon spent several months observing English, history, biology, and religion classes at public and parochial schools, to get a better sense of just how educators address - or avoid - moral and existential questions that are integral to their subjects.

Students, she found, are generally eager to explore the tougher issues. "They're fighting to find a way to stay interested," she says. "And they raise pertinent, deep, important questions. And those questions get shut down." The reasons are complex. Some teachers worry their supervisors might look negatively at a controversial discussion. And many teachers simply don't know how to handle such a discussion.

In her new book, "Moral Questions in the Classroom," Simon also takes the current public-school structure to task. With an increasing emphasis on high-stakes graduation tests and content-heavy curricula, taking the time for an in-depth discussion of, say, the moral implications of war may mean skimming over facts that students will be tested on later. But, Simon contends, that discussion will stay with the students longer - and engage them in a more intellectually rigorous thought process - than any glossed-over survey of historical events.

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