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Capitalizing on vote's teachable moment

Government teachers may be the only people in the US universally pleased at the presidential limbo brought on by last week's election.

For educators, it's the ideal "teachable moment," a chance to transform TV headlines into valuable classroom discussions, and maybe, finally, demonstrate that the Electoral College and individual votes really mean something.

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But teachers struggling to make the abstract concepts of citizenship come alive to an often-apathetic age group can't always count on a national event this dramatic.

That's why they have to find innovative ways to spark involvement year-round. For many educators, the key is to guide students to take an active role in social issues. But in addition, emphasizes Chuck Tampio, a vice president at the Close Up Foundation in Washington, "there's nothing like a good teacher. That's No. 1."

Sandra Jenkins, a science teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., infuses real-life activism into an unusual subject area. When her students learn about the environment, they also look at how to tackle a local issue that concerns them. Last year they developed an action plan to address pollution caused by clogged storm drains.

"They need to understand that just being aware of something isn't enough," says Ms. Jenkins. "You need to know that you have a civic responsibility, that you have to own it."

At Gill St. Bernard's School in Gladstone, N.J., history chair John Ripton also taps into issues kids care about. When he teaches the ninth-grade comparative world cultures course, he tries to seamlessly connect history, geography, current problems, and how these all affect students' lives. They examine global economics, for instance, through their clothing - tracing its history and fabrication and holding a "fashion show" in which they tell the audience what they've uncovered. Mr. Ripton also encourages students to express their views by writing editorials and contacting members of Congress.

"Some people might say you shouldn't have activism in the classroom because there's an ideological component to that," Ripton says. "But I think it's very important to have ideology discussed in the classroom - of all different kinds."

Getting kids fired up about an issue and then showing them a way out of passivity is an important life lesson, he adds. "If you put it in a civics course, you're going to kill it. It should be an active part in a young person's education."

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society