The Real World


From Iraq War to Modified Food, Lessons Incorporate Current Affairs

As U.S. voters busily elected their 44th president last November, students at the British School of Washington used similar rules to usher their next elected leaders into office.

Student council elections — complete with ballot boxes and creative speeches promising change — deliberately coincided with the nation’s historic political contest so that classroom lessons on current events could carry over to the youngsters’ own lives.

“It’s nice to see democracy in action,” said Adam Renshaw, one of three citizenship teachers at the 350-student private school. “Students already had an opinion on what was going on, so we discussed that in class and held contests so they, too, could elect their own people.”

Citizenship is a required class that students at the British School take as part of a 12-subject program that includes more traditional math and science coursework and is guided by the U.K. national curriculum.

The focus of the class is discussion and true engagement in the issues of the day. One morning that may involve a spirited debate about genetically modified food, for example, while the following week a news story about the war in Iraq fits into a unit on conflict resolution.

“We really drill in the relevance of what’s happening in the world,” Renshaw explained. “It just opens their eyes to what’s relevant … world hunger, homelessness. You can literally bring up topics such as the power of the United Nations or the media.”

Doing so goes back to the school’s mission, which is rooted in mutual respect for all cultures and the notion of preparing their pupils to be responsible, independent people who contribute to society long after their years at the British School.

Such a head-on approach to world affairs is at the forefront of education, according to those in the field of civics and social studies. It means teaching not just historical standards such as the Civil War or the Black Death plague, for example, but present-day, still-unfolding history, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to global flu pandemics.

Although schools are increasingly thinking globally — more often utilizing technology to connect to counterpart classrooms across the world (also see “Pals Around the Planet” in the September 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat) — they aren’t always directly discussing current events as part of their regular lessons. Likewise, students’ stakes in these happenings are often detached from the official school curriculum.

That’s beginning to change, albeit in pockets of the country or in select institutions such as the British School that dedicate themselves to global perspectives, according to Peggy Altoff, past president of the National Council for the Social Studies and a current social studies district coordinator in Colorado.

Last month, for instance, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stood with family members of Sept. 11 victims to announce a new pilot program teaching middle school and high school students about the 2001 terrorist attacks. The curriculum is believed to be the first comprehensive educational plan on 9/11 and will feature video and interactive lessons asking students to map terrorist activity using Google software. It will reportedly be tried out on students in six states plus New York City before becoming widespread.

Giuliani and others involved in the effort stress the need to relate the tragic event to ongoing U.S. foreign policy efforts and to create more coherent memories of what happened for those either too young to remember or those with just scant recollections of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

“This is one of the critical subjects on which young people should develop some ideas and thoughts. They’re going to have to live with this for quite some time,” the former mayor told the Associated Press. “It gives young people a framework in which to think about Sept. 11, all that it meant, and all that it means to the present.”

But targeted education programs like this are still a rarity only beginning to come online.

Altoff said that lumping together lessons on civics and global affairs into the everyday curriculum is just not possible, especially in often-overburdened public school systems.

“In some places you’ll have an elective course in current events. In other states there will be a requirement for students to take a civics course. Some deal with it in geography for seventh graders in their study of the western and eastern hemispheres,” she explained. “The first problem is defining what it is.”

One thing’s for sure, though: Students at the elementary school level are not getting an ample amount of social studies, according to Altoff. The federal No Child Left Behind Act has made math and reading the star subjects, she said, increasingly pushing out other core subjects like social studies. That leaves students without a base of knowledge about current events, civics and history by the time they get to middle school and high school.

“Unless an elementary school teacher has a special interest or finds a way to incorporate social studies in with other subjects, kids are not having an organized, systematic approach to it. Their awareness is not being built, and that’s a detriment,” Altoff argued. “Education today is focused on preparation for college and careers. But I’ve always said, ‘What about that third C, preparing for citizenship both in this nation and in this world?’”

One state that’s leading the way in bucking this trend is Wisconsin, in Altoff’s view. There, the state’s Department of Public Instruction is requiring schools to make citizenship an overarching theme in all subject areas, with officials being asked to create a tool kit in which mentor programs teach pupils about becoming responsible members of society and about ways to incorporate character education into the mix.

The initiative was started more than a decade ago when the state convened a taskforce of community stakeholders and asked them to recommend ways to promote positive citizenship to youth. The result was a concrete definition schools could take back with them, along with grant money to execute their visionary programs.

Locally, a handful of D.C. public and charter schools are involved in a nationwide initiative by the Center for Civic Education to promote civic learning. The initiative allows students to see the everyday relevance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with teachers involved in the “We the People” component also able to receive free professional development in civic instruction.

At the end of the school year, classes take part in a simulated congressional hearing where students testify before a panel of judges to show their comprehension of constitutional principles and debate contemporary issues.

Renshaw of the British School stresses the need to go beyond mere textbook reading to give students a better appreciation of today’s complex world. In his class, students sometimes watch the BBC News, have regular access to Time magazine and the Washington Post, and are encouraged to keep up with global current events so that discussions really center on the latest developments.

“Things change so quickly,” he said. “You have to keep it contemporary and keep them interested.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.