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Our Views: Linking to history’s teachable moments

Are classrooms today too locked into rigid schedules to focus on historic anniversaries?

POSTED: November 24, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Americans marked a pivotal day in history last week with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On this day in 1963, two days after he was slain in Dallas, the fallen president was transferred from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state as the nation mourned.

Kennedy’s legacy, life and death are part of a fascinating narrative that has sparked decades of questions, theories and conjecture.

Unfortunately, many students were not able to ponder the significance of this tragic yet fascinating event in their classrooms as the anniversary was marked.

When The Times asked local teachers how the assassination was being taught in class, some said it was not part of their lesson plans. Apparently it didn’t fit into the timeline of their social studies curriculums, and JFK would have to wait for another day — likely weeks or months from now when the anniversary has passed.

We even were told the assassination wasn’t considered as relevant to those who didn’t live through it. Surely, though, that doesn’t diminish its significance. None of us lived through the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War or ancient Egypt, but their importance is not up for debate.

The same goes for another key anniversary, the 150th of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettsyburg address, one of the most important speeches in American history. None of us lived through that, either, but it is no less crucial to our understanding of who we are as a people. That is, if our society values education as a vital aspect of human growth, not just a way to score higher on tests than students in China or merely to develop job skills.

We worry and wonder if this is another instance where learning programs are guided chiefly by standardized exams used to gauge student and school progress. Material appearing on those compulsory measuring tools evidently needs to be taught in apple-pie order lest it not take root in time for test day.

Perhaps that makes sense at some level. Still, it would be a shame if the opportunity was missed because detours from the accepted curriculum are not allowed.

We need to keep in mind that education is not just about grades and test scores. Its ultimate goal should be a holistic approach to learning that turns students into knowledgeable citizens — and ultimately, political and business leaders, voters and teachers — who can apply the lessons they learn to everyday life. Doing so within the context of current events and newsworthy commemorations can help them make those connections.

After all, what is education but an understanding of the world and its history, geography, languages, literature, science, math and arts? Get a child to love learning and the rest takes care of itself. A key to that is involving them in what happens outside of the classroom beyond tests, term papers and homework.

Granted, an anniversary of a key event is just another day on the calendar. But when the news media focus on such a milestone for a period of time, it offers students of all ages a chance to plug into historic events in a fresh way. Using an article in print or a documentary on television can broaden the scope of materials at teachers’ disposal and bring an event to life.

Schools once approached teaching as more than bubbles to be filled with a No. 2 pencil. Before no child was left behind and an alphabet soup of programs and initiatives, there was simply learning. Every child had a dedicated teacher who had the freedom to apply all learning tools as they saw fit, including the news of the day.

Some of a certain generation recall watching NASA space launches during class on fuzzy black-and-white TVs. Other historic events were treated the same. Students who took part weren’t just learning history; they were witnessing it.

Would that be possible today, or would the hard-line schedule of the adopted curriculum again take precedence?

We don’t blame local teachers or administrators for this, particularly if they made their own decisions not to deviate from their studies. They need the flexibility to make that call, and we respect that. Yet we suspect many, if allowed to do so, would willingly switch gears for a day or so and let the Kennedy media blitz serve as a gateway to usher their students into a fresh look at history.

Fortunately, some teachers did just that. One in particular was Tadmore Elementary School fifth-grade teacher April Gailey, whose students learned about the JFK assassination as part of their nonfiction reading lessons, a clever way to incorporate history and language development. We suspect many others found ways to do the same.

Our only hope here is that teacher discretion has not been trumped by rigid, top-down educational policies written in stone by school boards, legislators and bureaucrats who rarely set foot in a classroom.

We freely admit we are not qualified to tell educators how to teach, and we don’t intend to. We wish policymakers at every level would do the same and unshackle talented teachers from curriculums that often seem more focused on producing results on paper rather than developing young minds.


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