Amid current events, local educators focus on democratic process


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In the 375 days since President Donald Trump's inauguration, teachers in Unit 4 have watched a new set of concerns settle on the shoulders of their students.

Christine Adrian, a social-studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School, saw distress in her classroom on Inauguration Day last year. Some of her students — of Mexican heritage — cried visibly.

"I had a couple of kids ask, 'Am I going to be deported?'" Adrian said.

Over the past year, middle schoolers have asked her about the likelihood of nuclear war, about the Twitter feuds between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and whether a ballistic missile could have reached (and destroyed) Hawaii.

In all of her years' teaching, Adrian said she's never had students start an in-depth discussion about the process of impeachment. That, too, has changed: Multiple students have questioned if that could happen to the current president. A salacious headline might prompt that question, but Adrian said she chooses to focus on procedure instead.

"I think the most important thing for the public to know is that we as educators are using these opportunities to teach about democracy and government and how they can be active," Adrian said.

What was once a challenging task — motivating students to engage in social-studies and history classes — isn't so difficult these days, educators say. Centennial High School teacher Susan Thomas said she's watched student engagement with current events increase — partially due to smartphone usage, partially due to national headlines piquing student interest.

"I think it's a great thing," Thomas said. "I was trying to explain that the Holocaust began by limiting the media. It began by stripping people of their rights and taking those things away and it ended with the concentration camps.

"A kid asked me, 'Do you see similarities to today?' I said, 'I don't know — do you?'"

But the increased engagement students have with current events has its drawbacks. Thomas said as she teaches, she thinks about how she now has to compete with social media for her students' attention.

Social-studies teacher Greg Stock, who also works at Centennial, said news derived from social media sources can create ideological isolation.

"It's interesting because on our social media, we're friends with people that validate your view of the world," said Stock, also a Champaign city council member. "That kind of makes it a little trickier because they're not coming in saying they've seen both sides. I think that's one of the things we need to do — teach both sides."

All three Unit 4 instructors said they believe objective teaching is paramount. But in an era when seemingly any subject can assume a partisan spin, Thomas said it's not always easy.

"I think it's a little bit stressful on my end because while we want to be mindful of political ideologies, we also have to be truthful in what we are seeing and the events that are happening," Thomas said. "Sometimes, it can be stressful to go right up to that line of wanting to let them see those connections but not cross it with my own personal feelings."

She has an example of just such an incident. Recently, she clicked through a PowerPoint slide she said she has used for years in teaching the historical progression to World War II. Among the slides was a graphic — a "checklist" for identifying fascism.

Although Thomas said she neither mentioned Trump by name or implication, nor did she compare him to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the display of the graphic prompted a parent to call.

"They thought I was making a comparison between Trump and dictators," Thomas said. "And I wasn't making those comparisons at all. Classmates were making those comparisons. It's sensitive."

For Thomas — and for Adrian and Stock, as social-studies teachers — the goal isn't to teach students what to think, but rather how to think. All three said they hoped to foster critical thinking among their students, which they value more than any partisan ideology.

"I think it's great to have different perspectives," Thomas said. "I think education is an institution that creates citizens who create change. You can't say that about every profession."

Thinking about what it takes to create change — of any kind — is how Adrian helps her students deflect stress they might incur from the latest national news.

"We just finished a unit on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era," Adrian said. "Immigrants faced a lot of challenges at that time. We can connect that to today: 'How did these people exercise their constitutional rights to further their place in America?'

"We try to look at it like that rather than victimizing each other."


Lyndsay Jones is a reporter covering education at The News-Gazette. Her email is ljones@news-gazette, and you can follow her on Twitter (@__lyndsayjones).