I teach government. I have assigned curricula for both of my preps, the state-mandated course of Local, State and National Government, and the Advanced Placement (college-level) course in U.S. Government and Politics. There are things for which the students must be prepared, because in May they will sit for required exams, from the state and the college board. They must past the former to graduate - and even my AP students must sit for that. And the AP exam determines whether they receive college credit for their efforts.
I view my responsibility as going well beyond that. I believe I have a responsibility to prepare my students to be active participants in the society in which they live. That includes political participation. And if I expect that, then I have an additional responsibility to help them understand that society, and what is happening politically.
This is a time when the latter responsibility may be more important than the formal curriculum. It is not the first such time since I arrived at the school in 1998.
Let me explain.
Any election cycle requires a certain amount of focus. It is an opportunity to connect what my students are studying with what is happening around them. It is one reason I often juggle the sequence of units so that their formal studies connect with what is in the news. It is of course far easier to do with a presidential cycle than with the off-year Congressional cycle. This year, however, is almost in a class by itself.
Almost, but not completely. There have been two other occasions where our major focus became more what was in the news than what was in the book. The first was my very first year, when the course was in 9th grade. 1998 was the year of impeachment, and I can assure you that my students wound up knowing more about impeachment than most adults. We explored the history of impeachment, dating back to the administration of Thomas Jefferson. When HOuse Members were making their statements, we watched live on C-Span. We explored relevant material from current publications and from historical publications. We looked at impeachment of judges and cabinet members as well as that of Andrew Johnson and the Judiciary Committee's actions towards Richard Nixon, including both Barbara Jordan's magnificent statement at the opening of the hearings, and the actual vote, with Peter Rodino's voice breaking as he voted "Aye" on the first charge. And we watched the Senate vote.
And in 2000, when the course was still in 9th grade, we had the election that would not end. It became an opportunity to explore issues of Federalism, how the appellate process worked. The students learned that our methods of counting ballots were not consistent, that elections were largely under state rules, and that within states there could be great discrepancies as to method of voting and ability to recount. They saw what a butterfly ballot looked like, not by looking at it as a picture in the newspaper, but how it might appear when one was attempting to punch out the right hole, with old eyes perhaps looking through glasses that further distorted what one saw. And well before Michael Moore they got to understand the process of actually accepting the electoral vote in the Congress. They also learned the parallels between the election of 1876 and that of 2000, including that the electoral votes of Florida were at the heart of both disputes.
This year is different. Of course we have a heated presidential election. And since a majority of my students are Black there is a strong interest in the fate of Obama. For last year's students that meant a certain focus during the primaries, even as they fell well after when we normally examine elections. For a while we looked at both parties, but the quick Republican decision in favor of McCain meant our focus was far more on the Democratic contest. And since two of my AP students were among the four officers of the national Teens for Clinton organization, there was opportunity for input from students about what was happening.
Now we are in a general election campaign. We do spend some time discussing what they see. They were required to watch acceptance speeches and the first debate. Many watched the VP debate, if for no other reason curiosity about the two candidates. Fewer watched the most recent debate, but enough to warrant discussion, and to examine their reactions.
But this year there is another, simultaneous story, one which touches issues not addressed anywhere in our curriculum, and that is the financial meltdown. And I suspect that it will be a major part of discussions not only today but in the next few weeks as well. After all, while our markets will not open until I am in my 2nd period class, we already know that on top of yesterday's severe decline on Wall Street, the Asian markets, especially Japan, are way down, and as I write this the European markets are down from 7/5% (Ritan) to more than 9% (Germany), and it is not at all unreasonable to expect another severe decline in the Dow Jones and other American indices.
This crisis has required me to educate myself, so that I could help my students make more sense of it. I knew a little about markets, but the new world of derivatives and debt swaps was something about which I had had only the vaguest understanding, largely through reading the warnings offered by people like Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post. As the current crisis has unfolded I have had to read extensively, and seek out people whose understanding exceeds my own. And then I have had to synthesize and condense down to what my students, who have little background in matters economic, regulatory, and the like, would be able to understand.
One reason I enjoy teaching government is because there is always something contemporary. There are multiple occasions for teaching in any news cycle. Yes, one can do that while teaching history, showing connections. But this is immediate.
And that means each day I face the same challenge, of balancing the content required by the curriculum of each class with the material helping shape the students' lives. It is an intense challenge. And at a time where our understanding is quite incomplete - as it is with respect to the finances - that task becomes even more intense, and challenging.
I feel quite prepared to explore the election cycle, to explain what polling data means, to help the students understand the expressions they see in speeches, debates, advertisements. We can look at historical examples in order to compare this cycle to previous ones.
But there is nothing quite like what our markets and financial systems are now experiencing. Even the crash in 1929 or the panic in the late 1890's does not really illuminate what is happening now. That creates a real challenge. We can see politicians, bureaucrats, business executives and pundits all struggling to find answers. If they don't have them, then surely I have little to which I can turn with assurance to explain to my students.
William Greider once asked as the title of a book, "Who Will Tell the People?" I think of that often as I try to determine "What will I teach the children today?" And even as I leave home, as I will in perhaps 30 minutes, for classes that begin a bit more than 2.5 hours from now, I cannot be sure. I will have to check market figures, breaking news, and I may have to be adjusting from period to period. I want my students attempting to understand, because what is happening may shape their futures in major ways.
I will continue to advance through the curriculum. I will also attempt to weave in what I can from the first draft of history, the news.
This is my challenge. This is my world, and welcome to it.