I’ve learned that what matters isn’t what texts I teach, what set of symbols or themes we analyze. Rather, what matters most are the opportunities we can give students to make sense of any text and to see the immediate relevance of those texts to the urgent conversations of now.
As devastating details about the migrant crisis and family separation policies emerge — and with continued hate crimes against Muslim Americans and anti-immigrant rhetoric — I believe it is imperative to help students think critically and responsibly about how language is often used as a weapon to dehumanize others, particularly communities of color. I start this fall teaching two Vietnam War novels, “Fallen Angels” by Walter Dean Myers and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. By examining how language in both texts characterizes the enemy in dehumanizing ways, we can draw a connection to the ways in which language today is used to marginalize immigrants and refugees — and what this means for us as diverse citizens in “the land of the free and home of the brave.”
We will also ask, what additional perspectives are missing in the dominant narratives about the Vietnam War? Students will seek these points of view by browsing The Times’s “Vietnam ’67” collection of essays, including Lan Cao’s compelling analysis of Hollywood’s distorted depictions of the Vietnam War, and then share what they discover in Socratic Seminar discussions.
Kenny, Philadelphia, High School
During our reading of George Orwell’s “1984,” I ask students to observe their own relationships as citizens to their government. We also discuss contemporary examples of surveillance and the complexities of living in a world Orwell would have never predicted: one where we the citizens are the ones wielding the cameras and creating a society that challenges the boundaries between public and private life. Often, I will remind students of topics in our text and ask them to search for related articles in the news.
When we read “Frankenstein,” I ask students to research and discuss contemporary science issues such as cloning, stem cell research and technology. They also delve into existentialism, parenting, prejudice and identity. All of these universal concepts seem to make their way into discussions about current events. Discussing the “outsider” persona of the Creature can lead to rich and meaningful conversations about civility, diversity and acceptance.
Chris Cerrone, Hamburg, N.Y., Middle School
As a seventh-grade social studies teacher, I have done congressional civics simulations about how a bill becomes a law for many years. Students research and prepare their bill for two days and then we spend two days as members of Congress.
Inspired by my children’s social studies teacher and the Summer Institute of Human Rights and Genocide Studies, I have incorporated more current events and civics into my classroom. For example, we have done simulations of presidential cabinet meetings to deal with Hurricane Harvey, North Korea and Syria. Each student is assigned a cabinet position, and they work in small groups to come up with suggestions for the president.