In an educator’s world, the golden ring is a “teachable moment.”
It’s that instant when something in that day’s news or a comment from a student ties directly back to the teacher’s goal for that class.
Take March 11, 2011, when Granville High School science teacher Leah Leibacher, who is now at a school in Indiana, was teaching about various types of power production and their advantages and dangers.
Her class was watching “The China Syndrome,” a fictional movie about a nuclear meltdown.
What she didn’t expect was an earthquake, a tsunami and the meltdown of three cores at the Fukashima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant in Japan to prove her point for her.
“That was not something we expected,” she said. “But it made the point.”
Going farther back, every teacher remembers their reaction, their students’ reaction and the weeks following 9/11. That was a time when there were more lessons to teach than there was time, while still working on other topics.
More recently, teens have been inundated with news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and threats of nuclear war with North Korea.
“As teens, they are looking for direction on what happened and why,” said Mary Tully, a social studies teacher in Queensbury, who is retiring after three decades. “It’s very interesting when you go about this in an objective way. The first thing I ask them is how they know what they know. How accurate is their information. I tell them to use multiple sources and get it as accurate as possible.”
Bill Elder, who teaches English in Lake George, said he had the news and an assignment coincide earlier this month.
“My students were reading and annotating an article from The Atlantic magazine from a couple of years ago. The topic? ‘Can schools punish students for speech that occurs outside of the school environment?’ “ Elder said. “We dealt with big-picture issues, the high-level vocabulary and persuasive tone, while connecting it to the Ballston Spa gun/Instagram threat that occurred the same week.”
Andrew Cook, a former social studies teacher and principal, is now the superintendent at Hartford Central School.
“I was talking to one of my social studies teachers, and he said he had been talking about Las Vegas, not in terms of the event itself, but relating to the Second Amendment,” Cook said.
Elder, the Lake George English teacher, said teachers sometimes need to stick to their lesson plans, despite what is going on in the outside world.
“There are definitely times when teachers should say ... ‘Not the time,’ ” he said. “At Troy High School, as 9/11 unfolded that morning, I first had a class of freshmen. I taught my planned lesson. During the next period, a class of seniors, I had the TV on and talked things out as they happened. Context is everything.”
Sarah Young, who has been teaching for 21 years at South Glens Falls High School and now teaches 12th-grade government and economics and 10th-grade world history, remembers challenges and opportunities after 9/11.
“At the time, I was teaching mainly ninth grade, and that was a little more sensitive. They were very quiet at first,” she said. “But we were studying different religions, and I took it as an opportunity to discuss religions. Islam was in the curriculum, and we has a good chance to talk about that.”
Reading the students
Young said issues have become more difficult to discuss in the past few years.
“With current events, whether they are local, state or national, it’s been a little more difficult the last couple of years, because of the divisiveness in the country. It has taken longer, because students have deep feelings.”
She said the Las Vegas massacre did engender some discussion, but it was limited.
“The information was just so new. I wanted to see where it was going to go,” she said. “We did talk about federalism and how the gun laws were state laws, not federal laws.”
Trista Tallon, a ninth-grade social studies teacher at Lake George High, said a teacher needs to sense the impact a discussion may have on students.
“Teacher discretion and sensitivity is also important in reacting to and addressing current events in the classroom,” Tallon said.
Sometimes events are too raw, personal or fresh for students to address in a meaningful way, she said.
“Often it might just mean asking if they have any questions about it, and answering or explaining what can be explained to them at that time through my lens as a history teacher. And many times, we revisit it later in the year or when the opportunity presents itself in the curriculum,” she said.
Dawn Slater, a social studies teacher in Greenwich, said teachers need to take the pulse of their classrooms.
“We try to read what the students need,” she said. “Sometimes, there’s a need to talk about the event, and sometimes they don’t want to.”
It also depends on the age of the student, she added, remembering 9/11.
“In a word, it was heart-wrenching,” she said. “You’re trying to explain it to ninth-graders, and they just want to be safe.”
Two former social studies teachers, each with three decades in the classroom, said connecting history with current events, especially big events with the impact of the Las Vegas shooting, is crucial.
“These events do become teachable moments,” said Patrick Niles, who taught in Salem and is president of the Washington County Historical Society.
“In the example of 9/11, we talk about attacks on the United States over its history. The issue of Pearl Harbor, the American Revolution and the sinking of the Maine and the Spanish-American War were all issues we discussed. A discussion of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which became the reason for the internment of Japanese-Americans, which could be related to some of the current security issues today,” he said.
But Niles said he occasionally pulled back.
“There are times when it is just too emotional or we just don’t have all the facts at that time. The shootings at Virginia Tech several years ago as I had one student going there and others heading off to college in a very short time,” he said. “It is timing and knowing when to push and when not to push an issue.”
Matthew Rozell, who taught at Hudson Falls High School and has written several books on World War II, wrote about dealing with horrific current events in his “Teaching History Matters” blog just after the massacre of children in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Following the latest horrific tragedy, we are hearing a lot of buzz ... Kids seem to become more anxious with each passing hour, though the tragedy occurred last week. Now they are in front of you in the classroom,” he wrote. “Your job is to explain the world to them. They look to you for answers and solutions, reassurance and comfort.”
Rozell said he has learned some lessons himself, especially when it comes to dealing with news about school-related tragedies.
“Don’t try to make sense or explain the inexplicable, or offer ‘solutions.’ Just listen,” he said. “Don’t psychoanalyze or pontificate. They get enough of that.”
The 2011 tsunami and its after-effects in Japan found their way into Tallon’s ninth-grade classroom at Lake George.
“When the tsunami hit Japan, ninth-graders were doing a unit on Japan and we had just finished discussing how geography impacts Japanese life, so it was a natural fit and was very teachable,” Tallon said. “Ninth-grade students reacted to the event by selling ribbons and raising money that was then shared with the Saga City Exchange. They were able to directly connect with the curriculum and see in real life how natural disasters impact a society, which is always an ideal situation.”
The same thing happened with this year’s hurricanes.
“For the past month, we have been doing a unit on geography and how it impacts human development, so the natural disasters of the last few weeks fit easily into our discussion about geography,” Tallon said.