Keeping it Local: Teachers bring the real world to classrooms

Published on: November 8, 2016

Filled Under: ARS News, Features

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Ms. Pamela Mathai at a Real Talk meeting. The 8th grade U.S. history teacher tries to tie current events into her classrooms daily.

As the school year progresses and election season comes to a close, several Ann Richards teachers have used their classrooms as spaces to discuss political issues and civic responsibilities. Across grade levels, students have been having conversations about social issues, from eighth graders discussing Donald Trump’s recent comments towards women, to juniors and seniors creating PSAs reminding the public to vote, and everything in between.

This year marks the first election a small group of Ann Richards upperclassmen will be eligible to participate in. According to twelfth grade STARS teacher Ms. Jill DiCuffa, she, along with other staff members, was able to identify potential voters and help students register to vote in the November election.

“We actually hand deliver their voter registration forms to the counties they belong to so we can make sure they are registered for the election,” Ms. DiCuffa said. “I figure if we can get materials in their hands, and support them, and answer their questions for them, it just means they’re actually going to participate.”

While some seniors are able to help shape the future of U.S. politics, younger students are given the opportunity to discuss current events. Ms. Pamela Mathai distinctly remembers one of her first fishbowl discussions, from her 2014-2015 contemporary issues class. These discussions are characterized by a rotating group of students sitting and speaking at a table in the middle of a larger circle of tables, with the rest of the class sitting on the outside tapping in as they have something to include. As students sat discussing The New Jim Crow, Ms. Mathai remembers one student bringing the context of the discussion back to a larger scope.

“One of the most memorable experiences to me is when y’all talk about current events, but you make connections to your own lived experiences,” Mathai explained. “Kelsey [Atkins] brought up, ‘Why is it that we haven’t learned about this stuff until now? Why haven’t we had teachers talk to us about systemic racism, or systems of injustice within the criminal justice system?’”

Since her first year at Ann Richards, Ms. Mathai has been having conversations about current events with her eighth graders. “Almost every class, I try to find a way to connect what we’re learning about to current events. Even when there’s not a direct connection, I do take time out of class to explicitly talk about current events.”

When the tape of Donald Trump making vulgar statements about sexual assault was released, Ms. Mathai used class time to discuss the situation with her students. “We didn’t talk about Donald Trump, but we had a 30 minute conversation about rape culture,” Mathai explains. “I think it’s really important as students, as young women, that we have those conversations, and we understand what that means.”

While middle schoolers discuss what is going on in the election, upperclassmen work on encouraging others to vote, something many of them will soon be doing. “I think millennials are very interested in how the world works, and influencing the world,” Ms. Devi Puckett, eleventh and twelfth grade social studies teacher said. “For people who are getting ready to vote, like juniors and seniors, it’s really important to start thinking about how their vote matters, not just for themselves, but for shaping the world.”

Juniors and seniors in Ms. Puckett’s Economics and AP US History classes submitted public service announcements to the Voices of Texas contest. Voices of Texas gives various scholarships to viral student-made videos that encourage groups of people who are historically disenfranchised to vote, including racial minorities and women.

“While it’s great to discuss history just because it’s interesting, really the shaping of the citizen is the charge of the social studies teacher,” Ms. Puckett says. “Really, that’s the core of what we do here.”

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