Teaching history as it happens
Roaring Fork Valley social studies teachers emphasize critical thinking, challenging information to students
Current events have some valley teachers feeling like the stakes of their profession have never been higher.
“It’s never felt so important to be a social studies teacher,” Basalt High School social studies teacher Dom Roman said.
At a time when opinions about politics and beliefs about what is or isn’t true make chasms between party lines and individuals, it is helpful to be able to contextualize current events with knowledge of our country’s history. As far as consuming information goes, many are locked into their preferred news source or drawn into discourse on social media which can further strengthen one’s one biases.
Social studies teachers can play a crucial role in helping their students navigate those challenges.
For Kendra Schipper, a social studies teacher at Bridges High School, she said she wants her students to have a hands-on approach in their senior capstone projects. Because of COVID-19, it wasn’t possible for them to become active in the community, however she is having them do a letter writing campaign to elected officials. The point of the exercise is for them to practice voicing their own opinions, and she said she hopes at least some of the students get a response in return.
“We’re sort of building the ship as we’re sailing it here,” Schipper said.
Schipper said being able to live through historic events such as the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol helps keep her students engaged during class discussions. She encourages students’ to share their views instead of shying away from controversial topics that may create rifts in the class with students falling on opposite sides of an argument. Schipper said that unlike how online conversations can turn to insults when passionate people try to advocate for what they believe, she holds her students to a certain level of respect for each other.
“We talk a lot about if you know someone and you have a relationship with them, then your willingness to communicate with them and communicate with them in a positive way is going to be much greater and much easier,” Schipper said.
Mitch Foss, a social studies teacher at Roaring Fork High School, said a large part of his curriculum for students focuses on the dangers of social media and being conscientious of where one’s information comes from.
“I really kind of hammer home always more than one source, and if you can’t verify it in another place, wait before you perpetuate it, and even then if you can’t verify it after waiting then it’s probably not something that you can rely on,” Foss said.
Matt Wells, another social studies teacher at RFHS and content team lead for the social studies department, said that budgets for teaching social studies are often neglected, or a teacher with a background in English could be asked to teach a course on history, or vice versa. He said that unlike math, science or literature courses, social studies is still waiting for the sort of acknowledgement in the world of education that brings it up to par with the importance of those core subjects.
“We joke sometimes…that we need a sputnik moment, like science and math had in the late ’50s. But for social studies education, and if the way our nation has moved in recent history isn’t a strong argument for that, I don’t know what is. This stuff is so vital,” Wells said.
Eric Vozick said recent events presented a unique opportunity for him as an educator and his students. Vozick, another social studies teacher at Basalt High School, said Jan. 6 is the equivalent of his students’ “9/11 moment.”
“There are certain advantages to teaching our subject right now…for me it’s been creating a safe space to talk letting (the students) know that it’s very rare that you have moments in history that you know are going to be talked about for the rest of their lives,” Vozick said.
These educators said they try to approach their students with non-partisan views and news sources from either side of the political party. If a student does ask Foss about his personal beliefs he said he tries to help them look at the issue from another angle and emphasizes his own opinion isn’t what’s important or what should hold the focus of the conversation.
“I pretty much just shut them down and I say, ‘You know, I’m going to avoid that question,’ and I’ll tell them why, I’ll say, ‘You know, my job is to help you learn not necessarily to influence your opinion on a certain topic,” Foss said.
Schipper said the fact that students know each other helps when having controversial conversations in the classroom. Being able to see past what a person believes and through to who they are is what helps maintain that level of respect as students advocate for their own beliefs in her class which land across the board she said.
“If you’re working in a culture that is positive, supportive and respectful…then those conversations aren’t so divisive and difficult. Because you don’t want to step on someone’s toes, you don’t want to make someone angry,” Schipper said.
When students leave the classrooms of these teachers, it is their hope as educators that they have taught them to think for themselves, listen and challenge all points of view and to be able to identify the facts in an argument. Stuart MacLaughlin, a social studies teacher at Basalt High School, said teaching students to think critically is essential, especially for when they venture outside of the land of academia and come across these challenging topics in real life.
“My goal is to always approach my students from a nonpartisan point of view. Teach them what sources are you looking at, teach them what are facts and how do we interpret what others are telling us,” MacLaughlin said.
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