Use It to Strengthen Learning Environments
by Richard W. Schmertzing, Ed.D and Lorraine C. Schmertzing, Ed.D
The dramatic and tragic events of the last few days are so horrible that we might like to shield our children from them. But with an event of such magnitude, it is impossible to do so. Though we may not be able to shield our children from tragedy, we can support them as they struggle with their emotions and as they try to make sense of what they see and hear. As children are watching television, or discovering about Tuesday’s tragedies in other contexts, we need to be with them – watching, listening, and questioning alongside them. By joining together we can address their issues of concern and insecurity, we can guide their thinking, and influence their overall development helping them to become caring, compassionate citizens of a country that is arguably the most diverse in the world, yet stands united on the value of human life.
A Note of Contextualization
My family has always emphasized education as one of the all-important requirements of life. We were strongly encouraged to make superior grades, do more homework than the teacher required, and memorize as much as we possibly could. My brother, sister, and myself were educated in very strict private schools for most of our lives and knew only one model of education – a rigid curriculum, clearly defined reading assignments, routine objective tests, schedules written in stone, and very little place for individual critical thinking or creativity. Returning to graduate school in midlife, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to break out of this prescribed approach to education and be a part of some wonderfully innovative ideas related to educating children. Such ideas, however, were not ones that we discussed in my family. My reluctance to do so was a result of a combination of factors: the respect I had for the traditions that had long been supported in the family, the fact that family gatherings weren’t about hashing out significant issues in the world, and, frankly, it just didn’t seem to matter to most of my relatives.
That all changed this summer when my little sister, who is only 4 years younger than I, announced that she would be home schooling Claire, my incredibly bright 6th grade niece, this fall. My husband and I, both graduate professors in a College of Education, were more than somewhat shocked by the news. We knew the model of education she had experienced was not one that would help her employ all the learning benefits that can befall a child who is afforded an exploratory learning environment like the one that is possible for homeschoolers. We struggled with what to do, when to do it, what to say, and how to react. We, unlike my sister or her daughter, knew the complexity of what she was about to do and we knew that the only way she had seen education done was not the way we thought would best benefit our niece. My sister is 6 hours away by car and it has been difficult to find ways to help her. We looked at the various curriculum choices she made, helped her plan her days, and call to check on her and Claire regularly. This eventful week, however, makes possible a way of educating that, until now, we had spoken of philosophically but that my sister had trouble putting into practice.
What Happened? Tuesday, September 11, 2001
On Wednesday morning I talked to my sister on the phone and asked how school was going. With guilt in her voice she said, “Well, yesterday we just watched television all day.” My response was immediate and enthusiastic, “Great! It was a terrible thing. But, it is something that you and Claire need to be a part of. Now you can use those terrible events as the focus of some of your home schooling.”
As we talked on, I realized she wasn’t exactly sure how to connect the week’s horrifying events to the things her 6th grader was supposed to learn. She told me that they were supposed to be learning Canadian history, but that Claire had protested that she didn’t see why she had to learn all those facts and figures and my sister couldn’t provide her with a good answer. It was the next chapter in the book however, and they knew they ought to plow through it.
I suggested that she put that on hold and that she and Claire reflect instead on the week’s events. Furthermore, that they find out about the history and background of the people involved, and that they study things related to the Tuesday incidents. She said, “OK,” sounded a bit relieved that she wasn’t chastised for spending the day watching television, and we hung up. I went about my business.
I found though that the more I thought about it, the more important it seemed. My husband and I talked about some specific ways to develop learning exercises related to the weeks events and the next morning I emailed my sister with some simple ideas that speak to a broader issue. We are sharing these thoughts and ideas with you because they were helpful to her, and as many in the world have done lately, we too are trying to find a way to contribute to making the best of a horrible situation.
Ideas for Creating Positive Learning Experiences in the Wake of Tuesday’s Terrorism
The Email to My Sister
In the email to my sister, I provided her with a series of questions to guide some reading and research that she and Claire could do on the weeks events. But first I wanted to address some of the legitimate questions they raised about the value and relevance of some of the materials in their textbooks. I suggested that they go beyond such questioning and reflect together on the purposes of education. That they perhaps consider that math and English develop skills a person needs to function in this world. Also that history and science are necessary to help one understand more about the world and that some people learn such information better and retain more if they learn it in a context that matters. I suggested that rather than memorizing what now appears to be useless information about Canada, why not study the Middle East? Right now that does matter. I pointed out that there will be constant contextualization of what she and Claire are learning in current events on television and they will likely never forget what they learn. Moreover, it will enhance their understanding of the horrifying things we all saw this past week. Then we gave her some specific suggestions for carrying out such an agenda.
Write an essay or start a journal on what happened Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Include anything that helps you answer the following questions.
- What happened?
- How did you feel when you were watching the events unfold on television?
- What questions did you want to know the answers to as you saw things happen?
- Why did this happen?
- Who was involved?
- What should we, can we, do about it?
- Find out who the Middle Eastern militants are and why they would do something like this.
- Find out what is going on in the Middle East and the influences that might have on the militants.
- Find out how the events in the Middle East affect the United States.
- Find out some of the history of the Middle East.
- Find out what the World Trade Center was and think about what they should put in its place and why.
These are simply a few of the ideas that we started with. As we think and talk more about it, connections to every area of the curriculum become clearer. Writing, reading, history, math, physics, social science can all link to the events.
The Philosophy Behind It
Too often schools are limited by time and a lack of appropriate vehicles for developing children’s thought. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that the parent/teacher is a full time guide to develop their children’s thinking skills, knowledge base, performance skills, and to fundamentally shape their view of the world. Children need to understand that to be able to get a perspective on what’s going on in a given situation they need to learn about the people who are involved in that situation, what their purposes are for behaving the way they do, where they come from, and what about that place contributes to the way the participants see the world and act on it.
Too often education is defined in the narrow terms of learning the 3R’s when in fact, this country was built on the idea that an educated citizenry is one knowledgeable of history, geography, culture, customs, and traditions of others. It was, and is, believed that such knowledge was, and is, required for a democratic society to be effective. When curriculum is structured around a particular predetermined body of knowledge and formulated activities, it can actually divert part of what needs to be done in educational environments – that is to incorporate dramatic and important events that occur in the world into our (home) school learning experiences.
A crisis of the magnitude of this week’s focuses our attention and gives us innumerable resources for learning. It invites us to learn about many things that are not always easy for children to relate to New York, its geography, its people, its political institutions, its cultural diversity; the relationship between federal government and local areas when there is a crisis or a catastrophe; physics, structural engineering, and what makes buildings stand or fall. It invites us to learn about the impact that a crisis in one area of the country has on another area. In this case for example one could learn about transportation, economic impact, and trade. It lifts our spirits when we see individuals in distant places rallying to support people who are suffering or in pain and challenges us to do the same by donating blood, money, or material things. The crisis presents us with a need to study the history, geography, and cultures of the people involved in an effort to get a clearer understanding of what is going on. A situation like this, a great tragedy like this that captures the attention of all the world, provides educators with the opportunity to create learning experiences that can function, for a time, as a center point of our curriculum and build some positive associations within the learner for what will always be a negative life-long memory.
|Department of Curriculum, Leadership, and Technology||Department of Curriculum, Leadership, and Technology|
|Dr. R.W. Schmertzing, after spending most of his life in Boston, New York and Washington DC, earned his doctorate at Harvard University in 1997. He is currently a qualitative researcher on the graduate research faculty in the College of Education at Valdosta State University in South Georgia. He combines a longstanding interest in classroom culture with more recent interests in homeschooling and its effects on the family.||L.C. Schmertzing, Ed.D., has focused her publishing and research interests on graduate students in distance learning environments. However, has recently developed an interest in ways homeschoolers can use the Internet to create more meaningful learning experiences.|
This Isn’t the Speech I Expected to Give Today
Bill Moyers’ keynote address concerning the actions and reactions of Americans to the attacks.
See also: Read In Remembrance
A Moment of Silence and Reading for 9/11
A time to read and share stories of freedom, courage and hope. by Tracey Thomas Fetting