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Why one Hamilton County teacher thinks it's important to connect current events and history in the classroom

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ The entire Orchard Knob Middle Social Studies morning class is included in this photo Friday during current events time led by teacher Erica Kelley.
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Why one local teacher thinks it's important to connect current events and history in the classroom

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President Donald Trump. The United States' ongoing conflict with Iran. Australia's devastating wildfires. And the beginning of the Senate impeachment trial.

Erica Kelley's seventh grade world history class at Orchard Knob Middle School tackled all these topics on a recent day.

Though the curriculum doesn't call for it, almost every week on "Current Events Thursday," the students bring up topics they have gleaned from the news that they would like to talk about.

When Kelley asked for volunteers last Friday, hands shot up.

The first topic? Impeachment.

One student raised her hand and said she thought impeaching the president was a good idea, but she is concerned.

"He was the one who started the war and he sent the missile so he should end it ... so when they impeach him, who is going to be in control?" she asked.

Her classmate, a fellow seventh grader, said he believed the President was acting out.

"He's trying to start a war so he can stay in office and get his way," the student said.

Kelley only interrupted her students to ask questions or to connect the conversation back to things they have learned in class.

She asked the class what it meant for a president to be impeached.

"I need someone to walk me through the process," Kelley prompted her students.

Though middle school world history curriculum only covers history through the age of exploration in the 17th century — and talks more about historical figures like Genghis Khan, Martin Luther and Christopher Columbus than present-day world leaders — Kelley says it's important that students can connect history to what is happening right now, in their lifetimes.

"Students are paying attention more than people think to the world around them and they are curious, opinionated, and sometimes confused or scared," Kelley said. "If we want our students to become active and engaged citizens, we have to provide a safe space to discuss what they see happening in the world around them. If students understand the world, they are much more likely to feel empowered to participate in it."

Students are better able to understand history when they can relate to it or connect it to their own lives, Kelley said.

When talking about a possible war with Iran, one student wondered if there could be a draft.

Kelley asked the class who was required to register with the Selective Service System when they turned 18. No one raised a hand.

But when she asked students to raise their hands if they were a boy, half the class's hands shot up.

Kelley explained to the seventh graders what the Selective Service is and how boys have to register for it when they are 18 years old.

"If the United States is in a war and they need more service members, they can send you a letter and say 'Welcome to the Army, we'll see you next week' and that's it," she explained.

One student said she felt like such a draft wasn't fair.

"I don't think that's fair because I have brothers and they have dreams. And when they grow up, they don't want to go fight a war that they don't want to die in. I don't think that's fair at all," she said.

Kelley said students sometimes become heated and disagree, but she makes sure they are respectful and feel comfortable sharing their opinions. This life skill — to converse even if they disagree — is important for preparing them for the world, she said.

"Having open discussions about current events helps them practice being the engaged citizens we so want them to become; they learn how to talk about issues without fighting about issues and how to clarify misconceptions," she said. "They learn that differing opinions can be addressed in a civil way — one where everyone gets something out of a discussion."

Students said they get their news from social media and apps such as Snapchat or YouTube. Others said they watch the evening news or overhear their parents talking about issues.

They cited seeing videos of animals like koalas and kangaroos fleeing the devastating wildfires in Australia in recent weeks.

One boy said he thought it was important for him and his peers to stay informed about what is happening outside their homes or classrooms, even though they don't talk about it much in other classes.

His classmate agreed with him.

"It's important so we can be aware, like if you wanted to know who was going to be president and if you wanted to vote, you would know about them," she said.

Another said he believes people should stay informed about news, especially if it could affect them.

Several students said they felt like they knew more about national news — like the trade war with China or conflict with Iran — than news in the local community.

But when asked what they wanted to know more about, the seventh graders got to talking and one of the hottest news topics in Hamilton County came up: school facilities.

"I heard that some schools could be closing," one student said, prompting whispers throughout the classroom. "And this could be one of them. Is that true?"

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum

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