While many people are barely able to recall what they had for lunch yesterday, big memories or experiences stick with us, as they leave emotional scars or tags in our brains. I remember watching the launch of the spaceship Challenger back in elementary school, filled with confusion and dismay as the shuttle burst into flames on live television. Although I knew that what had happened wasn’t at all good as my teacher sat at her desk in tears, I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation. Despite not fully understanding what unfolded on the screen, my brain tagged the experience as powerful and emotional. Thus, this memory has stuck with me for over twenty years. Then, of course, everybody who was alive back in 2001, remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were when they found out about the terrorist attack on American soil that occurred on September 11 of that year. I was teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine. As I had no specials or recess that morning, I was in my classroom with my students from 8:00 a.m. until lunch time that day. After bringing my students to the cafeteria for lunch, I made my way to the teacher’s room. Everyone was in tears and very quiet, listening to a radio. Without asking, I knew that something was terribly wrong. I then learned what had happened earlier that morning. These horrible experiences leave their mark on us, ensuring that we will never forget them. Sadly, positive experiences don’t always hold this same power. While I do remember celebrating my son’s sixth birthday, I don’t remember specifics of the day. I just remember that it was fun. It’s weird how negative emotions seem to hold our memories captive more frequently than positive ones.
History is a culmination of millions of these once current events and happenings, both good and bad. As teachers, it is our job to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society. In order to do this, we need to help our students understand how and why the world works the way in which it is does. We do this through teaching our students about the history of civilizations around the globe. Understanding why wars were fought and how leaders ruled their people helps us understand what led to the way the world is. We can learn from history’s mistakes, no matter how horrific they may be.
As I am covering a unit on Africa in my Humanities class, when I’ve been perusing the news recently, I’ve made sure to keep my eyes peeled for current events having to do with the great continent of Africa. Last week, I read a very sad story about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. They will be out of water by mid-April. It’s a tragic story, but it’s history. So, today, I used this current event as a vehicle for my mini-lesson regarding geographical problems facing Africa. We discussed the issue as the students began to realize how important a role geography plays on locations. Although I chose this depressing news story as a way to begin the mini-lesson in class today, it was merely an introduction to the heart of the lesson, which was all about solving problems. We then watched a TED Talk given by William Kamkwamba from Malawi who created a windmill to help bring water and electricity to his rural village. I told the boys to use this story as inspiration for how to think innovatively and creatively about solving problems facing other parts of Africa and the world. These current event discussions were the springboard into a problem-solving activity I had the students begin in class today. Working with a partner, they chose a problem regarding the geography of Africa and then brainstormed solutions to the problem. Tomorrow in class, they will create a blueprint for their idea and then present it to the class later this week. The boys were very engaged in our discussions and the activity. They were excited to solve real problems facing our world. What started out as a discussion on a negative current event transformed into a positive activity regarding solutions and creative problem solving. By using a news story that invoked negative emotion at first, the boys may be able to better tag today’s entire lesson in a meaningful and memorable manner.
As we are living in history, I love to use current events to help my students understand what happened over time that led to these issues. I try to put the present-day world into historical context for the students. While I do try to focus on major happenings in the world, most of what we discuss tends to be stories that conjure up negative emotions. While I don’t enjoy focusing on only the bad parts of history, as we know, negative memories and experience stick with people better than happy stuff. So, perhaps my students will better remember the current events and history discuss throughout the year, as they are mostly stories that bring about negative feelings within them.