Where we get our news

By Kiera Peltz, 17, CHAMPS (Van Nuys)
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The latest current event Kiera is learning about on her own is the Occupy Wall Street protests.

When Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, my friends’ Facebook statuses immediately filled my newsfeed declaring “Osama’s Dead!” and “Obama Got Osama.” Friends texted me to turn on the TV news. This was going to be a front-page story for newspapers around the world. Unfortunately, the next day in school none of my teachers mentioned bin Laden’s death. Instead, in AP U.S. history, we continued learning about the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

I was upset. I wanted to hear the other students’ reactions and learn more about the events leading up to bin Laden’s capture and death. While reading news articles is informative, I learn so much more when I’m debating with my classmates because I’m able to hear many different opinions. I wish not talking about bin Laden’s death would have been a shock to me, but I was used to ignoring current events at school.

In middle school things were different. On the first day of eighth grade, my history teacher told the class that we would begin each day with 15 minutes of current events. Mr. Graham said he would randomly call on a student to share a current event, so we were required to come prepared every day with a piece of news. I was excited that I’d have a chance to learn more about what was happening in the world. Whenever my mom and her friends got together at our house they talked about events in the news, and I always felt stupid because I never knew what they were talking about.

That night I searched through all the news on Yahoo!’s homepage so that I could impress my teacher and classmates by having the most interesting news in class. Finally, I came across an article about how scientists discovered that Einstein’s brain was different from normal people’s brains, and I knew this was perfect. I was disappointed that I wasn’t called on the next day. But during our discussion about the economy, every hand in the classroom shot up to comment on how the recession affected their lives, with parents losing their jobs and families moving into smaller apartments to save money. We spent the entire class discussing this.

Illustration by Alison Lee, 15, Whitney HS (Cerritos)

For the next nine months, every night right before I went to bed, I would scour my Yahoo! homepage for news. I read international and political news—anything I thought would spark an intense class discussion. Then the next morning I would rush to my first period and impatiently wait for the bell to ring so we could talk about news from the day before. With liberals and conservatives in my class, we heard both sides of every argument, like why the war in Iraq was necessary or why it was the biggest mistake America has made. My mom thought I was finally learning things that would be useful in the real world like when I would be old enough to vote.

Our exciting debates ended in middle school

I hoped high school would be a continuation of the debates in Mr. Graham’s class. I was wrong. Not once in world geography, AP European history or AP U.S. history did my teachers mention anything that happened within the last decade. In AP U.S. history our class never even learned about a lot of important late 20th century events like the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I realized in January how connecting history with current events makes both the past and the present more exciting. I was in the car with my mom, and she mentioned how her friend had traveled to Egypt right before the demonstrations there began. She then asked me, “What has your history teacher told you about the uprisings?”

“Nothing,” I told her. I felt awful. Since I still scanned headlines on Yahoo! every night and read a few articles, I knew that the Egyptian demonstrators didn’t like their government or leader so they were protesting. But I didn’t know what specific events led to the uprisings. Articles give me the facts, but discussions bring the facts to life. In discussions, everyone has a different outlook on the event or an interesting fact that no one else knows about. Afterward, I’m more inclined to look up articles and read them, but I need the discussions to develop that interest and help me understand the event.

My mom let out a sigh of frustration and began explaining everything her friend had told her about his trip to Egypt. She told me about how it started after one man in the nearby country of Tunisia lit himself on fire in protest of his lack of freedom. That inspired the rest of the country and then people in Egypt to begin protesting as well. The Egyptian protestors wanted their president, Hosni Mubarak, out of power and a democracy to take the place of their corrupt government. I learned more about the uprisings in those five minutes than I had from the previous week of simply scanning Yahoo! headlines and obviously more than I had in school. The idea that one man’s actions could have such a big effect intrigued me. This was more than a simple demonstration; it was the beginning of a new government in Egypt.

In U.S. history when we learned about the American colonists declaring their independence from England during the American Revolution, I couldn’t relate because it seemed like ancient history. It was just another event I had to memorize for my test, which is what I feel I do for everything I learn in school—memorize for the exam and forget about it afterward. Once I connected the American Revolution to the uprisings in Egypt though, I realized how significant both events were.

The protests in egypt are just as important as what we learn in class

In 1776, most people probably thought that the American Revolution was started by a bunch of Americans who wanted to stir up trouble and wouldn’t amount to anything. Looking at where we are now as a country, they were dead wrong. A revolution can change the course of history, and now, in 2011, we are fortunate enough to witness another event that could be just as significant as the American Revolution: the birth of democracy in Egypt. I never realized revolutions still occurred in the 21st century.

Now, when I hear someone mention the American Revolution, rather than ignore the conversation I put myself in the shoes of the Americans who made history. If my teachers drew parallels between present times and past times instead of making me cram and memorize for the exams, I would have a better grasp of the past and be more interested in it.

At the beginning of March, a few months after I made the connection between the American Revolution and uprisings in Egypt, I saw hundreds of Facebook statuses about a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. My friends posted links about the disaster and statuses about how their hearts went out to the people in Japan. They really cared about these people who lived an ocean away and paid attention to the evening news and read articles on the Internet for updates.

The nuclear power plants in Japan were on the brink of a meltdown as I read on Yahoo!’s breaking news, and my teachers didn’t say anything. Radiation had already leaked from the power plants into the ocean and air. At least once a week I asked my history, science and English teachers why we never talked about these serious news stories. They either ignored my question with silence or said, “There’s just not enough time.” This frustrated me.

I received a call two weeks after the earthquake from my uncle. He heard I was going to Hawaii for spring break and was worried that I could face danger from the radiation. I hadn’t thought about whether  the radiation leaks in Japan could affect me in Hawaii.

Since none of my teachers had talked to us about the nuclear power plant crisis and instead had us continue with handout upon handout, I researched this myself. After searching “radiation in Hawaii,” I read that scientists were unsure if there was a significant amount of radiation there. I still didn’t know if it was safe for me to travel to Hawaii, which is about 2,000 miles closer to Japan than California. A week before my trip, I asked my science teacher at the end of class if he thought it would be safe for me to travel to Hawaii. He responded with an indifferent, “I don’t know much about it, but you’re a big girl. Research it yourself.”

I couldn’t believe it. Teachers have become so focused on fulfilling their lesson plans and standards that they have forgotten that their job requires more than just teaching what’s in the textbooks. Their job is to help us become informed citizens. The only way they can do that is by helping us understand the world through the past and present.

For this article, I wanted to understand the teacher’s perspective so I asked my history teacher, Mr. Thomas, why we didn’t learn more about current events.

Teachers aren’t to blame 

He agreed with me that current events are one of the best ways to educate students. But, he said, teachers are limited to the state curriculum. “Therefore, we cannot teach what we want or what we think will even be more beneficial,” he said. “We must teach you the standards. Teachers do not have enough time to get through the standards, let alone the very important current events. And so, we are slaves to the system.”

I was surprised by his comment. I wasn’t expecting such an honest answer that matched my views. I had been blaming teachers this entire time for not teaching us about current events, but it wasn’t their fault. I felt bad for Mr. Thomas and all my other teachers because I could see now that they felt forced to teach only what would be on our state tests at the end of the year. After that I stopped automatically blaming my teachers for not discussing current events. The state should give teachers the freedom to teach us what they are passionate about in the context of their given subject. I would rather learn about the Great Depression while connecting it to our current economic crisis and spend a month on it rather than moving quickly through decades of events so we can cover all the standards.

I don’t remember one of Mr. Graham’s lectures from eighth grade. But I will never forget how great it felt to be so informed about the news. While some people may say that our history class should have used those 15 minutes as instruction time, to me that means that 60 minutes of class would have been wasted instead of 45. The lectures didn’t motivate me like the current events discussions did. They made every student so attentive and ready to participate.

It upsets me a lot that the standards are preventing us from learning about current events. While I understand the importance of passing the APs and other tests, I also know how important it is to be aware of what is going on in the world around us. When a class is excited to learn and passionate about what they are studying, they’ll retain the information better than simply memorizing for a test. Now in my senior year, I still remember everything we discussed about current events during my eighth grade history class, and the discussions and opinions I was surrounded by have helped shape my opinions and decisions.