Educators Debate Boundary Between School and Life

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Using everyday experiences and current events helps students master classroom material, especially if they feel emotionally connected to the issue. That was one take-away from Tuesday's live event held in WNYC's Greene Space.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer of the city's Department of Education, told the audience he had success as a teacher using material from Facing History and Ourselves to bring historical issues surrounding World War II to a contemporary classroom. Facing History and Ourselves hosted Tuesday's event with SchoolBook.

"It struck me then, and this was right at the beginning of my career, that when you create opportunity for an emotional connection between what you're studying and the content, it doesn't actually have to be current but it has to be alive," he said.

But he acknowledged that tight schedules and curriculum requirements could get in the way of creative lesson plans for all but the most talented teachers.

Gillian Smith, principal of August Martin High School, made the point that it shouldn't be an either/or scenario, while she acknowledged that principals had a role to play.

During the two break-out sessions, when people spoke in pairs and in groups of about 20 people, the theme of trust came up often. Teachers need to trust their students and empower them to dive into an issue that interests them. Administrators need to trust teachers and support them when the teachers want to try something new. And students need to feel safe in the classroom to voice their opinions and debate difficult topics.

Here are some resources to help guide tough conversations in the classroom:

WNYC's Radio Rookies uses its award-winning teen-reported stories as a launching pad for educators. Its resource materials are here.

Radio Rookies has a partnership with Facing History to produce videos and discussion questions, with a focus on community and identity.

The Learning Network has a great interview with Jinnie Spiegler of TeachableMoment, itself a resource for teaching materials around delicate subjects.