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Classrooms Make History

March 01, 2003

Re "History ... With No Facts," editorial, Feb. 22: I am an art teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My students and I are beginning a thematic unit about war. We argue passionately about impending war with Iraq, make art, learn some history and have fun. We have looked at the history of the establishment of the Middle Eastern states at the end of World War I and debated whether the U.S. government's justification for war stands up against the jus ad bellum, the criteria for a just war.

I believe it is my duty to work with current events, especially with the number of present and former students who are signing up for or are already enlisted in the military -- duty bound to "rid the world of evil," in light of President Bush labeling entire nations as members of an "axis of evil."

Most adolescents do not delineate between a government and its people, especially when that country lies halfway around the world. In my opinion it is our president who is unencumbered by facts -- either that or grossly negligent with his words and his power.

Cindy Maguire

North Hollywood High School

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I was extremely angry with this portrayal of history classes around the nation (and the world, for that matter). When was the last time that the person who wrote this editorial stepped into a classroom?

In high school, I have had two of the best teachers I have ever known, one for U.S. history and one for U.S. government. In these classes, we have utilized debate, art, television and the textbook as classroom tools. Students created projects based on election returns as portrayed by television shows, the newspaper and political propaganda while comparing them to returns from decades past as portrayed by the textbook.

Lively debates on the latest issues in the news were used as starting blocks for classroom discussions on how government today struggles with the ambiguities in the Constitution. Chapter tests, textbook work and outlines were required, and all modified lessons were based on the textbook.

Ever heard of a 2 x 4 classroom? The two covers of the book and four walls of the room are not enough to get students interested in political affairs and the history of the nation. Just last week, my Advanced Placement government class had a discussion on how President Bush's push for war can be traced all the way back to the political factions that the founding fathers tried to deal with through checks and balances ... and then we went back to the textbook. Right now, we are deciding Supreme Court cases in conference based on weeks of outside research.

Please stop knocking the teachers who try to make do with what little they get paid and are given in classroom materials; start knocking the administrators who get paid $100,000 to $200,000 a year to answer the telephone. It's time someone put a finger on where the real problem lies.

Rachel A. Morgan

Chatsworth High School

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Recently, I asked a high school class of L.A.-area students to estimate the population of the U.S. The answers ranged from 2 million to 6 billion, with no middle ground. A few days ago I asked a sixth-grade class why European explorers wanted to find a sea route to Asia. "So they could kill them all," was one response.

"Where is the Mojave Desert?" I ask my secondary classes. Faced with blank stares, I give a clue that brings enlightenment: "You drive through it on the way to Las Vegas." One class last week didn't know what century we live in, insisting it is the 20th -- after all, this is 2003, right? Students are hard-pressed to name the ocean to the west, find Mexico or Canada on a map, say the dates (or centuries) of the Revolutionary, Civil, World or Vietnam wars or to identify Cesar Chavez.

Although I teach more often for L.A. County (which does a remarkably good job with youngsters in its juvenile court, probation camp and community schools), and therefore interact with a population of struggling students, I have observed that average pupils in the regular public schools are just as bewildered. Student often ask how old I am. "I was born five days before D-Day," I tell them. "Figure it out." In a year of substitute teaching, just one youngster answered exactly right. A handful will guess 1945. The rest don't have a clue. (D-Day, the beginning of the Allied retaking of Europe via a massive landing on the northern beaches of occupied France, was June 6, 1944.) I have become so accustomed to this absence of basic knowledge that I seize upon, for example, "Gladiator," a movie commonly left by teachers as a last resort for substitutes, to teach bits of Roman history and civilization.

Without accurate knowledge of history and geography, youngsters are awash in an amorphous world with no structure, edges or boundaries and no way to get a solid foothold in time and space. Do we need to teach historical and geographical facts? Oh, I think so.

Cristina Forde

Substitute teacher

Malibu

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