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Death an Occasion to Focus on History

Teachers at all grade levels use the event to convey aspects of Reagan's personal and political life, positive and negative.

June 10, 2004|Erika Hayasaki and Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writers

History teacher Jeremy Nelson posted articles about Ronald Reagan on his classroom chalkboard this week. He talked about the Cold War. He showed videos quoting Reagan's jokes. He did Reagan impersonations.

"You probably don't remember him," he told the seniors at Kennedy High School in Granada Hills.

One student replied: "I was a fetus."

That's why, like many teachers across the country this week, Nelson used Reagan's death on Saturday as an impromptu history lesson.

"These students didn't know Reagan the way I knew him," said Nelson, 33, who credits the 40th president for sparking his interest in political science and in the Soviet Union, where he traveled as a teenager.

Kenny Thomason, chairman of Kennedy High's history department, agreed that during such events, "you have to set the lesson plan aside and use that moment to cover, review, explain and promote discussions. You've got to grab the moment as it hits."

Across the state and nation this week, educators interrupted final exams, senior picnics and graduation preparations to talk about Reagan and his legacy. Teachable moments, as they are called, come randomly and powerfully: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Columbia space shuttle explosion, the California recall election, the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But educators also say that teaching about Reagan is complicated because of lingering controversy over his policies and delicate because of his 10-year battle with Alzheimer's.

A good teacher provides "a balanced portrayal of Ronald Reagan," said Jesus Garcia, education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and incoming president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "Like all presidents, he was popular with some factions of society and unpopular with others."

At Kennedy, several teachers invited students who viewed Reagan's casket at the presidential library near Simi Valley to talk about that experience to their classes. One teacher played recordings of his "Tear Down This Wall" speech and read Reagan's letter that announced he had Alzheimer's.

For Kennedy senior Shannon Ashcraft, buzz about Reagan's death in class and on television was a real-life review for a world history exam, which touches on the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"When I saw it on the news, it was surprising because we just read about him," said Shannon, 17. "I bet you if we hadn't ... I wouldn't have cared much."

Reagan's legacy was harder for elementary students to grasp.

On Monday, "all of my children came in talking about how the president had died," said fourth-grade teacher Monica Hunt at Purche Avenue Elementary School in Gardena. "We had to first discuss that Bush was alive and well."

To them, everything was a surprise. When they heard Reagan had been an actor, they wanted to watch his movies. When they learned Secret Service agents were guarding the coffin, Hunt recalled hearing, "What's the big deal if a terrorist comes and blows up the hearse? He's already dead."

They didn't understand Alzheimer's, until one boy realized it was the same disease a family member had. Hunt remembered the student saying: "My mom cried all the time because my great-grandmother doesn't know who she is."

Kerri Jo Hansen, a third-grade teacher at Atherwood Elementary School in Simi Valley, said her students knew little about Reagan, except that he was the first president many of their parents had voted for.

But Atherwood students and staff watched the motorcade carrying Reagan's casket to the presidential library pass by on Monday. Nancy Reagan waved to the students. "That really meant a lot to them," Hansen said.

Afterward, Hansen kept a talk radio station on for about 15 minutes in class and students silently listened to broadcasts about Reagan.

Some teachers chose not to eulogize Reagan.

Nikhil Laud, 23, a student teacher at Crenshaw High School, this week taught two classes about the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan administration scandal in which the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran to finance rebels against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Laud said his students heard all weekend "that everything [Reagan] did was amazing and great."

"Yeah, someone died and the person was a leader of the country," Laud said. "But instead of blindly saying he was a great person ... introducing it was to give them a more critical perspective."

Students at Viewpoint School in Calabasas witnessed an ironic scene Saturday when the governing mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, spoke at their graduation -- just three hours after "the man who sought to end the Cold War died," said Bob Dworkoski, headmaster of the school. Viewpoint is a sister school to a Berlin campus and students often visit each other's countries.

Dworkoski said the governing mayor, whom he invited to speak after meeting him at a recent party, told graduates that Berliners admire Reagan because his policies helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

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