Who says history has to be about dead men and a dreary assortment of dates and names?
For countless students and teachers, the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall has become a living classroom, a place to put a contemporary twist on topics such as the causes of the Great Depression and the limits of the 1st Amendment.
On a recent afternoon, students from at least three schools joined the colorful milieu of protesters — playing ball, posing with pet roosters and sounding off about corporate greed — to interview them about their aims.
Cleveland High School student Ryan Janowski, for instance, asked hard questions about whether the movement’s leaderless structure would impede its progress.
Classmate Christopher Berry sniffed the aroma of marijuana and wondered whether a few “dignified leaders” might help protesters gain wider public acceptance.
The students are part of Cleveland’s humanities magnet program, which is exploring class differences in America and comparing the Occupy movement with 19th century transcendentalism.
“It fits in with everything we’re doing,” said Rebecca Williams, an English literature teacher at the Reseda school. “It’s a real-life movement — history in the making.”
Educators across the nation have taken up the Occupy movement as a teaching opportunity for civics, history, government and even geography classes. Organizations such as C-SPAN, the Bill of Rights Institute and the Annenberg Classroom have developed lesson plans for mass consumption.
One such teaching tool put together by Ben Bohmfalk, a Colorado social studies teacher, features video clips and articles intended to help students evaluate the movement’s aims.
The lesson plan on C-SPAN’s Classroom Deliberations website offers material for three reading levels and a vocabulary list that includes such words as bailouts, deregulation and meritocracy.
Bohmfalk said the link to the Occupy lesson plan was sent out to more than 40,000 teachers nationwide. A handful of them, he said, protested that teaching about the movement implies supporting it. But Bohmfalk, who also has taught about the politically conservative “tea party” movement, disagrees.
“For a movement to gain so much public attention, teachers have a responsibility to teach about it,” he said. “This cracks open all of the issues. It takes them out of dusty textbooks and makes them very current.”
Bohmfalk has used the material in his classes to discuss issues such as the role of government in regulating the marketplace, the limits of free speech and assembly rights and even U.S. parallels to inequitable living conditions in Mexico City.
But, he said, a major challenge has been helping students understand the complex economic issues underlying the movement’s simple slogans.
Catchphrases such as “99%" require understanding of income distribution and tax systems. “Corporate personhood” involves looking at campaign financing systems and a related Supreme Court decision. Add to that references to bank bailouts, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and the issues get very complicated very quickly, he said.
“What a lot of adults forget is how little background knowledge about current events 16-year-olds have,” Bohmfalk said.
At Downtown Magnets High School, 11th-grade AP history teacher Daniel Jocz has videotaped the Los Angeles encampment for use later in the year when he will ask students to compare and contrast the Occupy movement with the economic forces that drove the Great Depression.
Jocz said he plans to ask students to take a position on whether more government or less would best alleviate the problems — similar questions faced by Presidents Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1920s and ‘30s.
But, Jocz said, it may be difficult for many teachers to fit the Occupy movement into an already crowded curriculum.
“At the end of the day, students won’t be tested on any of this and I’ll be evaluated on their content knowledge demonstrated through standardized tests,” he said. “There is no value to doing this in the current climate. In this whole test-driven culture, teachers are terrified to step away from their regular schedule.”
Students, however, said they see great value in the lessons.
For Jerry Liang, a Cal State Long Beach student and immigrant from China, a sociology class assignment to interview an Occupy L.A. protester gave him the chance to witness a people’s movement that he said would not be allowed in his homeland.
He considers himself part of the 99% — his family of garment workers earns a combined $28,000 annually — and said he would join the protests were it not for his parents’ admonition to stay out of trouble.
“Here in America we can express our ideas and participate in a movement to do something for ourselves,” Liang said. “In China, it’s impossible to do this. If you do it, you’ll go to jail.”
Eighth-grader Brenda Reyes was one of several students from the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a Lincoln Heights charter school, to visit the Occupy site to hand out milk and bread to protesters.
Later in their classroom, the students viewed video clips of protesters and wrote a compare-and-contrast response about the difference between media coverage of the movement and what they directly experienced at the encampment.
“It’s cool that they don’t just complain about things, like a lot of people do,” she said. “They’re trying to change things.”
Cleveland student Berry said that visiting both the Occupy L.A. and Oakland sites was “really neat and cool.”
The student, who described himself as the middle-class son of a Democratic mother who supports the movement and a Republican father who is indifferent to it, said he generally backs protesters’ demands for more economic equality. But he said he thinks they need to organize more effectively and purge any anti-Semitic and anarchist elements.
Whether any of that happens or not, Berry said, he is thrilled to be a witness to it all. In fact, he picked up an art piece from a protester featuring a city backdrop spray-painted with “Occupy LA” — a memento of the historical moment.
“Whether they accomplish anything, I feel this is history in the making that will be recorded and talked about in the future,” Berry said.