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Divided political climate pushes teacher’s writings on civics to the head of the class

An eighth-grade history teacher at Flintridge Preparatory School who uses current events to inspire students to think and engage in deep discussions about the world around them, Sarah Cooper remembers watching the November 2016 election with special interest.

As the primaries ramped up in the months leading up to the race, national politics became a hot topic among Prep students and teachers alike.

“It really heated up in my class,” the Glendale resident recalled in a recent interview. “The debates were like fireworks. Students really saw them as entertainment — it was like watching a wrestling match.”

To help diffuse the incendiary nature of partisan politics, Prep’s history faculty decided to forego holding a mock debate among students in fall of 2016, instead inviting guest speakers to share insights from both sides of the aisle in separate appearances.

Meanwhile Cooper, also Prep’s dean of studies and a frequent contributor to educational blogs geared toward middle grades, tried to guide her students away from unhelpful candidates’ rhetoric and toward meaningful discussion of the issues.

“The role of teachers is to create a culture in which students are respectful of each other,” she said. “That sounds so basic, but we’re not hearing it in the national political scene, so we need to model what that looks like.”

Cooper published articles on the popular teaching site MiddleWeb.com intended to help fellow middle-grade teachers find creative, relevant ways to talk about current events in the classroom. Two days after the presidential election her article, “After the Election: What’s Next in History Class?” appeared online and got teachers talking.

Her writings caught the eye of Lauren Davis, a senior editor for academic publisher Routledge, who contacted her about writing an educational guide for civics instructors tasked with teaching the principles of citizenship in tumultuous times.

In less than a year, Cooper compiled notes from her previous writings and in-class experiences. On Oct. 4, “Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6–9,” was released by Routledge and made available on popular sites like Amazon.com.

Davis explained, in an email interview, how Cooper’s writings got her thinking of the importance of bringing current events into the classroom in a way that promotes civil discourse.

“It can be hard for teachers to tackle such heated topics in the classroom, and it can also be hard for them to connect current events to the history curriculum they’re required to cover,” she said. “Sarah had amazing, classroom-tested strategies and tools to share with other teachers.”

During a current events lesson Friday, Cooper’s eighth-grade students presented news articles they’d analyzed to fellow classmates, who engaged in discussions and asked questions about the North American Free Trade Agreement, Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain and the line between PTSD episodes and hate crimes.

The mother of two sons, aged 9 and 13, Cooper said middle-grade students are often eager to navigate controversial and complicated topics out of a desire to know their minds and construct meaning in their lives.

“You should never underestimate middle-schoolers,” she said. “They want to be taken seriously, so to talk with them about important history and issues taps into that desire to grow and be seen as young adults.”

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine


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