This year, social studies teacher Tom Lachermeier has had to frequently "punt away" his prepared U.S. history lesson plans to make time for his Minneapolis students to discuss current news events: a bitterly contested election, a violent insurrection, a presidential inauguration.
"Not saying anything is saying a lot to these kids," said Lachermeier, who teaches at North High. "We can't just gloss over it — it's too important to not at least give them the option of having help to process this."
Teachers across the state are going off-script, abandoning their prepared lectures for conversations about history in the making. The past year brought countless headlines that students both wanted and needed to talk about, educators said. Still, it's up to school leadership to decide if certain topics should be off limits in the classroom. Though teachers can look to their principal for guidance on what to talk about, it's on them to determine how to start and guide such discussions.
"Some teachers have had difficulty finding that balance," said Rebecca Biel, the K-12 social studies supervisor for St. Paul schools. "Parents reach out and say, 'Why are you talking about this with my child?' At the same time, teachers also get it the other way with parents calling the principal to ask, 'Why aren't the schools discussing this?' "
That line becomes blurrier in distance learning, where "classroom" conversations may be happening in the child's home, perhaps with parents or other family members nearby.
Biel provides educators with tools to create lessons and guide discussion about events such as the election, the Electoral College vote or the inauguration.
She encourages teachers to be judicious about images or videos they show from news coverage and to allow time for students to consider what they've seen or heard. Sentence starters like "I thought" or "I felt" can help guide students to talk about their own experience as it relates to the headlines, she said.
For younger students learning about Inauguration Day, for example, Biel said it's important to explain the event and then ask an open-ended question like, "What advice do you have for the new president?"
"You want to end with that processing piece," she said. "It's about letting students talk and put words to what they might have circling in their head about it."
Several St. Paul elementary teachers are also using children's books, including "The Breaking News," by Sarah Lynne Reul to help students understand what they can do when the news is scary or sad.
Andrew Kratzke, an eighth-grade geography teacher at Discovery Middle School in Alexandria, has prioritized discussion time after breaking news events and said he assumes the role of moderator as his students talk. This year, he's noticed that many of the teenagers come into class with a narrow idea about what these events mean.
"We take that initial thought and we don't necessarily replace it, but we add in factual information," he said. "I allow them time to process that and make up their own mind."
On Wednesday, Kratzke's class watched President Joe Biden take the oath of office, just as his students had done four years ago when it was Donald Trump being sworn in.
After the "yelling match" of the first presidential debate in September and after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Kratzke directed his class to think about the Constitution and the democratic process, he said. Rather than focusing solely on the "whys" — which could have grown into an emotional and partisan discussion, he said — he reviewed with students the importance of civil discourse and the definition of peaceful protest as protected by the First Amendment.
"It is important for me as a teacher to ensure that my students are well-informed and engaged in their nation and the things that are going on around them, regardless of political affiliation," Kratzke said.
Lachermeier agreed, saying he sees his job as pushing his students not to think a certain way but rather to think for themselves. More frequently than in previous years, he's prioritized time to let students discuss the news and their own reactions to it.
That time spent allowing students to share their thoughts is an important part of being a history teacher right now, Lachermeier said.
"I told them that their children and their children's children will be learning about so much of this in their own classes someday," he said. "We are living history."
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440