What does it mean to be a social studies educator in 2017 and beyond?

How do historical, social, cultural, economic, environmental, and geographic issues affect us in a globally diverse world?

How do we educate students about worldwide issues?

How do we address the cultural diversity of our students, and our country, and provide an inclusive, accepting environment?

NCSS-ConferenceThese questions (and more) formed the foundation for the 97th Annual Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies last month in San Francisco. Among the thousands of attendees at this year’s conference was University High School instructor Jake Thurman.

Sessions that focused on teaching controversial issues or how to account for current events in classroom discussion were of particular interest to Thurman this year, and he sought out sessions related to these topics.

“One of the sessions I attended was a series of roundtable discussions about teaching controversial issues,” said Thurman. “It was led by some people from the University of California, Berkeley. They set up tables and questions, told us when to rotate, and facilitated the big group discussion afterward. I ended up staying for another 30 minutes talking to other teachers. Some of them taught at schools that won’t let them talk about current events, and I was telling them how University has addressed things like mass shootings, elections, and other major events.”

Thurman recalled one specific example from earlier this year. When news broke of the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, Thurman tossed out his plan for AP World History and instead gave the freshman students space in class to process.

“I got up early that morning and saw that this had happened, so before school I wrote down some thoughts I had and some thoughts I thought the kids might have,” said Thurman.

“My [AP World History] classes were early in the morning, so some of the students had heard people talking about the shooting but didn’t understand or know exactly what had happened. We watched a short clip, and I had pulled up some graphics and statistics and stuff. Really, we didn’t get through most of that because the students spent the hour sharing their thoughts.”

“I try to be honest with them,” he added. “And I hope that they can feel like they can be honest with me. Because we lay that groundwork talking about historical events, it’s easier to do it when we talk about current events.”

While current and controversial events were certainly a focus of the conference, there were also sessions that offered lesson ideas and takeaways that teachers can implement in their classrooms.

“I went to a couple of sessions that had primary source lesson demonstrations,” said Thurman. “We were the class, and then the presenter went through a few different activities. One of them that was really cool used several of the documents that the FBI was forced to make public from COINTELPRO. There were six or seven documents in the set, and you go through each one. It was kind of fun to do with other teachers. This was an actual lesson you could walk away with and try in your classes.”

In addition to the sessions, Thurman also enjoyed meeting history celebrities, like Bill Bigelow, and hearing from renowned speakers, like Hasan Jeffries, an Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University. Jeffries spoke about understanding and teaching America’s history of racial injustice.

While in the San Francisco area, Thurman also spent a day visiting The Bay School of San Francisco. Luke Felker, Head of School at The Bay School, visited University earlier this year in preparation for our school’s Visiting Team evaluation this spring. Felker is the chair of our Visiting Team, which is a group that assesses our school once every seven years as part of our accreditation through the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS).

The Bay School is similar to University in mission and culture, and the school shares similar programmatic elements. While University is piloting corequisite classes this year, The Bay School has several years of experience offering those to students. And while University has offered January Term since our school’s inception, The Bay School is now looking to implement that idea with their students.