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A Lesson On The Wall

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And then I thought about the students in my high school history classes, and I realized that the powerful scenes I was watching on television gave me an incredible opportunity to make my subject come alive. The dancing on the wall marked the end of an era and the beginning of a revolutionary new one, with a free Eastern Europe and the possibility for a lasting peace. I felt certain that I could rouse the interest of even my most apathetic students. Surely, they too would be gripped by the human drama unfolding around them. As witnesses to one of the most significant geopolitical shifts of the postwar world, they could not help but be curious about the events that led up to it.

Yet, because my students, like most teenagers, have never had to grapple with the world at large, I also knew I had to try to find ways to bring some of that outside world into their own.

I started my lesson by putting a picture of an obviously sad girl on the overhead projector and asking the students what they thought might be wrong with her. She had a fight with her boyfriend or parents, guessed one. Another thought the girl had flunked a test. Next, I showed a picture of a young man looking sad and somewhat perplexed. Again, I asked the students to guess his problem. I got similar responses. By this time, they were quite curious about what I was doing. I put on one last picture.

Silence. And then a quiet "Oh.''

The boy and the girl were now separated by a high concrete wall with barbed wire along the top. I let the image sink in for a moment. Then, I told the story of Jurgen, a boy from West Berlin, and Heike, a girl from East Berlin. Jurgen had visited the other side of the wall, and the two had met and fallen in love. But they could not be married because Heike could not leave the East, and Jurgen's visits could last no longer than a day. My students' reaction? General outrage: "How can the government do that? That's really stupid.''

Next, I projected a rough hand-drawn map of St. Louis showing most of the major highways and landmarks. First, we located our school, and then I encouraged the kids to point out where their relatives live, places they shop, and landmarks they visit. After a couple of minutes, I drew a thick red line across the center of the map, dividing the city into northern and southern halves. Again, a pensive silence, until someone asked: "Is that really what happened?''

Instead of answering the question directly, I showed them an NBC News special report on the opening of the Berlin Wall. I thought this particular newscast would serve as an effective overview of the events that had led to the building and ultimate destruction of the Berlin Wall. Most of my students seemed to watch with interest.

I was sure that I had them hooked; they were caught up in the drama of what was happening before their eyes and beginning to understand its historical antecedents and future ramifications. I looked forward to a long and lively discussion.

Instead, I ran into a different kind of wall. My invitation to discuss the larger issues was met with blank stares. "So what does this have to do with us?'' was the question I heard over and over. Even after several days of discussion, most of the students still did not really understand what all the fuss over the collapse of communism was about. Wasn't it obvious that the good guys always win?

In the months since I tried to teach that lesson about the wall, I've often asked myself why my students seem so unimpressed by the stunning changes that are occurring around the world. I don't have the answer. Part of it, I'm sure, is that they are only sophomores in high school. After all, how aware was I at that age?

But there are other reasons, too. I recently polled my students to find out what kind of exposure they have to world events outside the classroom. It was depressing to find that few receive a newspaper at home and that few of those who do actually read it. Hardly any students indicated that current world events are discussed at home, and even fewer said that they speak with their friends about such topics. If parents do not think it's important to understand and be aware of what is happening in the world, how can their children be expected to care?

Another inhibiting factor is the school curriculum. We teachers are already expected to cover an impossible amount of material in a very short period of time. We are called on to emphasize both basic skills and cultural literacy, but many students feel that school does not give them the tools they need to make sense of the world in which they live. They say that history, in particular, seems to be an arbitrary collection of dry facts designed to torture even the most conscientious students.

What should be done differently? I'm still grappling with this question. It is clear that students need a personal connection to history and the world around them. If such a link is missing, as it seems to be, then teachers must find creative ways to help students forge one; we might, for example, consider teaching history from the present to the past. Surely, a concerted effort to integrate the wider world into the microcosm of the classroom will pay dividends. We need our students to understand, and take a greater interest in, the events and issues that shape their lives because ultimately their decisions about these issues will shape our lives.

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