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Apocalyptic Teaching

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My penchant for creative storytelling was a major reason why I chose and love the teaching field of secondary English, but the mindset has its downsides. One of them is the propensity to flesh out and wait for the worst case scenario in life. Somewhere in my psyche, this feels responsible—as if, when I anticipate the most dire possible outcome in a given situation, I can properly prepare myself and my loved ones for it. I’ve been canning a lot this fall.

Non-sequitur? Not hardly. Epic shortages of food, water, and fossil fuel are predicted in many quarters for the next few decades. In September 2010, Scientific American spent an entire issue detailing the ways in which life as we know it might go kaput shortly. Apocalyptic books such as James Kunstler’s World Made by Hand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are flying off the shelves. Movies and television shows like “The Colony,” “The Event,” and “2012” complete the meme.

The American zeitgeist at present is filled with foreboding, and it’s not really difficult to pinpoint where it’s coming from. There is, of course, the fascination we’ve always had with end times (remember Y2K?). Historically, such fascination intensifies in periods of economic and social upheaval such as we are experiencing now. We are also a nation at war, having experienced the greatest terrorist act in our history less than a decade ago. Combine this with the very real and frightening implications of climate change, and you will find a growing sense among many Americans that our golden age is drawing to an abrupt, painful close.

My middle school, being the microcosm of American culture that much of public education is, is not immune to the pressures and depression that can result. Colleagues, training for a triathlon together, joke that it’s good preparation for the miles we will all need to walk for our firewood soon. Our superintendent spent significant time during his kickoff speech this year discussing how one in three of our kids is now in poverty, and what that means for us. Family crises in our school community seem to have proliferated.

It hardly matters, I have discovered, whether the end of the world is actually nigh. It’s the fear of it, and the changes driving it, that deserve our close attention as educators.

A Survivalist Curriculum

So here I am—a teacher not only unusually susceptible to apocalyptic fantasies myself, but civically responsible for dealing in healthy ways with where, and how, it might rear its head in my classroom. How can I help my kids weather these storms?

As an English teacher I’ve got a powerful resource at my beck and call that might be hidden from other teachers (though it doesn’t have to be): the rich strain of apocalyptic young adult fiction. Dozens of novels with end-time themes have been coming down the pike in the last few years. Some, like Carrie Ryan’s zombie tale The Forest of Hands and Teeth, use a fantasy-based apocalypse as a backdrop for exploring human relationships. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is more adventure-based, gritty and realistic, taking place in a radically re-organized North American dictatorship.

My favorite, however, is Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, a tale of a fifteen year old girl and her family after a meteor knocks the moon out of orbit. Not only is it more feasible than a world-wide zombie attack, it also deals with themes of growing up, examining what we value, bravery and courage—all of which our kids can use in strong doses in these tumultuous days. As my friend Craig, a professional fantasy writer, puts it: “Science fiction offers the chance to explore extrapolated futures and examine how we might function in them—of particular value now.”

The radical changes our collective consciousness seems to be anticipating can also provide a useful lens for examining the curriculum we teach. In a world increasingly defined by our level of online connectivity, are we giving kids the tools they need to understand our inseparable connection to the planet?

In political arenas polarized by illogic and fear, do our kids possess the critical faculties and skills of civility to bring about the changes we need to create a more resilient and responsive government? In a future where cheap goods and unlimited mobility may decline or cease altogether—or at the very least, where diminishing resources may rule for a time—can our kids get along with less, sacrifice for others, live local, and create community?

My colleague Don Duggan-Haas, education research associate for The Museum of the Earth in Ithaca New York, provides an extremely challenging example. “Understandings of the environment and human impact upon it generally, and climate change specifically, is [a] vanishingly small [part of] what is tested in today's schools—and therefore it typically is only a tiny piece of what is taught. That's stunning in light of what are likely the most important issues of the 21st century.”

Fostering Community

So what units can you write that will help our kids face these issues head on? What activities can you introduce—even for only five minutes per class? What skills can you emphasize? What conversations can you start and foster?

Lastly, we can be supremely sensitive to how our changing times affect our students in the “now.” These effects may be practical: I’ve had to adjust my homework policies in the light of the increasing number of children I teach whose parents are working so hard they are not available in the evenings for supervision or assistance. They may be emotional, as with my student last year whose lost her house and was homeless for a time. Again, even if the end of the world is not nigh, for these kids, a world of their own may be ending. We as teachers can create a space of warmth and support for them in ways few other adults can.

Ironically, this action-oriented response goes a long way towards calming my own apocalyptic fears. Fostering the health of human community is arguably the make-or-break element in all this. Indeed, it is the make-or-break element in everything we do as teachers, whether we are focused on the end of the world, the end of the recession, or the end of the period.

If, as an educator, I have done my small part in keeping the human community together within my class, I’ve done something good. If I have helped my kids do the same out in that uncertain future world? I’ve done more than something good: I’ve done my job.

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