I remember a high school parent's night where my son's 11th grade U.S. history teacher explained how they need to "cover" the Civil War through Vietnam by the end of the year. I asked, "Do you do anything to connect history to events occurring outside of the classroom?" The teacher replied, "What do you mean?" I suggested there were elections approaching. The teacher explained "They do elections in 12th grade." That was October 2000. The next month's elections were kind of unusual. How many teachable moments have been squandered because "elections are next year's curriculum?"
I used to wonder what sort of cataclysmic event would be required to interrupt the curriculum and allow connections to the real world. During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, schools in Indianapolis administered standardized tests as per schedule. One administrator reportedly told students that if they focused on the test, he would allow them to discuss their feelings afterwards.
Today I spent more than five hours watching the funeral of Coretta Scott King. I have rarely been as inspired, moved, saddened and entertained simultaneously. I quickly realized how much I would like to have shared this moment in history with all of our children. Yet I'm confident that few schools interrupted their routine to do any part of this. I know schools have televisions because they're used to show plenty of Disney films.
Learning Living History
What could a student learn by participating in this historic moment celebrating the life of Mrs. King? Language arts objectives are met by students observing brilliant orators tell stories, weave a narrative and inspire a crowd. They study the majestic living poetry that is Maya Angelou.
Students learn the history of the struggle for civil rights by meeting historical giants, Joseph Lowery and Ambassador Andrew Young. They learn about the work, courage and sacrifice of Dr. King when speakers reminded us of Mrs. King's decades of commitment to realizing her husband's commitment to justice, equality and human rights. Certainly, the heartfelt eulogies by four U.S. presidents made this day relevant to history. King's lessons of non-violence were connected to struggles around the world. The widow of exiled African National Congress President, Oliver Tambo, spoke of how important Mrs. King was to the struggle to end Apartheid. Sen. Kennedy taught America about the role his brothers played in releasing Dr. King from jail.
In an incredibly articulate address, Malcolm X's daughter shared the terrible bond her family shared with the Kings and the family of Medgar Evers. Too few Americans know about the lives of these families or the sacrifices they made to make America better. Fewer still knew of their joint efforts to build upon the work of their martyred fathers.
Civics and Tolerance
Perhaps the greatest lessons were to be found beyond the curriculum. In an age of "truthiness" and war, the world was reminded of the power of truth and peace. Love, forgiveness and citizenship were demonstrated through the tales of Mrs. King's public and private deeds. Southern Republican Judge William Sessions spoke of how Mrs. King invited him to participate in the annual birthday celebration for MLK Jr. the day he was named Director of the FBI, a government agency that had abused her family. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is how grace, determination and integrity can lead one person to change the world.
My parents watched political conventions and news with their children. They took us on vacations to explore American history and encouraged me to study to be a jazz musician and play in salsa bands. Diversity was embraced. School needs to pick up the slack in an increasingly segregated society so that all students can achieve their potential and sustain our democracy.
The tragic loss of Mrs. King created an opportunity to inspire a generation of future citizens and celebrate the promise of America. Did your students benefit? Will your televisions be on the next time history interrupts?
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.