History educators fast forward

Some nontraditional teachers begin their years with lessons about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Thursday, September 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

U.S. history students often begin the year studying the American colonies. But in Jami Thornsberry’s Hickman High School classroom, Columbia public school students are learning about Osama bin Laden and the creation of al-Qaida.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, partly because there were no formal curriculum changes requiring them to discuss the war on terror, some Columbia public school teachers only temporarily shifted their lesson plans to include terrorism. Educators like Thornsberry, however, have made teaching terrorism a priority.

A nontraditional approach

Making time for modern U.S. history in her curriculum was something Thornsberry did years before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Years ago, she was already starting off the school year teaching students about the 1998 al-Qaida-linked car bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. “My approach to teaching is nontraditional,” said Thornsberry, who begins her 11th grade U.S. history course with the 1979 Iran hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Thornsberry spends the first three weeks of class on the United States’ geopolitical role in fighting terrorism before she backtracks to early American history.

Encouraging discussion on war

George Frissell, who also teaches at Hickman, uses the reading material from his Classical Ideas and World Religion class to encourage discussion about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Students want to talk about what is happening in the world,” he said.

Frissell’s students read the Koran and the works of Christian theologians. They also listen to National Public Radio segments to connect their classical readings to current events.

Using their readings and knowledge of current events, his students grapple with topics like “the question of what is a just war,” Frissell said.

Pat Morgan, who teaches debate at Hallsville High School, uses the morning news to help her students think about and argue terrorism issues. Her students recently debated the question “will we be able to control terrorism in post-war Iraq?” Morgan said.

Morgan has observed “increased tolerance” among her students. “They are not quick to judge who the terrorist might be,” she said.

Old versus new

Thornsberry’s students also appreciate the chance to learn modern U.S. history and current events.

“The kids are very jazzed about it. They respond, ‘We never get to learn about this; we never make it this far,’” Thornsberry said.

“The way our curriculum is set up, we start with exploration and colonization, and we are supposed to meet at the end, but that never happens,” she said. “We are lucky if we get to Vietnam.”

Tim Stockley, one of Thornsberry’s students, said that in addition to terrorism, this is the first time he has studied the 1991 Gulf War. “They do not have enough time in the school year to cover the new wars. They’re too busy covering the old wars,” Stockley said, referring to the American Revolution, the Civil War and World Wars I and II.

“There are a few maverick teachers who do like to talk about the new wars,” Stockley said, referring to Thornsberry.

Columbia public school teachers are not required to incorporate terrorism and current events into their lesson plans, and district administrators have no plans to implement that change.

“There have been no curriculum changes,” said Skip Deming, assistant superintendent for instruction. “Curriculum changes would have to happen through the course of our curricular review.”

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