Learning history in real time
Last updated 2/16/2021 at Noon
A six-week class during the presidential election, and the tumult and upheaval that followed, gave Sisters High School teacher Gail Greaney’s Advanced Placement Government Politics and Policy students a chance to study history in the making.
A January 21 article published by the state’s largest paper, The Oregonian, featured her class and focused on the challenge and strategies of teaching a course of this nature during an eventful political period.
The Nugget followed up with Greaney and two of her students to uncover more of what she and her classroom experienced during and after the presidential election.
Greaney was approached by a reporter from The Oregonian due to her involvement in the Classroom Law Project (CLP) which promotes the teaching of Constitutional law through programs such as We the People and Mock Trial. According to the group’s website, CLP’s mission is “working to equip students with the knowledge, essential skills, and motivation to participate in our democracy.”
Greaney, a long-time participant of CLP, takes that mission quite seriously and found it hard to stay abreast as an educator with the fast-evolving events surrounding the elections and leading up to the January 6 uprising at the nation’s Capitol.
“I would literally check my phone when I got up in the morning to catch the news and think about it on my way to work, then look again at 9 a.m. and change what I was going to talk about,” she told The Nugget. “Kids would arrive at 9:35 for class and ask a question about something that had happened between 9 and 9:30. There were days I could not keep up.”
Often, a history or government class focuses on happenings of the past, but Greaney’s group had a front-row seat as election results were challenged, a riot took place inside the nation’s Capitol building, and calls for presidential impeachment began to rumble.
Policies, laws and the Constitution became part of every news cycle, in a constant stream from every angle and media outlet.
“When you don’t understand the system you can be led to believe things that are patently false because you don’t really know, for example, how our voting process really works,” Greaney said.
On the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Greaney got a message during class with about 20 minutes to go, so she stopped what they were doing and had the students immediately start checking all the news sources to see what different outlets were covering.
By this time in the term, students had become accustomed to the task of “triangulating sources” as a means to make sense of events taking place in real time.
Junior Sydney Wilkins said, “This concept of triangulating sources relates to how we spent a lot of time reading articles on the same topic from differently-leaning news sources. The differences were often extreme, especially when concerning former President Trump. Basically, we learned to avoid confirmation bias, as well as the danger of existing in an echo-chamber of political discourse with only those who agree with you. Through reading a variety of viewpoints on the same topic we learned to develop the most accurate and unbiased collection of data possible before applying our opinions.”
She added, “I think one of the most important skills one can develop is the ability to think critically.”
Jackson Parkins commented on the challenges of sifting through the volumes of media responses on a given news event.
“We live in the Information Age. Stories are everywhere, from every sort of source imaginable,” he said. “Everyone’s got some kind of bias, and learning to compare these stories and find our own inherent assumptions is the only way to try to weed out the unsubstantiated stuff and find the truth. In today’s world, reading the news should be more like solving a mystery than watching TV.”
Civility is an important factor in making a class like this operate, according to Greaney. She says establishing a safe community is vital.
“Everyone is welcome, everyone has a voice, and everyone has a responsibility,” said Greaney.
Senior Jackson Griffin said, “The topics were often difficult, but the classroom environment was pretty tight-knit, and I think there was a prevailing sense of comfort as we picked apart important issues.”
Greaney remarked, “Having more information at our fingertips doesn’t translate into us actually being better informed. In fact, the opposite may be true.”
Parkins, who voted for the first time in November, said, “I definitely think that what I learned in this class will impact my life in the future. Today there’s just so much misinformation and disinformation, and I feel that getting a chance to simply read our nation’s founding documents set me up to avoid falling into such traps.”
Wilkins added, “I definitely see this class impacting my future, both in the basic understanding I’ve gained of the foundations of American politics and government and through the skills and tools I’ve learned for being an active and engaged member of society.”
Greaney is pleased that her students took seriously the notion of not being bystanders as citizens in our country.
“Democracy is hard,” she said, “so much more so than other forms of government because you have to be a participant. A dictatorship doesn’t ask anything of you other to comply. Democracy asks you to act. It needs constant tending. Perhaps we have gotten too complacent in recent years. History doesn’t happen to you. Every single person is an historical agent.”
The class ended before the Senate’s acquittal of Trump on impeachment charges, but they did have time for some discussion on the constitutionality of whether Trump could be found guilty.
Sisters High School teaches U.S. history to all students, and most students take a government class, according to Greaney, but civics, per se, is not part of the social studies requirement for students to graduate from high school in Oregon — which concerns her.
“I’m not sure there has been a more important time for our citizenry to understand how our government works, what the Constitution says, and what role each of us has in maintaining our democracy.
She is grateful for what is offered and for the experiences she is having as a teacher.
“Seeing the students put into practice in real time what we have been learning is why we teach,” she said.