Teaching History As It Happens

There's no textbook for current events, so teachers across the country are improvising with their students during this historic election.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, "Obama the Musical."

But first, with this historic election behind us, we thought it would be interesting to see how educators and students are examining the results, so we visited a few classrooms around the country this week and eavesdropped on the discussions. First up, Rio Rancho High School, just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Reporter Elaine Baumgartel of member station KUNM has the story.

ELAINE BAUMGARTEL: On a wind-scoured hill, Rio Rancho High School sits overlooking the Rio Grande Valley and the greater Albuquerque metropolitan area. Instructor Bruce Smith met with his AP government and politics class on the day after the election.

Mr. BRUCE SMITH (Instructor, Rio Rancho High School): We've been hearing these names for almost two years now, you know, half your high school career. And it's over. You know, it's in the history books now. And so it's like, OK, so now what's next?

BAUMGARTEL: But many students seem more interested in looking back at the campaign, especially at the huge amount of money raised by Barack Obama. Smith asked, what is the future of campaign financing regulation?

Mr. SMITH: Is it too much, I mean, the way Barack Obama raised over half a billion dollars? Is that - you know, what can we do about that? Is this OK? Is this democracy? Is this - what's your thoughts, ladies and gentlemen?

BAUMGARTEL: Natasha Adelman(ph) says she was disappointed in Barack Obama.

Ms. NATASHA ADELMAN: He spent like way too much money. It saddens me that he spent so much money on this campaign when he could have given that money to charity. That alone would have raised his ratings, like big time, to me.

BAUMGARTEL: The negative tone of the campaign smarted for Chantal Evans(ph). Fiddling with her pen, she said she had discussed attack ads in her English class.

Ms. CHANTAL EVANS: And everyone just goes for it. And it's just all this illogical stuff, and their arguments weren't arguments. They were just ranting most of the time or personal attacks, and I thought that that was frustrating, that you kind of had to dig to find out what was going on.

BAUMGARTEL: In New Mexico, ethnic and racial identities are complex and nuanced. Many of Rio Rancho's 75,000 residents, even the Hispanic ones, would describe themselves as white. Natasha Adelman didn't think race played too much of a factor in her state when it came to electing America's first African-American president.

Ms. ADELMAN: Here in Rio Rancho, most people don't really care what race you are or anything. I didn't vote because oh, my gosh, John McCain's white or Obama's black. So for me and my family, that's not a personal issue.

BAUMGARTEL: But Nicolette Caisara(ph) says she witnessed explicit racism expressed by some New Mexico voters on Election Day.

Ms. NICOLETTE CAISARA: Because as I volunteered, there were some people who were really outspoken and said that they voted Republican just because it was a black candidate. And they were very outspoken on that issue.

BAUMGARTEL: On this day, when the topic turned to race in Rio Rancho High's government and politics class, everyone seemed to be entering new territory. But in the coming months and years, with Barack Obama as president, students like these and their instructors will have plenty of opportunity to explore the issue of race - if they choose to. For NPR News, I'm Elaine Baumgartel in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

JESSICA JONES: I'm Jessica Jones. And earlier this week, I visited a sociology class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Professor ANDREW PERRIN (Sociology, University of North Carolina): Let's see. I cut out some stuff to pass around, a couple of little tidbits from right before the election.

JONES: That's Professor Andrew Perrin, who's passing out photocopied newspaper articles about the campaign to his class of about 20 freshmen. They're mostly white, and although the majority voted for Obama, there's a smattering of students who prefer McCain. This is the first time "Citizenship and Society in the United States" has met since Election Day. Professor Perrin wants to know how it went for this class of first-time voters.

Professor PERRIN: So all right, I have a question. Did democracy worked on Tuesday?

STUDENTS: Yes.

JONES: The class's resident conservative, Dan Silva(ph), is nodding along with everyone else, although he says he was pretty sad on election night. As soon as Silva realized McCain would lose, he used the Internet phone service Skype to call friends who were also McCain supporters.

Mr. DAN SILVA: We were just staring at each other, like, with our hands on our heads, just kind of, like, wallowing in self-pity. But then eventually, we just - we were like, all right, fine, we have to get over it. Like I mean, I know that I accepted it because democracy had chosen Barack Obama, and I had to respect that.

JONES: That makes sense to Texan Laura Kirchoffer(ph), who's sitting a few seats away. Her parents are big McCain supporters, so she felt she had to check in on them late Tuesday night.

Ms. LAURA KIRCHOFFER: I sent my mom a text message. I was, like, are you all doing OK?

JONES: Kirchoffer whips out her cell phone to retrieve a message from her mom.

Ms. KIRCHOFER: Good speech by both. I'm hopeful for the unity that it's going to bring. So that text message was comforting to me.

JONES: Text messages were a big part of this year's political campaigns on campus. More than a few students here said they received regular text messages from Obama headquarters. Jamie Bullock(ph), a native North Carolinian, worked for the campaign. She's African-American, and she's proud that the president-elect is African-American, too.

Ms. JAMIE BULLOCK: When I actually watched the results come in and they declared Obama as the winner, I called my 68-year-old father and listened to him cry over the phone. Like it was - I know in the African-American community people really, really wanted this to happen, but nobody believed it actually could. Like sitting here now thinking about it, it still doesn't seem real.

JONES: Bullock says she hopes Obama's victory inspires people to get more involved in their communities. That's exactly what Professor Perrin is hoping for also.

Professor PERRIN: I want them to come away with a sense that citizenship goes well beyond voting, and that politics is about our moral choices and about our belonging in a community and not just about a kind of once every while clicking a vote or even writing a check to a candidate.

JONES: Perrin says now that the election is over, he wants his students to understand that there are lots of ways to be a good citizen. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.

SIMON: Cosby Hunt(ph) has been teaching history and social studies in Washington, D.C., for the past 12 years. We caught up with him between classes at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest D.C.

Mr. COSBY HUNT (History and Social Studies Teacher): It's been a great time to be a U.S. government teacher and a U.S. history teacher and a D.C. history teacher, for that matter. I feel like I've been doing a lot of lessons around the election.

SIMON: I was very touched by something you said, talking about your child. And you apparently told your students, look, by the time my child has grown, you guys are going to be running this country. I get - is it nine weeks with you? I get nine weeks with you. That's the time we have to try and set you on the right path when it comes to social studies and government.

Mr. HUNT: I like to start the class that way, and I like to refer throughout the class to my son. I mean, number one, because I'm a new father and new fathers love to talk about their kids. But I think it does add some perspective for them to understand why I care about the course. And it is true. They're 17, 18, 19, 22, in some cases, years old. And so when Freeman(ph) is 18, they're going to be in their late 30s, early 40s, running the show. And I don't want them to screw it up for him.

And so they laugh, but I think they also understand that I'm serious. Now, whether or not they believe that they will be the leaders in the country in the way that people who went to the schools that we went to believed that or were told that, I don't know. But I hope they do believe it.

SIMON: What does it mean to your students? I mean, I look around this classroom, and there's pictures of Uncle Sam - it's a cartoon - suffragist leaders, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas.

Mr. HUNT: James Brown. Don't forget about the godfather - Brown, a little personal corner over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: James Brown. What does it mean for your students? I mean, there'll be pictures of the president of the United States, perhaps in this classroom, but all over the country if not all over the world. And it's President Obama.

Mr. HUNT: Well, if I may quote Roland Martin on CNN, when the announcement had been made and the pundits were giving their thoughts, and he got teary and he said, I have nine nieces and nephews. And he said, for the first time, I can say to them, you can do that - and mean it. And I think the students, they get that. They realize now that for people of color - and I don't have any white students - that the sky is the limit. Just look on the TV. Just look who the president-elect is. So I think that they see that, and I hope that they take it to heart.

SIMON: So the day after, what did your students say?

Mr. HUNT: I think the students have really taken to the moniker, yes, we can. A number of students agreed that in a city with high concentration of poverty like that, if a guy comes along and says, we can do better as a country by all Americans, rich and poor, yes, we can, especially those people in poverty are going to flock to that person when it comes to voting. So that wasn't one student's comment, but that was kind of an observation that we made as a class together. And politically, it was incredibly important and rhetorically very inspiring, just those three words.

SIMON: Cosby Hunt, a D.C. native and high school teacher at Bell Muticultural, in his hometown.

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