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Dad was right about teaching social studies

This retired schoolteacher would love to tell her father how right he was. Alas, the man would be 108 years old if he were alive. But when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1960s, preparing for a career in teaching, my father gave me excellent advice.

Yes, I loved studying history. Yes, that was my major. But to earn a secondary teaching credential in California, I needed a minor so I could teach in two subject areas. I had always been a strong math student. "Minor in math," my father urged. "It will be much easier to teach than social studies."

He would be amazed at the issues facing today's social studies teachers. Your front page story, "Teacher asked to remove Black Lives Matter poster" (Sept 22) is a prime example. The sub heading reads "Poster deemed 'inappropriate expression of opinion 'because not all sides of issue addressed." The front page of Education Week (Sept 14) features an article headed "Educators Grapple With Election 2016." The sub heading reads "Inflammatory campaign rhetoric poses teaching conflicts."

None of these controversial issues would have affected my algebra classes. But what is a dedicated social studies teacher to do ? Especially with today's 24-hour-a-day news coverage and students' constant access to social media.

The Medford high school teacher had asked his pre-law students to read classic works by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They would then discuss "whether people are fundamentally good (altruistic), or bad (selfish), and if this influences the creation of laws which we find in our country." Clearly lawmakers and other leaders are only human.

Our Founding Fathers counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, and gave women no rights at all. Today we have an African American president and two women running for president. Surely an effective social studies teacher would want students to recognize this progress and consider the evolution of laws in America. A Black Lives Matter poster could prompt discussion. As the news clearly reveals, all is not right with our society. But students need to learn the history so they can put current events in context, and hopefully work toward more liberty and justice for all.

The presidential election of 2016 also poses great challenges to social studies teachers. Education Week reports that "many educators across the country say they are struggling with how to teach an election that has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions, and sparked name-calling between the Republican and Democratic nominees."

Students are in secondary schools for six years; they may experience only one presidential election during that period. So social studies teachers feel a duty to include the event in their lessons. Yet the article cites a study in which 40 percent of 2,000 participating teachers said they were "hesitant to teach about the campaign at all."

"I try to be very neutral in class — that's always been my philosophy," said one U.S. government teacher. "Probably for the first time, there have been some things said in the campaign that I just can't ignore. I have to say, 'This isn't right.' I don't remember ever before being unable to play it right down the middle."

"Having students analyze issues beyond the campaign rhetoric is one of many ways that teachers are approaching the 2016 election," reports Education Week. One teacher adds, "In my classroom, we're not here to say, 'I like this person. I like that person.' We're here to be political scientists." Educators notice "the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric in this campaign has caused some students to feel unsafe and concerned about their futures. That has sparked teachers' protective instincts," says the article.

Reflecting on current events has always been part of the school curriculum. But events seem to be so much more troubling — and frightening — in this 21st century. I have great respect for the social studies teachers facing these challenges in today's classrooms, trying to make sense of events like the Boston Marathon bombing, race riots in American cities and political campaigns that seem more destructive than beneficial.

Neither students nor teachers lose their constitutional rights when they enter the classroom. Teachers have a duty to promote understanding and tolerance among students.

My father knew it would be far easier to teach algebra. I salute all the teachers facing today's challenges.

— Betty R. Kazmin taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles secondary schools, and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.