Over the summer, the school year was still in limbo and racial tensions were running high in Rockford as well as communities across the country. A former student reached out to Amanda Becker with a simple question: “Mrs. Becker, how are you going to teach about this?”
Becker is a history teacher at Auburn High School and a Rockford historian. Her answer was a philosophy she learned from her own teaching mentors.
“The best thing to do is to let the kids talk. That's it. Don't teach them anything. Let the kids talk,” she said.
It’s an interesting exercise to teach U.S. History in an era that’s historically significant in and of itself. Becker said that’s not lost on her students. How could it be when they only come in-person twice a week, masked up and from a distance?
Carol Perez is one of those students. She’s a junior at Auburn.
“A lot of my classmates, especially ones who had not been very politically active in the past, I noticed that this year they're using their voice a lot more,” said Perez.
That’s been in part due to protests against racism in Rockford this summer. She says racial justice and police reform, along with climate change, are the topics people she knows her age care about the most right now.
She’s not old enough to vote, but she’s still getting involved. She’s going to be an election judge.
She says she’s a little nervous, but it’s still exciting to be part of the process. Student Election Judge Coordinator Jonathan Logemann says they’ve had a much harder time recruiting students with Winnebago County COVID-19 case rates jumping.
Fewer than half of Americans between 18-29 years old voted in the 2016 presidential election. Elisabeth Zorn says young people often don’t feel like they can make the change in the political system they want to see.
Zorn is a government teacher at Auburn. It’s part of her job to show students how to harness their power and their voice to make a difference. But how can students make a difference during a pandemic? She can’t push them to knock on doors or even go to in-person events like board meetings.
Her seniors will still be doing Civic Action Projects.
“They're gonna be able to talk to other kids from around the country, as well as they're going to be having actual politicians and people engaging in movements,” said Zorn.
The program includes some founders of March For Our Lives. Zorn says they study the civil rights movements and other organized efforts, before deciding which cause they want to devote their attention to.
“As a teenager, how can I actually get involved and engaged? Because, again, a lot of times they think that's something that only adults are able to do,” she said.
What about at younger grade levels, years away from casting their first ballot? Justin Saichek says it’s a question they’ve been asking at Rockford Public Schools. He’s a language arts teacher at West Middle School.
“When a student graduates from high school, we hope that they have developed into a compassionate, empathetic, socially engaged individual. How do we backwards plan that and what do we need to teach and how do we need to support at each developmental level?” he said.
He says current events, like COVID-19 or the election, flow into middle school classrooms as well. Saichek is a musician, so he likes using music and literature to organically introduce his students to tough subjects.
“Nothing's not political, and if you're not challenging the status quo you're supporting the status quo,” said Saichek. “So, I would say that my class definitely isn’t absent of those things. But I've been really conscious of how I'm approaching it.”
The online classroom can facilitate more individualized interactions. And he says deeper connections in smaller in-person classes can really matter, especially in districts where a large number of students are classified as underperforming.
At the elementary school level, Loree Leathers says it’s all about forging relationships with the kids. She’s the principal of the STEAM Academy at Haskell Elementary.
Broad conversations about politics and elections don’t typically make their way into their classes. She says that even though they’ve had to recalibrate the hands-on instruction Haskell is known for, she’s really proud of how teachers there have gotten creative to keep students engaged -- and feel like they’re part of a school community -- even from under a mask.
Nearly half of Rockford families chose remote learning to start the school year. But it’s been impossible to not confront the issues facing the Rockford community and beyond during a pandemic and election year.
So educators and students are trying to provide a modicum of normalcy, even as they assist conversations about those topics -- and just how abnormal it is to learn in 2020.