No time to study timely events
Increased interest, little time to discuss world news
By Marnie Hunter
(CNN) -- Some have called them the "9/11 generation," U.S. students who must confront and try to understand a rapidly changing world.
From Afghanistan to Iraq, from Indonesia to Liberia, current events have taken on special importance for young Americans living in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But as much as most teachers and many students want to discuss what's making headlines, they say there's less and less time in the school day to do so.
Mounting pressure to meet state- and nationally mandated curriculum requirements and assessment tests means current events rarely get discussed thoroughly, according to many U.S. educators.
Stephen Johnson, a U.S. history teacher at Monterey High School in Lubbock, Texas, said he does not have much time to rehash the day's news with his 11th-grade history students.
"I mean, we have testing. Most states are having testing in social studies," Johnson said. "So you've got to cover the material between now and then -- and probably not a lot of current events."
Johnson, who has been teaching for 25 years and just finished a term as president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said he doesn't expect to spend much time on the war on terror or other recent events.
"When I start teaching, I'm starting out with the time period I need to start with and moving right on," he said.
But Peggy Altoff, a social studies supervisor for School District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the news can and should be discussed in the U.S. classroom, despite time constraints.
"Current events are something that can be used every day if a teacher has the skill and the imagination to connect the present to the past," she said.
The 9/11 effect
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks served as a catalyst in boosting interest among teachers and students in the world around them, Altoff said.
Susan Graseck, who founded a program designed to weave more international events into classroom instruction, said the attacks gave students and educators valuable insight on why it is important to understand the news in today's world.
According to Graseck, thousands of people accessed curriculum material on Iraq that was posted on the Choices for the 21st Century (www.choices.edu) Web site before the start of the war in March.
"We have felt for a long time that understanding the world around us and our place in it is something that is critical for students if they are going to be able to fulfill their responsibility as informed citizens," said Graseck, a senior fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. "Nine-11 brought this home for us all."
Merry Merryfield, a professor of social studies and global education at Ohio State University, said that unlike many historical events, September 11 affected students personally.
"It was one of those really profound events that nobody can ignore and lots of kids were actually afraid that it was going to happen to them," she said.
Short on time, heavy on tests
Merryfield, who offers online professional development courses designed to help teach world history and today's news, recognizes the difficulties that teachers face trying to incorporate such discussions into their curriculum.
All good teachers try to "integrate these kinds of events and issues that come out of them into the mandated curriculum ... because they want to respond to students' questions," she said. "Yet they have high-stakes testing, they have mandates that they have to teach certain topics."
At the state level, education boards set standards that serve as a framework for developing curricula in local school districts. These standards form the foundation for statewide assessments given to students at most grade levels in various subjects, including history and civics.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- the top tier in the standards-based movement -- every state (and in turn, school) faces sanctions and other penalties based on the results of annual assessments of students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math.
Ruben Zepeda, a high school history teacher since 1984, recently asked colleagues at a professional development seminar he facilitated at the University of California, Los Angeles, about the challenge of incorporating current events into course curricula. The answers mirrored his own experiences: plenty of interest in examining current issues, but not enough time.
"As much as ... teachers and students want to address this, there are external pressures that make that sometimes overwhelming and almost impossible to do," Zepeda said.