The Learning Curve: how difficult topics are discussed in the classroom at Bremen High School

The Learning Curve: how difficult topics are discussed in the classroom at Bremen High School

BREMEN, Ind.-- This week the Learning Curve tackles how schools teach difficult topics.

Whether it's war, famine, or natural disasters, is the classroom the right place for these conversations?

“You make mistakes when you're dealing with kids with in their parents over controversial stuff. It just takes time and experience and you make mistakes and you try to learn and try to improve the relationship, you know, with the kids and improve it with their parents as well," said Bremen high school teacher, Andy Wassel.

History is being made everyday around us.

You can learn about current events, international news and more right from the palm of your hand on cell phones and computers 24/7.

Yet it's in the classrooms at schools like Bremen High School where sometimes the lesson plan is thrown out or changed to give students the chance to be curious, learn these difficult topics, and make decisions themselves.

“The section you're reading is called what values from antiquity influenced the founding generation. And the questions we're going to discuss are what is civic virtue? And what civic virtues are important for young people to have today and why and then we'll tie it out a little bit into the current events, the war in Ukraine," said Wassel during his first hour government class.

As history is being taught in the classroom, history is still being made everyday all around us.

“Thinking about the war in Ukraine, you know, Ukrainian citizens, Russian citizens, Ukrainian leaders, Russian leaders, American citizens, European citizens, and their leaders. What is the importance of civic virtue among these different leaders and citizens, as it might apply to them in Ukraine," said Wassel.

But who is entrusted to tell stories from the past and present, to the future adults of tomorrow?

The ABC57 Learning Curve team sat in on a government class to find out.

“I've always felt the administrators give me the leeway, given me the freedom to explore topics like this. In any of my lessons," said Wassel.

Lessons Any Wassel learned first hand on the front lines.

“I went to West Point, and graduated there in 2008. And commissioned as an officer in the army in the infantry," said Wassel.

Wassel has taught government, social studies, psychology, economics, sociology and current events at Bremen for the last three years after serving 11 years in the military.

“I wanted to pursue a career as a teacher," said Wassel. "I really like the school environment, like the administration and kind of the autonomy and freedom they give teachers to just kind of run their classrooms as they see fit.”

So how does Mr. Wassel tackle difficult topics, bringing current events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine into the curriculum all while still hitting all state required standards?

“So good example of civic virtue, just kind of like looking towards the they're like, What can we do specifically to help the people in Ukraine, maybe just like being considered, right? Maybe just having conversations like we're having right now. And maybe just being mindful of the reasons why people sometimes flee violence, why they sometimes become refugees," said Wassel addressing his first hour class.

“I want my kids to be well versed in domestic affairs and international affairs in addition to the material that we're covering in class, because I think that's essential to being a well informed citizen making good choices since an adult," said Wassel.

How do these young adults feel about joining in on these more difficult topics?

“It's is something that we need to learn about as well as, especially as a senior like me, we're being thrust into the real world after this. So it's good to learn about current events like that. So that we can have a good understanding of what's going on outside of our bubble," said senior, Jay Schaid.

“I mean, obviously, it's not an easy topic, talk about Blitz, I mean, we need to talk about because it's happening, like, I mean, is not to say it's going to happen here. Like we need to learn about what's happening in other places," said senior, Maddy Youngman.

For Youngman, these talks are amplified being in the National Guard right now.

She is planning to go to basic training after graduation.

“I mean, it's definitely eye opening. Like, it's something like I know, when I enlisted, it's something I had to think about," said Youngman when asked about pursing service after school and discussing the topic now in class.

Discussing war with a teacher who has been there and whose job it is to know and provide clarity on a subject is helpful, when other, faster news outlets don't always get the story right.

“Something you see on social media, if you see it at face value, you it's Oh, it's not always gonna be right. And so in school, I feel like they do a good job of teaching you the like, what's actually going on and underlying stuff," said senior Ethan Nunemaker.

So Wassel aims to always present information from both sides to let students draw their own conclusions based on the facts.

“You want them to come up with their own ideas on their own, you don't want to feel like you've just implanted that, and all they're doing is parroting what you said," said Wassel.

“It also does help you see like people's other sides like because like today there's like keyboard warriors, you know, that is their their way or like no way it helps us realize that like, people do have different topics and it's okay to have a different opinion," said Nunemaker.

“A lot of the teachers have trusted, like sources and like things that they know where to go to. So you can help figure out what is true and what's not true," said Youngman.

But is showing devastation and death too much for teenagers?

“There are some, there's some gruesome things that people do to one another. But just because it's ugly doesn't mean it's not the truth, it is something that is happening and is part of the human experience. In a kid's need to it's not that kids need to be exposed to violence. It's just that kids need to be exposed to the truth. Kids need to know what what is going on. They have you know, and it's not even that they need too, they have a right too," said Wassel.

Wassel wants parents to know they have a say too.

“And usually you don't get parents that email me and ask like, Hey, I can't believe you covered this. redact this controversial topic in class. How dare you? I mean, I've never I honestly can't think of an example of a parent that's done that. There's been times where I've asked parents, hey, look, you know, it's okay. If I show your kids. Is it okay? If I show your kids this? You know, film because it's kind of graphic or whatever. It'll tell them why. And here's the educational reason why," said Wassel. "You know, sometimes parents say no, and don't show my kids that, you know, the other parents will say, Yeah, it's fine. But, yeah, it's tricky. You know, it just requires it takes time and experience.”

The students realize they are learning tough stuff.

“I think teachers are a good way to help guide that rather than it getting out of hand or something like that. It's a good way to just be there to like, I guess, supervise those discussions," said Youngman.

“Not everything kind of stay peachy keen, this kind of stuff is going to happen and there's nothing we can do to stop it. It's just as long as we talk about it, and like raise awareness about it, we can help in even the most minute way," said Schaid.

When asked if kids are ever underestimated, Wassel said, “Yes, kids can be kind of written off, because people sometimes see their experiences as like, as, as meaningless.”

Wassel chooses to try and understand where his students are coming from.

The teacher strives to give them as a safe space to grow, and more importantly, the chance to develop their own voice.

“It's not that we have to experience what they're experiencing, we just have to understand that just because their problems are different, and they seem small to us, doesn't mean that they don't have anything meaningful to say, you know, they want to be heard," said Wassel.

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