Officials at St. Lawrence School in Greece recently designated the school as a peace site, meaning that its students, faculty, staff and parents are committed to resolving conflicts in nonviolent ways, said Joseph Holleran, principal.
The decision to make the school known as a peace site was prompted in part by the death of New York State Trooper Andrew J. Sperr. A St. Lawrence School alumnus, Sperr was killed in the line of duty March 1, 2006, in the Southern Tier town of Big Flats. Sperr’s death was one of the biggest news stories of the year, and thousands of mourners — including hundreds of law-enforcement officers — packed St. Lawrence Church for Sperr’s funeral.
Sperr’s death hit close to home for students at St. Lawrence, where classes were cancelled the day of his funeral to provide extra accommodations for the mourners. The school started a memorial scholarship fund and installed a memorial plaque, and the teachers have placed an added emphasis on teaching their students about public servants, Holleran said.
"In age-appropriate ways they’ve been looking at their own lives and looking at the community and what we receive from the community and law enforcement. They definitely know what it means to be of service to others and to put your life on the line," he said.
Sperr’s death was one news event that directly affected St. Lawrence students, but teachers at the school don’t need such a personal connection to help children understand the importance of most current events, Holleran said. Teachers try to weave current events into most subjects — especially science, social studies and religion — and help students understand how these news stories are relevant to their lives, he said.
"It’s constant. We have learned that if you don’t make the education and the instruction and the learning relevant to children, it’s not going to stay with them. They’ll learn it for the test or the fact that you want them to learn it, but it’s not going to be important to them. You also want them to be good Catholics and know the church’s stance," said Holleran, who also teaches sixth-grade science.
Holleran routinely uses newspaper articles about such current events as stem-cell and DNA research to engage his students in discussions. He said he tells his students they need to be informed about these topics because they are the decision-makers of tomorrow.
"You can get into some really good discussions with them. There are very few topics that they’re not aware of," Holleran said.
Sixth-grade teacher Kathleen Nelson encourages her students at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads to keep up to date with current events as well. Every Tuesday each student brings in a short summary of a news article they read in a newspaper or on a news Web site, or a news item they heard on the radio or television. Students can usually bring in a summary of any news event of their choosing, as long as it’s not sports or entertainment news, Nelson said.
The students also bring a short written reaction to their news item, and they take turns presenting their current events to the rest of the class. Many news stories — especially major world events and stories about local children — generate great group discussions, Nelson said.
"They like things they can relate to," she said. "They seem to enjoy it."
Todd Fleming, social-studies teacher at Rochester’s Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, also encourages students in his fifth- and sixth-grade classes to pay attention to what’s going on in the world around them. He discusses with his students current events as they occur, providing them with background information on the events and encouraging them to share their opinions, said Kathy Dougherty, principal.
Students in Melinda Tompkins’ third-grade class at the school conduct a daily student-led Morning Meeting, discussing current events and school news, and posting relevant news clippings on a bulletin board, Dougherty said. Most of the school’s teachers find ways to incorporate current events into their lessons, she noted, and students also learn about important events through daily messages over the school’s intercom system.
"Religion class is also an important time to incorporate the moral and ethical connections regarding many of our current events," Dougherty added.
Although the classroom might be the first place students hear about current events, many don’t leave their newfound knowledge at the classroom door when they go home. Catholic-school students often participate in service projects designed to help the victims of natural disasters and other tragedies or hardships. In 2005, for example, students at St. Mary School in Canandaigua left their bagged lunches at home one day and instead purchased peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, sending all the proceeds to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia.
Teachers must encourage such activities and discussions if they want children to understand the importance of learning about current events and how those events will affect them, Holleran said.
"I think the kids are old enough to start to understand and know what’s going on in the world around them," Nelson added. "It’s important that they have an idea of what kind of world they’re growing up in."