Lessons from the League School
I enjoy teaching social studies with a particular preference
for aviation history. In my classroom social studies
themes found their way into other subject areas. One
multiplication lesson incorporated the first leaps of
the Wright Flyer and a biography of Amelia Earhart launched
a month of language arts activities. My propensity for
historical analogy was in the mind of the League School
administration when I was asked to develop and teach
a social studies program for the entire student body.
League is a school for children with a classification
of serious emotional disturbances who are too impaired
to have succeeded in Board of Education schools.
After a few sweaty days clearing
out a neglected storage room in the school’s
basement, I decorated the walls with presidents, civil
rights leaders, explorers, maps and, of course, airplanes.
The social studies department had a classroom now.
Our individualized curriculum was theme oriented and
the administration gave me the freedom to choose such
a theme, but how was I to make the students care about
their history? Where was I to start?
From the countless heroes
of American history, the victories of our nation’s first African-American fighter
pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, are of paramount inspiration
to me. My heart would almost race when I imagined myself
soaring along with them at the controls of one of their
famous red-tailed Mustangs. If I could feel it, then
so could my students. I decided to include Airmen’s
story among the first themes I taught.
As an experienced teacher,
I knew making the information relevant to the students’ lives would ensure their
involvement. The Tuskegee pilots’ plight was a
dual war against prejudice on the ground and the German
Air Force in the sky. Discrimination was an obstacle
many of my students faced daily and courage under fire
was called for in combat much as it is growing up in
an often hostile urban environment. The idea of being
stifled by low societal expectations was also something
they understood well and here were people who, generations
before had transcended the limits others had imposed
upon them. These pilots’ exploits did more than
protect American bombers en route to axis targets; they
provided our country with evidence that given opportunities,
African-Americans could excel at far more than the menial
pursuits generally afforded them.
One morning my students were
greeted with something other than a textbook or a chalkboard
full of rote facts. A poster of Tuskegee Airman C.
D. Lester’s red-tailed
P-51 Mustang in pursuit of a burning Nazi warplane hung
over the chalkboard. Upon entering the classroom, the
students’ attention was caught by the colorful
illustration. When they read aloud I had written below, “What
would a blonde German fighter pilot who believed that
he was a Superman have thought if he knew it was an African-American
who had bested him in the air?” A lively discussion
Replies included, “What made him think he was
better?” They remained silent—a rare pleasure—as
I explained Hitler’s Germany.
My question, “How did it feel to return to America,
the country you had fought for, and find many doors of
opportunity still closed to you because of the color
of your skin?” spawned debate about issues of segregation
and civil rights.
History provides an endless
and ever expanding supply of heroes, villains and struggles
to grab any student’s
imagination. I look forward to many years of baiting
my students with such elements and reeling them in before
they even realize they are learning history from the
Jason Gorbel, MSEd is a
social studies teacher in Brooklyn’s League
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