Teacher Talk

'I've taught in the Bible Belt of the US, but I find I'm given a lot of freedom in my classroom'
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The Independent Online

Heather Panahi teaches at the private Dana Hall School in Massachusetts, USA, specialising in political science, economics, US history and public speaking. She took pupils representing their country to the J8 summit in Edinburgh where 14- to 16 year-olds from the G8 countries convened to brainstorm and present a communiqué detailing their thoughts on G8 issues to Tony Blair.

What differences have you found between your students and those from other countries?

Regardless of where the students come from, they tend to share similar views. Concerning matters like climate change, I think there's a universal, environmental ethic. In the US, while the administration is slow to acknowledge global warming, young people are more aware. At my school, it's the young people who drive the recycling programmes. Our young people have connected with their foreign counterparts on these issues. They feel a strong sense of responsibility yet still exhibit a certain innocence.

How do your students' views compare with those of their government?

The students represent a wide spectrum of political opinion. Among my students are the leader of the Massachusetts branch of the Young Republicans and the head of our school gay/lesbian/transgender group, yet we have been able to foster a community where girls can express their ideas. Nonetheless, the Republican contingent is quite small and students supporting Bush at the elections were reluctant to celebrate as they didn't know how fellow students would respond.

Is there any focus on teaching about poverty, the environment and other G8 matters within your school?

There is a very teacher-driven push to incorporate these subjects into all aspects of learning. We teachers are sharing information and strategies and are able to complement each other's efforts. There's a lot of overlap in how these themes apply to various areas within education and I have pupils in history classes telling me how they studied a similar thing in science. We also have course options on African, Russian and East-Asian history as well as a very popular Middle-Eastern studies course. Our extra-curricular Model UN and Model Arab League societies are active, too.

Do you experience any external pressure from groups such as creationist science factions or Republican student bodies trying to impress controversial values on education?

I've taught in the Southern "Bible Belt" of the US and know about that sort of thing but I find that I'm given a lot of freedom in my classroom. Although the extremists on both sides get a lot of press, most of America is in the middle. My school is an open place.

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