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Teaching Government to today’s Petaluma high schoolers

Adults make a lot of negative assumptions about teenagers. What do you have to day about today’s generation of high school students?

Andrew: “Teens get a worse rap than they deserve.”

Kevin: “We definitely get to see a different perspective of the students. They are much better people than most adults think.”

U.S. Government teachers Kevin Jackson and Andrew Aja co-teach Student Leadership at Petaluma High School, and are able to offer insights about the “mood” of their students during this challenging time in our Nation’s political history.

“They know that they are living with a government created by and for their grandparents,” Kevin says, “and are very aware that since most students are too young to vote, politicians ignore young people.”

Andrew adds, “We did a survey of the students regarding their political spectrum before last year’s election. Two-thirds identified as Liberal, 20% as Conservative, and the remaining 10% called themselves Libertarians. It’s pretty much a reflection of where they live and what their parents do for a living, and is a consistent pattern. Both of my parents are retired teachers, and so going into education was a natural thing for me. Kevin is a Petalulma High grad, and so is my dad — but I went to Casa.”

Kevin explains, “Except for going to college in Southern California, and a job renting cars for Enterprise, I’ve lived here all of my life. My wife, Shereen, teaches English and Human Interaction to Petaluma High freshmen, and my son just started pre-K in town.”

Kevin and Andrew attended SSU for their teaching credentials, and both of them student-taught at Petaluma High.

“David Stirrat — Petaluma High’s current Principal — guided both of us,” Andrew says, “and Kevin was my site-mentor when I was a student teacher.”

The 2016/2017 school year, of course, started in the middle of a Presidential election cycle. Kevin noes that at the beginning of last year, most students had already chosen their candidate.

“Many were entrenched in support and opposition,” he recalls, “so the Wednesday morning after the election, we became counselors of sorts.”

“We did triage,” Andrew continues, “to explain that this is our system of government, and the important thing is to stay involved. Since then, it seems to me that things are getting much more contentious.”

“One of the problems,” Kevin notes, “is that students get most of their information through social media, and comments from their Petaluma friends as well as ‘friends’ in cyberspace. We spend a lot of class time emphasizing source credibility and examining varied viewpoints. Charlottesville was a flash point. When the President shifted away from his teleprompter script, students kept looking to me for structure.”

He points out that Government class is one of the “weird spots” where students’ personal belief systems and their cultural and family upbringing, all bump up against, and overlap with, their teacher’s job of explaining, clearly and objectively, the way the U.S. government works.

“We can put things in historical context, but in a climate like we have now, students need to be clear about their core values,” Kevin says. “I’ve seen firsthand how capable they are in making thoughtful, informed decisions.”

“This showed up in a class essay assignment,” Andrew adds. “We offered the kids a choice of doing a college entrance form or writing a personal essay about what they wanted to do in the future. Essentially, both choices asked, ‘What are your goals?’ But the college application offered a tangible reward — the completed application — that the essay alone did not. To our surprise, almost all the students chose to write the college entrance form.”

Adults make a lot of negative assumptions about teenagers. What do you have to day about today’s generation of high school students?

Andrew: “Teens get a worse rap than they deserve.”

Kevin: “We definitely get to see a different perspective of the students. They are much better people than most adults think.”

(Contact Gil at gilmansergh@comcast.net)