BHS students get a dose of reality

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BRUNSWICK — Every teacher hopes their students will learn the three R’s: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic.

But Pam Wagner of Brunswick High School wants to teach a fourth: “real” – as in real-life skills.

In addition to knowing their history, Wagner wants students to graduate with the skills to navigate the contemporary world around them: from choosing a degree to budgeting for an apartment – even discussing this year’s wild election season.

“A lot of stuff we do in the classroom helps (students) with all those skills – those good critical thinking skills,” Wagner explained. “But the practicality of living day- to-day: that’s the part you need to have.”

Wagner has taught in Brunswick for 13 years and chairs the social studies department. In addition to teaching four European history classes this year, she is teaching a brand-new class this semester that focuses on practical topics: Economic Skills.

Twenty-two juniors and seniors – only three of them girls, Wagner noted – enrolled in the class, where they have so far learned to research the kinds and respective costs of post-secondary education, write a cover letter, and fill out a job application.

Later on this semester, they will venture farther, and get familiar with skills they will eventually need: budgeting for living expenses, hunting for an apartment, and planning for a family. Wagner said the class will even venture into late-in-life economic realities, like budgeting for a medical complication or the loss of a spouse.

But this week, her class hasn’t quite made it past their college graduation.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the class traveled to the Salvation Army on Pleasant Street with the task of finding appropriate interview clothing on a budget. To the students’ surprise, the Salvation Army generously donated almost $150 worth of clothing in support of the project.

Student shopped for outfits to prepare for this past Wednesday and this Friday, when students practice interviews for a hypothetical job with Brunswick employers like Becky Shepard from Wild’s Oats and Tony Sachs of Big Top Deli. 

“Relevant experience are things (students) remember the most,” said Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, who will conduct mock interviews this Friday.

Relevancy was on Wagner’s mind when she had the idea for the Economic Skills course over a decade ago while teaching in another district; she was inspired by the blank stares she would receive from students at the mention of economic terms like “opportunity cost.” 

Now a month into the course, those blank stares have turned into “holy craps” – the students’ astonishment at hard realities, like the cost of education and student debt. 

“Real life” subjects aren’t confined to Wagner’s Economic Skills class: she begins all of her classes – even history classes – with a discussion of current events.

“You should know about what’s on the front page of the paper,” Wagner said.

But current headlines have made Wagner’s job a challenge, especially given the disparaging and even lewd political rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election.

“The political climate more than anything has caused us to pause,” Wagner said. However, coarse language, accusations of bigotry, and scandals have not stopped her from turning today’s political reality into a teaching moment. “This is in the news and this is your venue to talk about it,” she tells students.

“Our kids are growing up in a shock-and-awe video age,” Wagner added. But she hopes to use the antics and offenses of campaign moments to “draw (students) away from a ‘Ha, ha he said whatever'” reaction and into a substantive discussion.

In fact, teaching students how to discuss sensitive topics respectfully was the subject of Perzanoski’s convocation speech to Brunswick staff and faculty this September.

“What do we tell our kids when they walk in the door?” Perzanoski said Tuesday about the pressing question at the core of his address.

He said that today’s political atmosphere has exacerbated his frustration on the subject, which has “been plucking my one last nerve for some time.”

“It’s very important that we (as educators) don’t lose sight of what’s right and to make sure we are continuing to discuss the aspects of civil behavior and the importance of telling the truth.”

Wagner guides her students through challenging conversations by laying ground rules.

“What I always say to the kids (is): what are the two sides, or the multiple sides,”  in the event a students fears raising a point of view that may be politically incorrect. “You are answering the question; you are not necessarily saying this is the side you agree with.” 

“By giving them the ability to (speak freely),” she went on, “they can actually be a part of the discourse.”

“I think it’s important that that they have a venue to express their views,” Perzanoski agreed.

Wagner calls up skills her students have already learned in her history classes to understand the present political climate. She reminds students that when they study a historical document, they always consider who wrote it, and what may have motivated the author’s point of view.

In this sense, Wagner likened teaching primary source material to basic media literacy: she encourages students to treat what they hear across a spectrum of outlets – from MSNBC to Fox News – with the same kind of skepticism.

She hopes that in doing so, her students will uncover the implicit assumptions that politicians, pundits, and the students themselves make in reaching a conclusion.

“I have had parents question what I do in class,” Wagner said, but she has yet to hear any criticism from parents about her curriculum during this year’s presidential election.

Though she has at times been prompted to “take a step back and question what (she’s) doing,” she has yet to censor any curriculum that she believes will make her students “contributing members of society.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A bulletin board full of political bumper stickers has a prominent place in Pam Wagner’s classroom at Brunswick High School. Each of her classes begins with a conversation about current events, but Wagner said the offensive nature of this year’s presidential election has given her pause.

Brunswick High School students in Pam Wagner’s Economic Skills class search for job interview outfits on a budget Oct. 6 at the Salvation Army on Pleasant Street. The Salvation army donated $140 worth of clothes to the class, which is designed to teach students real life skills.

Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.