For North Salem High School government teacher, a year full of teachable moments

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Jan. 22, 2021 2 p.m.

One high school government teacher reflects on this unprecedented year.

Forget January. North Salem High School teacher Sarah Cowan said the whole last year has been “extra crazy” as a government teacher.

“I both love and loathe it,” Cowan said.

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Teaching right now is surreal, with current, “unprecedented” events happening all the time. In her virtual classroom, Cowan tries to tie everything back to the curriculum.

This week, because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, her students read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Then, because of the inauguration, she taught the 20th amendment.

A sign that reads "inauguration day" with a countdown.

When North Salem High School's Sarah Cowan teaches virtual government class, this countdown hangs behind her. Previously, it had been counting down to the 2020 election. Then it counted down to the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Courtesy of Sarah Cowan

But with the unpredictable events — like the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol — Cowan finds herself encouraging her students to just watch and pay attention.

“At some points, you just have to let them watch, and understand, and let them process what’s going on,” Cowan said.

On that day earlier this month, she stopped class to watch the news coverage. She stopped giving analysis so her students could watch the events unfold, and take it all in.

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry shared a message with staff after the 6th too, encouraging teachers to engage with their students, as events erupted around them.

“The well-being of our students is forefront in our thoughts. We know that students of all ages will have seen images of violence and unrest on the television, their cell phones, or through other media,” said Perry in her statement.

“Our students will need us to help make sense of these events, to listen to their concerns, and to model our commitment to freedom of speech, diversity, and equity.”

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Politics is a part of the class and conversations, with Cowan having her students take a political ideology quiz throughout the year, to chart students’ opinions and how they change over time, with more knowledge.

But sometimes, talking politics can get political. Cowan recalled one negative incident in her classroom earlier this year.

“I had a parent pretend to be their child,” Cowan said. The student’s camera was turned off, and the class was talking about federalism — what responsibilities are up to the federal government, and what responsibilities are up to states.

“Understanding the power of a governor versus power of a president, that got onto Kate Brown and mask mandate, and infringement of civil rights,” Cowan said.

“I didn’t realize this until after — but it was dad who was actively participating in the chat.”

She said he was unhappy with the state’s mask mandate.

“I was angry because it completely hijacked my class,” Cowan said.

“That’s not fair to the kids.”

But despite the uniqueness of teaching this year, Cowan is still giving her students the time to listen and pay attention to history as it happens — it just looks different these days.

Four years ago, Cowan said she hosted a viewing party in her classroom, with about 80 kids showing up to watch President Donald Trump’s inauguration. She heard from students nervous about their families’ safety, or their immigration status.

Wednesday, for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, she hosted a virtual viewing party. Some showed up, asking questions about the White House, or the Secret Service.

She said the hardest thing for her students to grasp is understanding “how historical this stuff is that they’re living through.”

It reminds her of a meme going around the internet and on Tik Tok.

In the video, a voice says, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m sick and tired of living through major historical events.”

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