Obviously the news today is about Nelson Mandela, as it should be. I feel like saying anything about him other than "thank you" is unwise. Just open a window, or turn on the TV, and you'll hear a better version than any that I could write.
On to business. How can I tie this titan of a public figure in with education? Pretty easily, actually, and from my own experience.
I was in sixth grade when apartheid ended, and I was in a class that was trying something unusual. Every morning, right after the anthem, we would watch the news. It was prerecorded by our teacher on a VHS cassette with the commercials removed. He did this every morning at home, brought the tape to class, played it for us, and then we'd discuss it. Over the course of that year I watched the Berlin Wall fall, watched Eastern Europe democratize itself, watched the Soviet Union collapse, and yes, watched South Africa make maybe the biggest about-face in the history of peacetime. It's hard to think of another year in anyone's living memory when so much happened in so many places that changed the way the world was. 1945 is the only other year that's even in the same league, I think. If you're younger than 23, understand this: 1990 wasn't a different time. It was a different planet.
Anyway. Education. The genius of this daily practice of watching the news is that no one knew at the start of the year that any of this was going to happen. All my teacher knew was that children become adults, and adults need to care about the world, and caring starts by knowing. He didn't know from day to day who would be in the news (to be fair, the same could be said for the actual people in the news). He didn't know what the lead story would be, or how it could be tied into a curriculum objective. He just knew that it mattered, and trusted that he could sort the rest of it out as he went.
I never had that sort of classroom experience before or since, and I don't know anyone outside that class who ever had it, and that's pretty sad. It was such an easy thing to do - the headlines and discussion together were usually 30 minutes - and yet that period of the day is almost the only thing I remember about that year. I remember seeing the news, and then talking about it - what does it mean? How does it make you feel? Do you think they made the right decision? What do you think will happen next? I remember being asked to think about what I was hearing and to decide if I thought it was accurate. I remember combing through political atlases at home, not because of an assignment, but because I wanted a strong mental picture of the places I was hearing about.
If you asked me what I learned from elementary school that I still use today, that's the winner. I'd struggle to even think of a second place. And so I wonder: how many sixth grade classrooms watched the news this morning, and then talked about it? How many children asked who Nelson Mandela was, or why we as a people let apartheid go on for as long as we did? I know it's not on the curriculum, but I still think it's a good conversation to have.