From candy corn to the Holocaust: Ledyard's history electives popular

Ledyard For students taking the newest electives at Ledyard High School, the academic year opened with death and candy.

More students signed up for the school's new 20th Century American Pop Culture and Genocide classes than the school was able to accommodate, said Principal Amanda Fagan. The half-credit electives are designed to continue social studies education into students' senior year, even though seniors are no longer required to take a class in that subject area.

An enthusiastic team of teachers - three for each subject - got creative when designing the new curriculum. While students in one class prepared for a semester of war crime case studies by reading the Geneva Convention's definition of genocide, the kids in the pop culture class were trying to guess which decade gave birth to (or brought popularity to) certain types of candy.

Candy corn, explained pop culture teacher Liz Dubreuil, took off in the 1950s with trick-or-treating, while pop rocks were popular in the drug-fueled 1970s.

The class of 2015 will be the first that isn't required to take the half-year government class, explained Fagan. Four years ago, the LHS social studies department began phasing that course out in favor of a year-long sophomore civics class. They also combined two years of U.S. history into one yearlong course.

Last year, teachers came up with a number of potential new electives and asked the then-juniors to vote on which courses sounded most interesting. Although the list included classes such as women's studies, local history, ancient religion and Native American history, the teenagers "overwhelmingly" chose pop culture and genocide, said Fagan.

Fagan said she hopes the school will be able to continue offering electives like these in future years. She sees them as "trend-setting courses that follow kids' interests and challenge them intellectually."

Students in the pop culture course will have plenty of fun, according to Dubreuil. For one assignment, students put together a collage representing the culture of the modern teenager, complete with iPhones, Netflix and celebrities.

They'll take the 15 elements of pop culture they used to create those posters - which include music, movies, fashion, technology and social movements, among other things - and carry them through each decade from the 1920s to the present.

In an upcoming a "roaring 20s" party, students will wear masks with the faces of famous people from that decade and interview each other to determine who they are.

But the class isn't all costumes, collages and candy - as they hit the 1930s, students will have to prepare a budget for the Great Depression. They also will be required to add several events per decade to an interactive online timeline and complete a cumulative project on one element of pop culture.

It's easy to see why teenagers might want to take a class about pop culture, but even the students themselves seem unable to articulate why they chose to study genocide, said their teachers, Jennifer O'Brien and Nina Bumpus. They said they hope students will be better able to explain their interest by the end of the semester.

Fagan didn't seem very surprised by the new class' popularity, however.

"This group of kids is very aware of the big picture," said Fagan.

She said the LHS student body has a long history of human rights advocacy: The school boasts an Amnesty International chapter, a club called Cupcakes & Causes that involves eating cupcakes and discussing social causes and an organization called Youth United for Global Action.

And students discuss the Rwanda genocide in ninth grade, said Bumpus, which affects many of them.

"They're annoyed by the international response, or lack thereof," Bumpus said.

In the genocide course, students will examine several case studies, she said, including the Holocaust and events in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia and Sudan. They will finish the class by discussing ongoing situations such as the current crisis in Syria.

Bumpus said students will use selected readings to learn about the conflicts and weigh issues of state sovereignty against war crimes. The also will discuss how to prevent future genocides and the role of the United States in foreign conflicts.

The class, said O'Brien, will "not just focus on the darkness of genocide, but focus on survivor stories." She said the school has connections to Holocaust and Cambodian genocide survivors and hopes the school can bring them in to speak to students.

k.catalfamo@theday.com
Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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