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Teacher's stories from Brussels makes schoolwork relevant

September 18, 2023 11:57 AM

One of the biggest challenges in most high school classes is to get the students’ interest and hold their attention. But that hasn’t been the case for MHS social studies teacher Neil McCarthy.

After spending part of his summer on a foreign policy-themed scholarship program to Brussels, the capital of the European Union, he’s telling students about how he met ambassadors who are trying to negotiate a peace in the continuing war in Ukraine. His stories and the continuing events have completely captured the attention of students in both his World Studies and AP European History classes.

“This is what I loved about this program. I could apply what I was learning there,” he said. “The only way to make sense of our crazy, complex world and really analyze things is to go to its roots, its origins, its history, to make sense of it. So I try to start out with a current event in my classes to hook students and to try to make history relevant.”

McCarthy’s trip was a full-paid scholarship program for teachers, courtesy of the University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina and funds from the European Union. He went to seminars and panels along with 29 other U.S. teachers to learn about foreign policy. He visited sites like Parliament and NATO headquarters and met Supreme Court clerks, journalists and three-star generals.

He even met EU representatives to Kiev and Moscow, the very people who were trying to negotiate a peace. They were right in the middle of one of the most important international issues in recent times.

McCarthy brought his new-found perspective back to the classroom. At the beginning of the school year, he asked students what the biggest news story of the summer was. A majority of them answered Russia and its war with Ukraine. That’s when he told them the story that unfolded the same day he had spoken to the representatives to Kiev and Moscow.

“They had just received intelligence that morning that something was afoot in Russia,” McCarthy said.

Sure enough, later that evening in June, the group of teachers learned that a chaotic armed rebellion had threatened the longstanding leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The coup was led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the paramilitary Wagner Group. Prigozhin would be killed along with nine others in a plane crash about 10 days into the new school year.

“Once I told that story in class, the kids were totally into it. One of the kids had just heard about the plane crash that killed Prigozhin.”

In almost every class, McCarthy has students from both Russia and the Ukraine. While they add to the discussion, they’re respectful to one another.

“These are traumatic stories for them. One student talked about his grandmother being displaced from her home because of a bombing and how he loses sleep over it. It’s real, and these kids are paying attention.”

McCarthy said the experience in Brussels gave him a front seat at some of the most important current issues of our times. Now that he’s back telling the stories from his trip, his students are truly paying attention.

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