Teaching about the Opioid Crisis in Public Schools: Bringing Community Problems into the Classroom

Shawna Hulsey an intern from University of California-Berkeley assisted in the preparation of this blog.

The opioid crisis has swept across Appalachia and it keeps getting worse; that’s no secret. At the recent annual conference of the Appalachian Higher Education Network’s, all 120 attendees stood when asked “Is there an opioid problem in your community?" Of course, this problem is now rampant across the country.

Would it be useful to engage high school students in Appalachia through classroom lessons about the ongoing crisis? At South Webster Junior-Senior High, a 650 student school in the village of South Webster within Scioto County Ohio, they did exactly that.

In the summer of 2016, history teacher Cyndy Hykes read Sam Quinones’ award winning book Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opioid Epidemic. She thought it provided valuable insight about the outside forces shaping the opioid crisis in their community and explained why the author deemed Appalachia the canary in our societal coal mine for opioids. Hykes immediately shared the book with the English teacher, Judy Ellsesser, and proposed Dreamland as the topic for the cross-curricular unit they teach after the winter break. An advocate of problem-based learning, Ellsesser immediately saw the possibilities.

Throughout the summer, the two teachers discussed how to go about teaching the material. They knew that with the right approach it could be extremely impactful because Dreamland begins in the county seat of Scioto County - Portsmouth, Ohio - which is a little more than a half hour from South Webster. When the time came they taught the material to 30 students in the junior class, impressively doing so with only 5 copies of the book due to budget constraints.

The teachers were determined to make it work, sharing the few books among students, utilizing online resources and even reading sections of the book aloud. Since this was a cross-curricular unit it included lessons through the lens of multiple subjects. During English class, Ellsesser worked through the text with the students, thinking critically about the information. Then with Hykes in history, the students learned more about the political side of the crisis and the policies affecting the epidemic; they also learned about how they could get involved. The math teacher, Matthew Whitt, was also involved. He helped students analyze and understand the statistical information in the book documenting opioid use and deaths.

The opioid epidemic isn’t something that’s in the standards or that you’ll find on a state test, but as Hykes says, “It is real life stuff that shows students how these things shape their life and how they can have a role in it.”

In order to broaden the students’ thinking about the crisis, the teachers brought in guest speakers from the community.

A judge spoke about the babies in local hospitals that are born addicted and the spike in foster care, as children are being taken away from families due to drug abuse. He also spoke about his efforts in setting up a drug court, focused on rehabilitation not just punishment.

Representatives of Congressman Bill Johnson and Senator Rob Portman helped the students understand how the politics in Washington, D.C. affect what is going on in South Webster. They talked about how the students can make their voices heard, even if they are not of voting age.

A former South Webster high school student, now a teacher’s aide at the school, spoke about his brother’s struggles with addiction and about what it is like to be the family member of an addict, highlighting the ups and downs of supporting his brother on his road to recovery.

And of course students had their own experiences to share.

Students were also assigned to create public service announcements that were either audio-only or videos. Technically, this was an assignment, but as the teachers recall it was something the students wanted to do, not one more thing to check off the list. The students took the issue further, staying engaged with local politics around opioids, and planning on volunteering at the local hospital over the summer to hold babies born into addiction.

Ellsesser said, “The whole thrust was to drive home the point that addicts are not just losers. There are extenuating circumstances and if people really want to help the situation they have to look beyond the branding and stereotypes.” That is exactly what these students got: an opportunity to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it directly to their everyday life.

You might expect that teaching 16 and 17 year-olds about a drug crisis would bring community opposition, but the teachers at South Webster are unaware of any issues. Hykes said, “The principal is very supportive about anything we [teachers] get excited about; he trusts us as professionals.” Ellsesser added, “The principal was willing to run interference if needed.” They felt that the community was supportive of the topic being taught because they are all deeply affected by the opioid problem.

Ellsesser has every intention of teaching the unit again, reading the book, bringing in more speakers and continuing to expand the impact this topic can have on students, their lives and their community. Both teachers saw this unit as a way to tear down the walls of the classroom and create a flow of information that went not only from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher and into the community.

These teachers witnessed an uncommon phenomenon: students were as eager to learn as teachers were to teach. Their experience argues that bringing problem-based learning into schools may just be one answer to the challenges of student engagement.

By directly addressing the tough issues that students are experiencing in the community in the core of the curriculum – using community as text for learning educators will find new ways to make learning student-centered.

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