US schools prepare for war


  • Education
  • Sunday, 23 Feb 2003

By BEN FELLER

WHY do they hate us so much? Jenn Storck put the question to her 10th-grade government students, who were three-year-olds the last time the United States neared a war with Iraq. They tried to imagine the mindset of people in Saddam Hussein's land. 

“Their government has almost brainwashed them. They think the US is horrible and does all these evil things,'' said Amy Fries, 15. “I think the Iraqi people really don't know what to think by now. They're just confused.'' 

But Ross Godwin, 16, remembered the message from Three Kings – the George Clooney movie set during the 1991 Gulf War. Most Iraqis have no beef with the United States, he said. 

“Look at it from their perspective,'' Godwin said. “We've bombed them periodically throughout the last decade. We've gone to war with them. We've killed a lot of their people. In general, we've acted like a superior nation around the world.'' 

As US troops mount for battle and Americans absorb terrorism warnings, schools are preparing for war, too. Weapons of mass destruction have become a forum of class instruction, resonating so strongly with students that even some teachers are surprised. 

“I hear kids saying it: Will I have to go off to war?'' said Todd Wallingsford, who teaches high school civics and history in a Boston suburb. “There's more genuine interest in a current event than I've seen in a long time, and that's because it's really relevant to these kids. 9/11 was sort of something that happened to us, and now this is something that could really involve them.'' 

War curriculum  

Teachers say their mission is to help students understand and analyse a crisis that seems to shift topic, country, channel and colour code all the time. 

But as they talk of balancing civil liberties and military might, educators have a lot to balance themselves – weaving war into a curriculum geared toward standardised tests, preparing older students but reassuring younger ones, presenting balanced views of America's goals. 

“It's a hard issue to talk about, and when you take it into the classroom, you don't want to push one point of view,'' said Susan Graseck of Brown University, who has overseen the creation of Iraqi-conflict lesson plans used by more than 3,000 teachers. “That's not the point of public education. The point is to help them think more clearly about the issues and let them form their own opinions.'' 

Storck's advanced-placement students did not need much prodding. 

“I think people are being a little hard on Bush,'' said Claire Stein, a 15-year-old in the Thomas S. Wootton High School classroom. “He's sitting up there with this huge decision to make, and he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.'' 

Some students feel the same way, with school police officers nationwide warning that they are unprepared for terrorism and parents stockpiling emergency supplies. 

“We don't really understand. They're making contingency plans, but what are they doing?'' said Mitchell Lerner, 16. “We weren't alive during the Cold War threat, so we don't know how real it really is.'' 

It is real enough for some students to see a human face in this conflict – their own, or at least those of their older siblings and friends. 

“A lot of us have friends who are 18,'' said Miriam Yavener, 15. “If the draft gets reinstated, life could change a lot.'' 

It is important for students to understand the costs of war, including death tolls on all sides, said James McGrath Morris, who teaches social studies in Springfield, Virginia. 

Morris helped create a national curriculum on the Sept 11 attacks, from a historical perspective. 

“I want them to focus on the politics and the government, on who makes decisions,'' Morris said. “I want them to see that the power of the presidency grows in these moments and doesn't always shrink after. It's an opportunity to help create better citizens.'' 

 

Lesson not in a textbook  

But what message to send? This lesson is not in a textbook, and the same flexibility and innovation that lead to teaching success can also open educators to criticism. 

What is critical is balance, said Charles Haynes, who works with schools as a scholar for the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Virginia. 

“I don't mean giving equal time to Saddam Hussein's point of view,'' Haynes said. “But I do mean where there is debate in this country, teachers must teach that controversy. When they veer off to the right or the left, then a teacher has violated a trust. It doesn't happen visibly very often, but when that door is closed, who knows what goes on?'' 

In essence, the Iraqi conflict, depicted as an extension of the war on terrorism, may reopen the same touchy debate about how teachers responded to the Sept 11 anniversary. 

Teachers have an obligation to do more than elicit debate among students, said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education reform group. They must also help them understand why American values are worth defending even in war, he said. 

“There's a fine line between helping kids understand and telling them what to think, and good teachers do a good job on that line,'' Finn said. “But on matters of profound national interest, I don't think it's a sin to slip a little over the line, to tell them this is a better country than most and democracy is better than anything most people have tried.'' What is taught may reflect as much about a region as anything else. 

In the San Francisco Bay area, school boards in at least three districts passed resolutions encouraging school debate about the causes and consequences of war. 

Oakland, one of those districts, altered the anti-war tone of its message after some leaders pushed for neutrality. Intended for middle and high school students, the effort was broadened to include younger students, said Dan Siegel, an Oakland School board member. 

“We literally had kindergarten teachers come up to us and say, 'Look, after 9/11, we want to know this,' '' Siegel said. 

 

Stress signals  

The mood differs in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where about a third of the students in Cumberland County are military dependents. The neighbouring army base, Fort Bragg, had sent at least 6,000 troops in connection to the conflict. 

Counsellors are watching for signs of stress among military-connected students and preparing to work with caretakers if both of a child's parents are sent to war. 

“I can tell you we are a very patriotic community, and if our president says this is what's necessary for our well-being, we try to support his viewpoint,'' said Robin Tatum, the counsellor coordinator. “But as a school system, our focus is on supporting those families.'' 

Just finding time to teach war is the chore for some teachers because they must cover the topics students will face on increasingly important standardised tests. But such effort will pay off, said Cricket Kidwell, who oversees the curriculum for Trinity County schools in the northern California mountains. 

“It's time we bring young people into the national dialogue,'' she said. “I think if there's one thing all history and social science teachers agree on, it is that we have a democracy that allows for participation. And that begins in the classroom.'' – AP  

THEIR VIEWS 

American students, teachers and education advocates talk about dealing with the possibility of war with Iraq: 

 

“In World War II, people were passionate about fighting. It was about a righteous cause, and we were trying to stop evil from spreading. This one seems to be because we're afraid.'' – Ross Godwin, 16, a sophomore at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland. 

 

“It's a moment to teach about American democracy. Consider the very fact that these discussions are happening in schools about places where people can't even talk openly within their own families.'' – Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. 

 

“Bombing them won't do any good, because Saddam Hussein obviously doesn't care about his constituents any more than he does about us.'' – Leah Pine, 15, a sophomore at Wootton High School and member of a peace advocacy group in Rockville, Maryland. 

 

“I don't think we ought to have a loyalty test for teachers. But I think it's incumbent on teachers to help kids understand what patriotism is grounded in, and why teachers tend to want to come to America.'' – Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

 

“The Iraqi people are not all anti-American. And if there's an anti-American government with weapons of mass destruction, that's far more dangerous than people who are anti-American.'' – Miriam Yavener, 15, a sophomore at Wootton High School. 

 

“The draft scares them. Even though I've told them 1,500 times they're too young, it still is something that's on the forefront of their minds.'' – Jenn Storck, teacher of advanced-placement government at Wootton High School. – AP 

 

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