- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

As U.S. troops mount for battle and Americans absorb terrorism warnings, schools are preparing for war, too. Weapons of mass destruction have become the subject of classroom instruction, resonating so strongly with students that even some teachers are surprised.
Jenn Storck, who teaches government to 10th graders at Rockville's Thomas S. Wootton High School, asked her students why America is such a lightning rod for people in the Middle East especially in countries like Iraq.
"Their government has almost brainwashed them. They think the U.S. 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 Persian Gulf war. Most Iraqis have no beef with the United States, he said.
"Look at it from their perspective," Ross 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."
Teachers say their mission is to help students understand and analyze a crisis that seems to shift topic, country, channel and color code all the time.
"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. [September 11] was sort of something that happened to us, and now this is something that could really involve them.
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 standardized 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."
Mrs. 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 in Rockville. "He's sitting up there with this huge decision to make."
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 Wootton student 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 classmate 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.
Mr. Morris helped create a national curriculum on the September 11 attacks from a historical perspective.
"I want them to focus on the politics and the government, on who makes decisions," Mr. 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."
But what message to send? This lesson is not in a textbook, and the flexibility and innovation that lead to teaching success also can 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.
"I don't mean giving equal time to Saddam Hussein's point of view," Mr. 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 Iraq conflict, depicted as an extension of the war on terrorism, may reopen the same touchy debate about how teachers responded to the September 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 based in Dayton, Ohio. They also must 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," Mr. 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,'" Mr. Siegel said.
The mood differs in Fayetteville, N.C., where about a third of the students in the Cumberland County district are military dependents. The neighboring Army base, Fort Bragg, has deployed at least 6,000 troops expected to play a role in the conflict.
Counselors are watching for signs of stress among military-connected students and preparing to work with caretakers if both parents of a child 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, a counselor 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 standardized tests.
But such effort will pay off, said Cricket Kidwell, who oversees 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."


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