Learning from the Past, Talking About the Present

A fourth-grade teacher reflects on her own schooling and poses hard questions to her students about the war. One student said kids need to have a chance to talk about the fears and worries that they have about the war.

By Kelley Dawson

I was a high school senior in Dearborn, Mich., during the Gulf War in 1991. We did not talk about the war at school. I remember feeling confused about why the war was happening, but I don’t remember learning what was behind it. I remember my classmates making comments like, “We have to get the Arabs” (this in a school district that is now majority Arab-American), but I don’t remember anyone intervening to explain what was wrong with the hate and xenophobia in those comments.

Now the United States is winding down a second war against Iraq, and I am a fourth-grade teacher trying to help my students examine world events and the role the United States plays in them.

Some people think teachers should not teach about such controversial issues like war. Some principals instruct teachers not to teach about the war, and others create a school culture that convinces teachers that war and other “political” issues are taboo in the classroom.

As the United States was gearing up to attack Iraq, I had a discussion with my students to find out what they thought.

As part of our morning routine we share news from the children’s lives as well as local and world news. In addition to our morning discussion time, we had spent several social studies lessons studying the crisis in Iraq, discussing what factors led to the current conflict, and listening to diverse perspectives on the impending war from people around the world.

One morning I shared a new piece of local news with students. At the request of a group of high school students, Milwaukee Public School Board Director Jennifer Morales had introduced a resolution requiring all intermediate and high schools in our district to dedicate at least one class period and one after-school event to studying the Iraq crisis. The resolution specified that age-appropriate materials be used and that diverse perspectives on the issue be explored in classrooms.

I asked my students whether they thought it was good for kids to study the war in school. In order to bring out a variety of opinions on the issue, I asked: “What are some reasons why students should learn about the war in school, and what are some reasons why students should not learn about the war in school?” We made a T-chart and listed their responses.

One reason students shared for not learning about the war in school was that it would scare kids. We discussed this a bit and the students disagreed on what age was “old enough” to learn about the war and not feel scared. Several students said five or six years old was too young, and one said that it was scary for her even at age nine. One student commented that kids should not learn about or even think about war because they would become too focused on violence and would want to make war when they grew up. One student suggested that families could inform their own children about the war.

Equally interesting reasons emerged for why students thought they should learn about the war in school. One student raised the idea that students and families need to know about the war in order to prepare for an attack on their homes or school. At least two students mentioned a lack of information at home: One student said that not all kids get newspapers or watch TV news, and another said that not all parents talk with their children about the war. One student suggested that if students learn about the war, they might be able to learn how to stop the war or how to avoid wars in the future. Another student said that kids need to have a chance to talk about the fears and worries that they have about the war.

At the end of our discussion I asked a final question: “What would happen if students did not study the war in school and if teachers never talked about it?”

Their comments convinced me to keep teaching about the war: “Kids won’t know what’s happening.” “Kids will be scared.” “Kids will think it’s O.K. to go to war.” “Kids are going to hate the people from the Middle East.” “Kids will grow up hating, and it will not matter to them if there are wars.” “Kids are going to think that death and war are good and normal.”

People who argue that we should not teach about “political” issues need to realize that our silence on these issues teaches, too.

The silence of my high school teachers taught me that it was acceptable not to be informed about why the United States was waging war on Iraq, and that is was O.K. not to have an opinion. Their silence taught me that hating foreigners was O.K. and that hateful actions toward Arab Americans were normal in the midst of a war against Arabs in the Middle East.

It takes courage to teach about controversial current issues. But what if we don’t?

Kelley Dawson (skoolied@yahoo.com) teaches fourth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor at Rethinking Schools.