‘That’s six PS3s every second!” Juan exclaimed, almost drooling at the thought of putting his hands on Sony’s new Playstation video game system. “That’s one heck of a lot of money.”
The comment came during a mini-math lesson on the cost of the Iraq War that included rather tedious calculations by my entire 5th grade class. My students had figured out that the United States was spending a little more than $3,000 each second on the war.
The lesson was not part of a major unit on the Iraq War. In fact, not since the beginning of the war in March 2003 have I done such a unit. Since then I have touched on the subject in current events, but like many teachers I find my school day crammed by special projects and the pressures of “covering” the curriculum.
My somewhat nonchalant attitude toward teaching about the war changed abruptly last year during a literature circle discussion with half a dozen children about the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. The students were discussing the word “occupation,” detailing what it meant for the Nazis to rule Holland, the setting of Lowry’s novel. Hoping to make the word even more meaningful, I added that some people use the word “occupation” to describe the U.S. military’s relation to Iraq.
The students stared at me with blank eyes.
“You know, whether you agree or disagree with it, the U.S. Army and Marines are basically running Iraq,” I explained. “I am not comparing the U.S. military to the Nazis, but the word occupation applies to lots of different situations.”
Finally, a response.
“You mean that war is still going on?” replied Shaneekwa. “I thought it was over.”
Her comment reminded me that for many Americans, the war is little more than a minor annoyance on the edge of their consciousness. It also made me think about my responsibility as a teacher in a country that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on a war many people around the world think is illegal and immoral. I hadn’t intended to ignore the topic with my students, but I had.
Shaneekwa’s comment was a wake-up call. It pushed me to find ways to weave the topic of the war — and other important issues such as genocide in Darfur — more actively into my curriculum.
Last spring, for instance, I used statistics from the war in a unit on place value, data, graphing, and large numbers. As one of my “songs of the week,” I played Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” and we discussed the controversy following a Florida principal’s decision not to allow a 4th grader to sing that song in a school talent show. In the song Pink poses questions about homelessness, poverty, and the war, asking, “How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?” Following the discussion, Osvaldo, a student who had recently immigrated from Mexico, wrote his own poem to the President using data from the website www.costofwar.com (see poem).
Another School Year, Another Class
When the current school year started, I intended to continue discussions of the war with my new class of 5th graders at La Escuela Fratney, an inner-city bilingual school that is predominantly Latino but also has whites and African Americans. We did some Middle East geography and discussed a couple of news stories. But other curricular issues started asserting themselves and, once again, the war became a very minor focus in my classroom.
Over winter break, however, with time to think about my curriculum and with media reports predicting that soon the 3000th U.S. soldier would be killed, I once again decided I could not ignore the issue. I felt guilty realizing my renewed interest was sparked by the deaths of U.S. soldiers — not the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died. Regardless, I decided I had to do something.
On the first day after vacation I wrote the number “3,000” on the board and asked if anyone knew its significance. “It’s a lot,” ventured one student, but there was not much more. After I gave a hint that the number had “something to do with what’s going on in the world,” John raised his hand and said he thought it was the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. After clarifying that it was the number of U.S. soldiers, I asked for comments or questions. One student wanted to know how many Iraqi soldiers had been killed. Another asked how many had been hurt. We also defined “civilian” — a word none of them was familiar with.
One of my students started going off on the “stupid war” and said some derogatory comments about Bush. I made clear that name-calling — even of a political figure you disagree with — is not allowed in my classroom. I also stressed that students were welcome to discuss different points of view.
A normally quiet child then raised her hand and shared that her cousin was in the military. Another boy said that his sister was in Afghanistan. At one point I asked if anyone had family or close friends in the military, and a third of the 25 students raised their hands.
When one student said he thought it was silly to spend so much money on the war, I suggested that we look at a website that tallies the cost of the war. Any mention of the internet sparks interest in my class, so the students all focused on one of our classroom computers, where we went to www.costofwar.com.
The website has a running total of the war’s cost, based on congressional appropriations, and the number is constantly increasing. Students were mesmerized as they watched the numbers stream quickly by. After showing them how to freeze the tally, I chose a “good” math student to read the number. As he did so digit by digit, he stumbled and I knew we had to work on understanding and reading large numbers.
I wrote the number on the board and as a class we practiced reading it. In the process, I reviewed place values up to the hundred billions place.
The following day I brought in a newspaper photo of a local “die-in” the previous night, in which antiwar protesters lay on the steps of the federal building. I told the students I had participated, although some were skeptical because I was not part of the photo. We checked the costofwar website again and practiced reading the ever-increasing number.
On the third day, for our early morning activity I had students figure out how much money had been spent in the last three days. Then, by doing a long division problem, we figured out that the United States spends about $265,000,000 per day on the Iraq War. We checked out other parts of the costofwar site and found, for example, that the amount spent on the war thus far is equivalent to 14 million four-year college scholarships. “That’s a lot!” exclaimed several students, but the number was so large that it was essentially meaningless to my students.
I tried to make the large numbers more understandable. In one mini-lesson I put dollar bills down on a desk one second at a time and asked how long it would take us to get up to a billion. We figured it would take about 32 years.
In another lesson, I had students figure out the cost of the war using smaller units of time. Working in pairs and then as a large group, and with a whole lot of discussion, we figured out how much of our tax dollars is being spent on the war in an hour, a minute and then a second.
That’s when Juan shouted out the number of PS3s that could be bought each second — assuming, Juan clarified, “you buy the $500, not the $600 model.” Peter suggested that you could take those six and resell them on e-Bay and make a lot more money.
My attempt at getting kids to reflect on the social cost of the war was losing out to their entrepreneurial spirit and their obsessive fascination with the latest video game technology. My frown must have communicated my disappointment because Juan quickly added that with all that extra money from the e-Bay sales, “We’d have all the more money to help people who needed it.”
I made one last attempt to concretize the cost by having a student go to the costofwar website section on public education. It shows that the nearly $350 billion spent on the war thus far could have been used to hire six million teachers for one year. I told the kids that given there are about 80,000 public schools in the United States, every school could have 75 more teachers — or each school could get two more teachers for the next 38 years. Given that we don’t have a music or gym teacher in our school, students related to that.
“No offense, Mr. Bob,” one told me later. “You’re a good gym teacher, we’d just like to have a real one.”
I didn’t want class discussions to focus primarily on math, however, or on my merits as a gym teacher. I wanted students to explore what they thought, not only about the war but other pressing social issues. I encouraged them to write their feelings and thoughts in their journal or as part of a bilingual poetry book that each is expected to complete. I shared a few poems that former students had written on the war and other social topics, including Osvaldo’s from the year before, and suggested that my students might write a “message” poem on a topic they felt strongly about (see poem).
The various mini-lessons had an impact and over time, the war became an ongoing topic of conversation, albeit at a low level. For example, a student might announce the new cost of the war, based on an internet search they have done the night before. A few wear peace buttons they have gotten from other family members.
Many of my students’ families, including those who have members in the military, have become increasingly critical of the war. This has posed the dilemma of how to make sure that articulate, outspoken critics of the war don’t dominate class discussions. I also want to make sure that students, regardless of their view, base their perspectives on sound facts and reasoning. As a result, I challenge statements, even those I may agree with, if they are merely asserted and not backed up. I want my students to learn to think and form their own opinions.
Moving to Action
For a number of my students, the most significant lesson came outside the classroom.
When I talked about the “die-in” I participated in, some students wanted to know when the next protest would be. I told them there would be a march in Washington on Jan. 27, and several suggested we organize a class field trip to the march. I declined. (One student did make the trip with his father, travelling 14 hours each way.)
I also noted there was going to be a local peace rally the same weekend and that I knew some of the organizers, who had previously told me they would be interested in students speaking at the rally. I told this to my class and several students expressed interest. With their parents’ permission, over the next two weeks several students stayed in during recess to write speeches and make signs.
Three students — two of whom have relatives in the military — spoke at the protest, with the full support and participation of their parents and families. A few other students and their families attended as well. The three student speakers were warmly received by the more than 100 people at the rally, which was attended mainly by veterans and was held inside Milwaukee’s City Hall Rotunda on a cold Friday evening.
Gabriela was the first of my students to speak, and began by saying, “I believe the Iraq war is the most unnecessary war the United States has ever been in.” She paused, as I had suggested in our rehearsals, and the thunderous applause gave her the courage to make an impassioned plea for peace.
When she was done, Gabriela introduced Malachi, whose sister was returning the next day from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He read a poem he had written:
Dear Mr. President please stop this war.
My sister’s in the military and we don’t understand what this war is for.
It’s hard, cold and mean.
No more war for oil schemes
I don’t want her to go
I love her so.
What’s the point?
10’s of thousands of Iraqis dead
Bring them home
Don’t send countless more
Mr. President, Please, Please, Please
Stop this war.
The third student speaker was Riscardo, who has several relatives in the armed forces. He noted that he thought some wars, such as the War of Independence and World War II’s defeat of Hitler, “are okay and necessary.” But, he continued, “some wars are suicidal, like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.”
Riscardo ended his speech by saying, “There are billions of dollars being spent and thousands of soldiers and civilians are dying, so we have to make sure to stop this war. End the Iraq War!”
It’s a refrain that is increasingly common across the United States. And yet the war continues. Until it ends, I have a responsibility to see that it is discussed and studied in my classroom.
Bob Peterson (Contact Me) is an editor of Rethinking Schools. On September 9, 2004, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, Dickinson College honored Peterson for his innovative approaches to teaching about 9/11. He teaches 5th grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, Wis. Note: Except for the students who spoke at the public rally and the authors of the poems, the names have been changed.
Numbers do count Mr. President
2,453 America soldiers are dying
17,648 soldiers are wounded
35,161 innocent Iraqi people are dying
are wasted in the war.
Imagine how much we can do around the world
With that money!
We can feed the needy
And much more
Do you care about the people?
5th grade, La Escuela Fratney,
Message poem to George W. Bush
Bush sends troops
Day and night
To a never ending fight
Killing many, hurting families
Not even realizing what he’s done
He spent billions of dollars on a war
He thinks of himself and not others
Selfish I call him
He doesn’t care
No matter how much we vote
He acts as if we’re not there
To me he’s a fool
He could’ve used that money
To put children in school.
5th grade, La Escuela Fratney