The front lines of young fear; curriculums shifting to address students’ questions about war

Tuesday, October 9, 2001
Page 19A

The front lines of young fear
Curriculums shifting to address students’ questions about war

By Katie Menzer and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Adam Cislo asked only one question in his fifth-grade social studies class Monday: “I would say the big question is: ‘Is this the start of World War III?'”

Nancy Morrison, a history teacher at Glen Oaks Elementary in McKinney, fielded several other difficult questions. For many, she had no good answer.

“I don’t know, Adam,” the 28-year veteran teacher said gently. “I really don’t think anyone knows yet.”

Children struggling to understand the jarring events of the world often turn to their teachers for guidance and understanding. On Monday, teachers tried to explain why bombs were falling.

“Because we are social studies teachers, we are on the front lines of answering questions,” said David Wallner, a world history teacher at Duncanville High School. “They have a lot of concerns. They are worried about being attacked. They are afraid.”

Since the attacks, Mr. Wallner said, he usually begins his 10th-grade classes with a discussion of new developments. They have talked about religion, foreign governments, and other subjects that rarely came up in class before.

“You just take one day a time and address the situation,” he said.

The words “curriculum” and “current events” come from the same Latin root, so it’s not surprising that the day’s news would figure prominently in what teachers teach. The latest developments, however, posed a new challenge.

While the events of Sept. 11 had teachers working mostly to counsel students, the offensive in Afghanistan offered different challenges.

“It’s different in the way the teacher approaches it,” said Edward DeRoche, a professor of education at the University of San Diego who has written extensively about how current events intersect with curricula. “Now there’s even more of a need for historical perspective, for talking about what happened in the 1930s with
Hitler, for talking about fairness and justice. It’s a series of teachable moments.”

In McKinney, Ms. Morrison suspended her fifth-graders’ studies of early colonial life in America to answer questions and allay fears about events after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although Ms. Morrison has been answering students’ queries individually since Sept. 11, Monday was the first day she brought her students together to discuss the recent events in depth.

“I’ve had several come in today and say ‘My mom or dad said we were at war,'” Ms. Morrison said. “Some of them are afraid that out of the night sky are going to come these bombs to blow them and their families away.”

During Ms. Morrison’s class, students asked myriad questions, from why terrorists chose the World Trade Center as a target to whether the tap water at home is safe to drink. Tori Ricketts, 10, expressed concern over the conditions of people living in Afghanistan.

“Are they allowed to leave?” Tori asked solemnly during a discussion of recent Afghan history.

“No, not really,” Ms. Morrison responded.

Ms. Morrison – who spent last week decorating the fifth-grade hallways with pictures of flags and other patriotic symbols – said this is the first time in her career that students have expressed real fear for their safety.

She said she has tried to answer questions with candor while making students feel secure in their school and at home.

“Where is America?” Ms. Morrison asked her students, many of whom then pointed to a world map hanging on the wall.

“It’s right here,” continued Ms. Morrison, shaking her head and placing her hand over her heart. “It’s in our hearts. It’s an idea, and you can’t kill that.”

Dr. DeRoche said that patriotism had fallen out of vogue in American schools in recent decades. “If you asked school leaders what the top values of their schools were, patriotism wouldn’t have been on that list. But now it is again.”

Ms. Morrison concluded the afternoon class by playing the national anthem for the children. They each stood up from their chairs, faced a flag hanging above one blackboard, and cupped their small hands over their hearts.

“They’re living this history,” Ms. Morrison said. “If this is what they’re worried about, if this is what they want to talk about, then this has to be the curriculum for the day.”

Staff writer Donna Wisdom contributed to this report.