History class puts current events on the map

Teachers tap into student interest in news headlines, comparing the Iraqi standoff to prior instances of conflict

For seventh-graders in Michael Yell's world history class, Desert Storm might seem as ancient as the land of Mesopotamia.

They, after all, were born in the year of the conflict. But with a new confrontation brewing with Iraq, Mr. Yell says the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is drawing new interest from students at his Hudson, Wisc., middle school. So a lesson about ancient Mesopotamia begins with a discussion of modern-day Iraq.

It's just one way social-studies teachers are adjusting their classes to incorporate the Iraqi conflict. Whatever the grade level or geographic focus, current events are giving many routine history classes more relevance. As a result, just as after the Sept. 11 attacks, teachers are searching for ways to teach students without heightening their fears.

"They really want kids to understand both the immediacy of this and the long-term American interests, and how this fits in with actions other countries may take," says Merry Merryfield, a professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, who instructs social-studies teachers.

In some courses, the conflict may be used to illustrate concepts already in the curriculum. US history classes, for example might compare President Bush's new foreign policy approach with the Monroe Doctrine. A civics-class discussion about Congress's power to declare war has a new urgency.

Students in Deborah Twyman's civics and government class in North Kansas City, Mo., compared the Iraqi standoff to prior instances of conflict, including the Cuban missile crisis and President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

The question that recurs, says Ms. Twyman, is whether the US has the right to take preemptive military action. "One student asked, 'Isn't it like punishing me for being late tomorrow when I haven't been late yet?' " Twyman says.

Other teachers are using the situation to organize entire courses that address international conflicts.

In Raytown, Mo., for example, Lorelei Hays's course on global conflicts will culminate in a Middle East summit in which students will assume the roles of envoys from countries including the US and Iraq.

Each team of four students is researching its country's demographics, religion, and military while studying different options for ending conflicts, such as third-party resolution and appeasement.

If conflict breaks out before the summit begins, that will be incorporated into the simulation, Ms. Hays says. She notes that her situation brings even more immediacy to wartime decisionmaking for students: Her husband was sent overseas with the military for 10 months after Sept. 11.

Similarly, Sandy Crawford's world crises course at the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts is focused on Iraq as well as the war on terror. Ms. Crawford plans to discuss Iraq's history back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Saddam Hussein's emergence, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf War. Crawford also will address the challenges of nation-building – how well it's worked so far in Afghanistan and what might happen in Iraq under a new regime.

"My interest is in helping kids understand the Iraqi situation in historical and geopolitical perspective," Crawford says. "They'll have the ability to weigh our policy options in a pretty complete way."

Even in courses focused on ancient history, teachers say they are setting aside more time for current events. "It's something that seems to be forgotten," says Carl Schwaber, a social-studies teacher at Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass. "When we talk about things going on in the news, a lot of them don't have the history and basic tenets of society right close at hand," Mr. Schwaber says. In between units on Assyria or Persia, his ninth-grade ancient- civilizations students spend a few days discussing current events.

Schwaber also connects the ancient and modern Middle East by having students identify the current countries associated with lands on an ancient map of the region.

"Kids figure out and retain where those borders are today," Schwaber says.

The demands of keeping up with state-mandated curriculums make it difficult to veer off the established course for too long. And some teachers are wary about possibly increasing fear in students – already shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks and the first recession – by devoting whole class periods to speculation about what might happen next.

"If we dwell on what could be, it becomes a very fearful thing for our kids," says Michelle Karofil, social-studies coordinator in Raytown. Instead, Ms. Karofil says they use current events to reinforce what's already being taught.

If military action begins, many teachers say they'll devote more class time to the conflict. During the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Twyman put a human face on the conflict by having students correspond with alumni involved in the military action.

That war, in fact, may have had a lasting impact on social-studies teachers. Over the past decade, Professor Merryfield has found that teachers are better informed about the Middle East and more interested in including non-American perspectives.

And the Internet and e-mail allow for faster access to a broad range of primary sources and viewpoints. Merryfield says students in Columbus, Ohio, social-studies classes exchange e-mails with students in the Middle East and read local newspapers from Egypt and Turkey.

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