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Teachers Tackle Today's 'Most Important Issue': Persian Gulf

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The possibility of a U.S. war with Iraq has prompted students and educators across the country to take a crash course in a part of the world rarely explored in depth by schools here: the Persian Gulf.

"What could be more important to these students than to cover the most important issue happening today?" asked Judith McGovern, a middle-school teacher in San Francisco. "This is history they're living through."

Ms. McGovern is doubtless among thousands of teachers nationwide who are altering their lessons to allow time for discussion of current events in the Persian Gulf. In interviews last week, teachers in New Mexico, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, and Connecticut said they also had rearranged their plans in order to take up the subject in their classes.

Other signs of mounting interest in the Gulf crisis, both inside and outside the classroom, were evident elsewhere. Schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Chicago, are planning, or have already held, schoolwide "teach-ins" on the subject.

Students in more than a dozen public and private high schools in New York City planned to stage an anti-war demonstration this week in which students were encouraging their classmates to "walk out" of school to attend.

The Oakland, Calif., school board, as part of a general resolution condemning the U.S. military effort against Iraq, voted last week to give parents the option of prohibiting schools from providing to military recruiters the names, telephone numbers, and addresses of their children.

Officials at Scholastic Inc. and Newsweek report increases of 15 percent or more in requests for the news-oriented educational materials they produce for classrooms.

Whittle Communications, which produces a television news program for use in classrooms, and Time-Warner Inc. also said demands for their services had increased.

Students in schools throughout the country--including 50,000 from Boston's public schools alone--have sent cards and letters to American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Workers at several of the federally sponsored centers for Middle Eastern studies, located at universities across the country, said they were being flooded with requests from teachers looking for information and classroom materials on the Middle East. "We have had an unprecedented number of calls over the last five months from every level of education in the United States," said Ronald Cathell, executive director of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, a nonprofit educational group. "As tragic as this situation is in the Gulf," he added, "if there is a silver lining, it's that Americans have awakened to the need to understand a little more about the region and how it can impact their lives."

It is difficult to gauge how much students were already learning about the Middle East in school. National groups and commissions that have studied the social-studies curriculum disagree on that subject.

Among experts who focus on that part of the world, however, the consensus is that most Americans--and most students--know very little.

A 1987 study by the U.S. Education Department indicated, for example, that only half of the seniors graduating from high school that year had taken a world-history course.

"One out of two students probably can't read a newspaper or watch a television news report on the situation and understand with any comprehension what's going on," said Elaine Reed, executive director of the National Council for History Education, which was formed last year as a successor to the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools.

The Bradley commission was among several national social-studies groups calling in recent years for a broadening of the social-studies curriculum offered to students. It recommended that students be required to take three years of high-school history, including separate courses in world history and American history.

The National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, mean while, has recommended that students take a three-year world-history course that would teach about the United States within "the general story of humanity."

Both groups have also advocated that social-studies curricula include more about religion.

Representatives of social-studies groups said last week that the events in the Persian Gulf have made an eloquent case for the kinds of curricular changes that have been proposed.3

"If students don't know the geographical characteristics and the traditions and attitudes of the Middle East, they aren't going to under stand what's happening at all," said Fay Metcalf, a co-chairman of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools.

Added C. Frederick Risinger, president of the National Council for the Social Studies: "To teach about religion has become extremely important. It's evident in every statement Saddam Hussein makes--from his saying, 'God is on our side,' to comparing President Bush to Judas."

Regardless, however, of the extent to which the curriculum already covers the Middle East, teachers said they are seizing opportunities to talk about the Persian Gulf situation in economics, social-studies, government, history, and even English and science classes.

Ms. McGovern, for example, tacked her lessons on the Persian Gulf crisis onto a unit on the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.

"I decided to beam my 7th graders up to the future to talk about what's happening with the Fertile Crescent, which is Iraq, today," she said.

Mike Dawson of Albuquerque, N.M., is rearranging the way he normally teaches American history to seniors at Manzano High School.

He has introduced lessons on the judicial system and the Congress earlier than usual so that his students will be prepared to discuss the War Powers Act this week, close on the heels of Congressional debates over whether to support resolutions backing President Bush's use of force against Iraq.

In Elkhart, Ind., John Chenoweth, a high-school American-government teacher, encouraged 300 students at Concord High School to walk to school one morning to dramatize the need for the United States to become less dependent on foreign oil supplies.

"The students wanted to show their parents and the community and the world, 'We can make sacrifices if we have to,"' said Mr. Chenoweth, who trekked 11 miles to school that day.

Earl Bell, a social-studies teacher at the University of Chicago's laboratory school, asked his students to write a paper comparing the economic development of Iraq and Mexico for an international-relations class.

"Whenever we have discussions on the situation in class," he said, "we always end up with not enough time to get everybody in." Mr. Bell said senior-class officers at the school are planning next month to devote at least half a school day to a schoolwide "teach-in" on the crisis. "The students' interest is there," said Mounir Farah, a high-school teacher and university lecturer from Monroe, Conn., who gives workshops to teachers on the subject. "What you have to do is make use of it."

That students have an interest-- and a stake--in events unfolding in the Persian Gulf is obvious.

The results of a poll released last week by Scholastic indicate that, of the 3,400 students who responded, 40 percent had a relative or friend stationed in the Persian Gulf. Sixty-three percent of the students said they approved of the economic sanctions being used against Iraq, and 53 percent said they would also approve of a war with Iraq. "This says to us that students are thinking about this," said Ernest Fleischman, a senior vice president at Scholastic. "Don't hide from this. This is a time to stop class and have a discussion."

One problem is, however, that many teachers--themselves untrained in the history and cultural contributions of that part of the world--often do not know where to put their hands on accurate infor mation that is appropriate for their students' age levels.

"Textbooks are of no use," said Ms. McGovern of San Francisco.

Beyond the obvious problem of being outdated, experts noted, many texts do an inadequate job of discussing the region.

"There are a few excellent texts--more so than 20 years ago--and some are really trying," said Elizabeth Barlow, a program associate for the Center for Near Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. "But so many others are riddled with errors, like putting the deserts in the wrong place, or bad interpretations of what the problems really are in the region."

She said her center, along with the Middle East Studies Association, is completing a review of 75 precollegiate textbooks dealing with some aspect of the Middle East. The study will be published next month.

"If textbooks are inadequate, and teachers are untrained," Ms. Barlow said, "what we really have is the blind leading the blind."

One 1990 textbook launched a discussion of Islam, for example, with a picture of a terrorist and a box listing the number of terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic Jihad, a group that Middle Eastern experts contend represents the views of no more than 2 percent of the region's population. "Would you begin a discussion of Catholicism by talking about the Irish Republican Army?" asked Sandra Batmangelich, an outreach coordinator at a federally sponsored center on Middle East studies at the University of Chicago.

As a result, many teachers said they have relied on newspapers, news magazines, news-oriented classroom magazines, and taped radio and television broadcasts to keep their students informed.

Scholastic Inc., for example, has featured the crisis in nearly every issue of its six social-studies magazines this fall. It has even included articles related to the crisis in its science and English magazines for classrooms.

Like a number of other news-magazine programs geared to the classroom, the company also produced a map of the region as a supplement to its regular products. Newsweek, in addition to its classroom-education program, co-sponsored a seminar this fall on the Persian Gulf crisis for 250 Connecticut teachers. The turnout was double that of previous seminars the magazine had co-sponsored with the state education department on the upheavals in China and Eastern Europe.

"The world is changing so fast," said Richard Burch, circulation manager for student marketing at the magazine. "With textbooks pretty much out of date, we have unique position in the classroom.

Like textbooks, however, the media are also often biased in the way they portray stereotypes, experts on the Middle East said.

"The image is either terrorists, or greedy oil sheiks, or Bedouins riding around on camels," said Mr. Cathell of the council on U.S.-Arab relations.

Such stereotypes are difficult to overcome in the classroom, teachers and Middle East experts agree.

Ms. Batmangelich noted, for example, that two teachers in a work shop given by her center last August became upset when told that Moslems consider Jesus Christ a prophet and recognize his birth to a virgin.

"They didn't want to believe this religion was similar to theirs," she said.

"What if we have a war?" she asked. "Will anyone want to hear about this religion then?"

For that reason, Ms. Batmangelich said she tries to encourage teachers to stress commonalities between families in the Middle East and the Unit ed States as they begin to talk about the Gulf crisis.

As an example of that approach, she described how she helped a 4th- grade teacher arrange a visit to a mosque. She chose one with a school associated with it so the students could also visit with Moslem students their own age.

The students watched a Moslem boy recite a prayer in his own language and then discuss mathematics in perfect English.

"I overheard one student say, 'Gosh, he's wearing Air Jordans,"' she said, referring to a line of athletic shoes popular among young people.

She learned later, after reading essays by the students, that several had been afraid to visit the mosque.

But educators' interest in teaching children about the Gulf situation does not appear to be universal. Ms. Batmangelich said she worries that the fears and emotions engendered by the situation may be causing some teachers to avoid discussing the crisis.

"It's a hot potato," she observed.

Still other teachers, constrained by bureaucratic requirements to cover a number of topics by the end of the semester, or faced with the overwhelming problems of teaching in inner-city schools, said they have not devoted much time to the subject.

"I would think more stable communities would be more involved than we are," said Allen Levoff, chairman of the social-studies department in an inner-city Los Angeles high school. "If these kids make it to school every day, you're happy."

Outside of the classroom, activities revolving around the crisis appeared to be considerably more spotty.

In some cities, high-school students are joining with community groups or forming their own groups to protest any U.S. military aggression in the region.

Educators at many more schools indicated, however, that such student activities were nonexistent.

"In Vietnam, there was a draft," said Mr. Farah of Connecticut. "There was a direct interest that is very tangible and evident, and we don't have that now."

But Emily Baren, a junior at St. " Ann's School, a private school in L# New York City, said she and her friends are worried about what would happen if federal lawmakers & decided to reinstate a draft.

"It's going to be people coming out of high school who are going to have to deal with the repercussions of the war," she said.

Ms. Baren organized a protest scheduled for this week in front of a - military recruiting station at Times . Square. She said students at more than a dozen high schools in the city planned to encourage their classmates to "walk out" of school for the 2 noon demonstration.

In Oakland, meanwhile, parents 4 became concerned after learning that that the school system had sold 6 information about 2,000 graduating 7 seniors to military recruiters for $150. Some students said recruiters 9 had called their homes more than a : dozen times as a result.

"Parents feel like it's a life-or-death decision, and it shouldn't be made without their knowledge," said Sheila Jordan, who sponsored the resolution prohibiting schools from giving the names of students to recruiters without parental approval.

Oakland school officials said the practice had been a longstanding one, specifically permitted under California law.

"It's just that, with the situation in the Persian Gulf, there's ongoing heightened sensitivity around here to pressure from anybody in the military," said Sherri Willis, a spokesman for the district.

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