School Balances War’s Hard Lessons Against Need To Calm Fears

By Lonnie Harp — January 23, 1991 4 min read

Takoma Park, Md--Teachers at Piney Branch Elementary School here moved quickly last Thursday to introduce students to the day’s first lesson: a reminder that the fighting that had first invaded their living rooms the night before was happening half a world away.

Trying to add perspective and distance to the war reports, teachers worked to keep the sights and sounds of conflict at arm’s length for the school’s 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.

Still, school officials were equally careful not to push them out of reach.

Such was the tightrope walk--between business-as-usual and history-in-the-making--that teachers at the suburban Washington school were forced to take throughout the day.

“We won’t be walking around teaching like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” said Stanley J. Klein, the principal. “On the other hand, we don’t consider diving into this and letting this take over.”

“The idea is to discuss it, get off of this, and let the kids get to work,” he added.

As the latest news of the initial air strikes in the Persian Gulf boomed from a radio in the nearby teachers’ lounge, office personnel were otherwise engaged, tending to a bump on one boy’s forehead and orienting a new resident to the school’s policies and bus routes.

Upstairs, Peggy Kennedy, the school’s counselor, put the final touches on a memorandum she had started Wednesday night after a school counselors’ meeting--at which the subject of war eclipsed the scheduled topic.

“I thought about typing up a memo [to teachers] just in case it happened,” Ms. Kennedy said. “I was driving home from our meeting just knowing this was going to happen, but praying it wouldn’t.”

Ms. Kennedy’s seven-point memo alerted teachers to the prospect that many of Piney Branch’s students would have widely differing outlooks on the war. The ethnically diverse area includes Moslem students as well as youths with ties to American military personnel.

The counselor also called for a quick geography lesson on Iraq and on “how far it is from the U.S.,” and she advised restraint in discussing possible terrorist activities that could target Washington.

School officials said many students were concerned that the capital’s subway system, which stops several blocks from the school, could be damaged.

“The kids have a lot of fears and concerns about war,” Mr. Klein said. “They’ve never been exposed to anything like this before.”

Ms. Kennedy added, “No matter what happens, we want them to know that there are adults here to take care of them.”

Teachers and school officials noted that many students were unusually active as classes began Thursday, but the issue of war did not permeate every aspect of the school.

One student arriving late did not escape a stern reprimand from an office worker, and the normal clamor filled the lunchroom.

Portions of social-studies and language classes were given to discussions of the conflict, but mathematics lessons in fractions and addition persisted without a flinch.

Other lessons that continued on track took on ironic tones.

In one 6th-grade social-studies classroom, students studying ancient Greece copied notes from the blackboard, including one that said: “Sparta--At the age of 7, Spartan boys were placed in military schools.”

Mr. Klein said teachers were given wide latitude in deciding whether to incorporate Persian Gulf developments into classroom lessons. He said he was pleased with the war-related dialogue in some rooms.

“A lot of people say, ‘We’re going to distance what’s happening outside because reading, writing, and arithmetic are more important,”’ he said. “But I think that, if we’re a little more open about it, it doesn’t become a distraction.”

Valerie Coll, a 4th-grade teacher, said she has used the events in the Middle East as a backdrop for reading and problem-solving assignments throughout the school year.

Last Thursday, she set aside some time to answer students’ questions.

“Some of them were confused by reports of the ‘beautiful’ tracer fire,” Ms. Coll said. “They know enough of the definition of that word that putting ‘beautiful’ with the reality of attack was difficult for them.”

“There is a lot of tension on their part and a lot of questions,” she said. “But I wanted to make it a thought process.”

A week earlier, she said, she had asked her class, as part of a problem-solving assignment, to list at least three reasons for war and three reasons against war.

“Maybe it’s a problem that is hard to talk it out,” one student wrote in advocating war. Another surmised, “To get and have more.”

In arguing against war, one child cautioned, “Parents will live longer than their kids.” Said another, “It could ruin the world.”

Still another child worried that the outbreak of war might prompt National Football League officials to cancel the upcoming Super Bowl.

Ms. Coll--who said she approaches the subject of war differently in each class, depending on the mix of students--explained that it is hard to determine whether children arrive at school wanting to escape war-related topics by dwelling on academics or are eager to discuss the current events.

“I don’t think within a school situation there’s an easy answer to that,” she said. “But for a lot of them, discussing it just gives them a base, and, at a time like this, they are looking for a foundation when they say, ‘What is this?”’

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as School Balances War’s Hard Lessons Against Need To Calm Fears