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Talking About the War: an Excerpt From a Teachers’ Guide

January 30, 1991 3 min read

Following are excerpts from “Talking About the War in the Persian Gulf: A Discussion Guide for Teachers,” prepared by Sheldon Berman and Susan Jones of Educators for Social Responsibility, a national group based in Cambridge, Mass.:

How do I open up the subject of the war in the Persian Gulf with my students?

Most experts agree that it is best not to open up a converstion with your students by giving them a lecture--even an informal, introductory lecture. The best approach is to listen carefully to children’s spontaneous questions and comments, and then respond to them in an appropriate, supportive way. Let your students’ concerns, in their own words, guide the direction of the discussion.

It is particularly important that we help children who are troubled but have difficulty talking about their concerns. We can at least check out their feelings in order to decide whether a discussion is appropriate. One way is to ask simple opening questions, “Have you heard about the war in the Persian Gulf?” or “Do you ever think about the war in the Persian Gulf?” or “How do you feel about the war in the Persian Gulf?”

We may want to use other vehicles, such as drawing and journal writing, to help young people express their feelings.

Won’t it just scare students more if we talk about it?

No, not if you listen to students and respond in a supportive, sensitive way to what you hear. No matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them. If we communicate by our silence that this--or any other subject--is too scary or upsetting to talk about, then the children who depend on us may experience the added fear that we are not able to take care of them.

How do I deal with the range of emotions that students may have about the war?

The feelings students have will generally be attached to the developmental issues that are most pressing for them. For early elementary-school children it will usually be issues of separation and safety. For older elementary- and middle-school children it will be issues of fairness and care for others. For adolescents it will involve issues of ethics and issues of their own potential involvement. In listening to their feelings you will be able to hear the underlying issues. Responding to these underlying concerns can be of great assistance to your students.

How do I deal with the wide range of opinions that students may have?

As a first step in constructing a productive dialogue about the war, you may want to set some ground rules so that children feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions. The students themselves can help construct this list, which might include such things as “no put-downs,” “respect each other’s feelings and points of view,” and “let each person finish speaking before responding.”

It is important that you and your students find ways to affirm the different perspectives even if they are unpopular. It is best to avoid the polarization produced by debates and instead structure the conversation as a dialogue where each position is illuminated so that it can be understood clearly.

My students know a lot about the war and want to do something about it. Is it appropriate for me to encourage them to act?

There are many actions young people can take, the first and most important being to learn more about the issue. From there, however, it is important that young people learn to act to make a difference in their own worlds.

Writing a letter to the troops, to the President or another elected official, or to the editor of the local newspaper are things children can do. Other forms of action might be something as simple as drawing a poster expressing the desire for peace or as sophisticated as helping raise money for the Red Cross. Students can also educate others. They can set up study groups, organize symposia, put together a library of resources, or publish their own book or newsletter.

However, it is important that the students generate and implement the actions they choose to pursue.

Complete copies of this guide are available at no charge from esr, 23 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138; (617) 492-1764. The group welcomes donations for expenses.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Talking About the War: an Excerpt From a Teachers’ Guide