Education

TV and the Web Offer Live Access— For Better or Worse

By Andrew Trotter — April 02, 2003 6 min read
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In a double- edged development that evokes mixed feelings among educators, the snazzy technologies that many U.S. classrooms now boast are allowing students unprecedented access to the face of war.

All-day news channels via classroom TVs and the Internet are replenished, sometimes moment to moment, with images and eyewitness descriptions of the U.S.- led war in Iraq that many students find riveting.

Equally fascinating are “Web logs,” or “blogs,” published online as wartime diaries by soldiers and civilians in or near the conflict.

Teachers, too, are not immune from the “frontline” allure, whether they are incorporating the war into classroom lessons or not.

Technology Page

Watching the developments in Iraq is largely a high school phenomenon. Many school districts report that younger students are being shielded from all but the most sanitized war news. That shield may drop, of course, as they go home to families tuned to CNN or other “War in Iraq"-style special coverage. (“Coping With ‘the World That They Know,’” this issue.)

Even in high school, though, constant war-watching might not be appropriate, said Judith A. Myers-Walls, a human-development specialist at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.

“I think a teacher needs to look carefully at why they want to show [images of war]—is this good education?” said Ms. Myers-Walls, who has posted advice online about depictions of war to children. “Certainly, putting an entire school in front of the TV all day is wrong.”

But technologies are also giving young people new ways to discuss and deal with their views and anxieties about the war.

‘Historic’ View

The amount of live public access to war news is “historic,” U.S. Secretary of Defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared March 21, as the first waves of the coalition forces’ ground assault rumbled into Iraq. “We’re having a conflict at a time in our history when we have 24-hours-a-day television, radio, media, Internet,” he said.

On that same day, Allan Joban, a 12th grader at Bob Jones High School, in Madison, Ala., said being able to watch the war on his classroom’s television set gave him a fairer picture of what was happening. “Looking at it on TV is great instead of just hearing reports that soldiers are killing innocent people,” he said.

Mr. Joban, who said he supports the war and has friends who are in the armed forces, said he was learning that war is survivable: “Everyone knows how bad war is—as they say, the horror of war. On TV, it doesn’t look so bad.”

Anna Wilson, a 10th grader at Salem High School, part of the Plymouth-Canton district near Detroit, said she would feel less anxious if she could check in on the latest news during the school day.

But Superintendent James Ryan decided a month ago that the war, then looming, should not be shown live in the Michigan district’s classrooms, at any grade level, despite the protests of some teachers.

Mr. Ryan said he did not want to take the risk that students might be shocked by visual images on television screens. The policy stemmed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he explained, when televisions in classrooms throughout the 17,500-student district stayed on for several days.

Parents have thanked him for turning off the TVs, he added.

Tied to Lessons

High schools elsewhere have left to teachers’ discretion the use of classroom TV sets and Web access.

In Plano, Texas, a 52,000- student district known for its wealth of technology, high school teachers were advised to use “proper discretion, and make sure [war coverage is] really tied in to the lessons they were involved in,” said James Wussow, the executive director for curriculum and instruction.

“They’re using excerpts. ... We told them that, at any level, continuous viewing was not an appropriate approach,” he said.

No live coverage is permitted in grades K-8, Mr. Wussow said.

Some high school teachers say they have no problem with viewing the full-strength media coverage.

“I’ve got the TV on generally here all the time,” Linda Rist, an agriculture teacher in Hartford, S.D., said last week, on a day full of news of casualties suffered by U.S. and British forces. “We’ve been watching a lot of CNN and using CNN’s Web page—and the BBC has some great stuff on their site—such as interactive maps.”

In addition to the TV, Ms. Rist’s students at West Central High School can use wireless laptop computers to go on the Web.

Acknowledging that her subject, agriculture, is distant from war, Ms. Rist has added relevant discussions of bioterrorism, fertilizer-based bombs, and the impact on the U.S. agricultural economy.

Another South Dakota teacher, Christianne Jacobsen, said that when her students at Bonhomme High School in Tyndall asked how weapons can have “surgical precision,” she sent them to a commercial educational Web site, howstuffworks.com, which now features war technology.

Other high school teachers use technology to help address the worries of students.

Buena High School, in Sierra Vista, Ariz., was on spring break when the war started, but social studies teacher Barbara Williams said she was receiving e-mail from students wanting to discuss the conflict.

She e-mailed back and sent links to helpful Web sites.

“We’ve already laid the framework with TV, news sources,” she said, “so that students have a basic background of understanding. ... Now, the job is to get them through it.”

Child-Friendly Media

Some educators are turning to the Web sites and broadcast coverage of school-oriented news sources, such as Channel One, CNN Student News, and Weeklyreader.com, the online presence of the Weekly Reader classroom publications. The sites place a premium on predictability and safety.

“We don’t think in a lot of cases there is any more understanding about the war that comes from showing the most grisly war images,” said Morgan Wandell, the executive vice president for programming at Channel One, based in Los Angeles.

He said the war has received heavy coverage on the Web site and the daily 10-minute news feed that is broadcast in about 14,000 schools nationwide, tailored to students ages 12 to 18.

The site follows some specific guidelines on images of war. “We’ve shown weapons firing, we did not show the pictures of the dead Marines,” broadcast by the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, a line that most of the mainstream media has not crossed yet either.

Both the Channel One and Weekly Reader sites, as well as CNN Student News, salt the news with information about the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East. Channel One “gives a bigger picture of what’s actually happening on the ground now,” said Mr. Wandell.

Some sites give students a way to communicate with Americans directly affected by the war. ChannelOne.com invites students to send an e- mail to about a dozen sailors on the U.S.S. Constellation, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Weeklyreader.com lets children e-mail notes to families who have a loved one in the military campaign.

The Web is also a medium that students can use for self-expression—a function catered to by a raft of teen- oriented Web sites.

Some of those sites, such as Teenspot.com and Bolt.com, offer space for youths to discuss their views of the war—although talk of dating and entertainment is more prevalent.

Another section of Bolt.com invites submissions of “War Ku,” or haiku about war. It has attracted anti-war poets, such as one who wrote: “Bush has called for war,/ And Tony Blair did agree./ No one has asked me.”

Kathryn Montgomery, the president of the Center for Media Education, located in Washington, said the Web sites that provide platforms for student expression vary in quality. “Generally, the political discussions are marginalized on the sites, which are so dominated by pop-culture kinds of things,” she said.

But she said educators should explore ways to use online forums to help students comprehend the war through self- expression and discussion. “I think schools have an opportunity: It’s one of these teachable moments in time where we can engage young people in the context of the media culture that surrounds them.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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