Teachers Turn to Internet To Bring Foreign Crisis Home

By Linda Jacobson — April 14, 1999 6 min read

As they watch the news reports on the latest conflict in the Balkans and talk about the events in their classrooms, many students at Swift School in northeast Chicago are reliving what they experienced a few years ago.

About 130 of the students and two of the elementary school’s teachers are from Bosnia, which declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. Now, it’s the future of ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia’s Kosovo province that is at issue.

“We understand more maybe than anyone else the fate of the people in Kosovo because it was very similar to the fate of the Bosnian people,” said Hika Berbic, a Bosnian bilingual teacher at Swift who spent time in a refugee camp before coming to the United States in 1995.

But most American teachers don’t have colleagues on staff whom they can turn to for information on the ethnic, political, and religious differences that underlie the current crisis.

The conflict in Yugoslavia--perhaps more than any other recent military action involving the United States and its allies--has forced teachers to be resourceful and creative in order to bring their students information on a place in the world that most didn’t know anything about.

“The immediacy of events has put great pressures and demands on teachers,” said Tedd Levy, the president of the Washington-based National Council for the Social Studies and a teacher at Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Conn. “But it has also provided great opportunities because it has generated a lot of student interest.”

Where’s Kosovo?

Because most traditional materials, such as textbooks and classroom maps, don’t reflect what has happened in the now-truncated Yugoslavia in recent years, teachers more than ever are turning to the Internet for resources on it and other countries in the region.

“If you had asked me two years ago where Kosovo was, I would have had a hard time telling you,” said Gadi Rowelsky, a world history teacher at University High School in West Los Angeles.

Now, Mr. Rowelsky leads his 10th graders on a daily search of the World Wide Web looking for information on the Kosovo crisis.

His class is unusual because all the students have access to the Internet in their homes. Mr. Rowelsky designed the class before the situation in Kosovo intensified with the launch last month of the NATO air campaign against Serbian targets and the mass expulsions of Albanian Kosovars. But the strife there has given him numerous opportunities to test the effectiveness of the online approach.

Mr. Rowelsky has been using an interactive discussion board on the Web to give his students assignments. So instead of turning in written homework the next day, the students post their answers through e-mail and have to note the site they used as a resource.

Finding the answers to the questions--such as the speed of a cruise missile or the names of the three American soldiers captured by Serbian forces--is not the ultimate objective, Mr. Rowelsky said. What he really wants is for his students to learn how to search the Internet.

The project, the teacher said, has been a way to make the Kosovo crisis and other world affairs interesting to his students--most of whom don’t even watch the evening news.

‘Overwhelmed’ Teachers

Many teachers are relying on special Web pages on Kosovo created by major newspapers and television networks. The New York Times’ Learning Network, for example, offers lesson plans, time lines, and maps that teachers can reproduce for their students.

But some worry that news organizations are offering a one-sided viewpoint.

Anna Pavichevich, a spokeswoman for the Serbian National Defense Council of America, based in Chicago, was affected personally by the situation last week. She said her son, a 3rd grader, asked to stay home from school because he didn’t want to be part of a classroom discussion about reported atrocities being committed by Serbs against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. The information source her son’s teacher was using, she said, was Time for Kids, published by Time magazine.

“Teachers are so overwhelmed with their workload. They don’t have time anymore to investigate on their own,” said Ms. Pavichevich, who is also a special education teacher at Chicago’s Mather High School. “It’s very convenient to use a packet of information that’s all put together for you, especially when the source seems trustworthy. I caution teachers to realize who is sitting in front of them.”

Becoming Media-Savvy

But even slanted sources are not necessarily all bad, some educators say. A number of teachers are using the Kosovo conflict to talk to their students about propaganda and to encourage them to evaluate what they read in the newspaper and see on television news shows.

“Even if they find the bad stuff, that’s OK,” Mr. Rowelsky of Los Angeles’ University High School said. “Part of learning is being able to critique.”

Martha Care, a U.S. history teacher at Eastern Lebanon County High School in Myerstown, Pa., used a recent National Public Radio interview with a Serbian college student to talk to her class about how people look at the same events from different perspectives.

Another activity for teachers is to let groups of students follow the coverage on different Internet sites and compare and contrast what they find, suggested Gary Hopkins, the editor in chief of Education World, an online weekly magazine for teachers.

Mr. Hopkins said the situation in Kosovo has been a good opportunity for his online publication to be helpful to teachers, who may want to search for useful resources but aren’t very comfortable with the Internet or don’t have the time to sift through the many sites available.

Above all, he encourages teachers to pull information from a variety of sources. “This is a supremely teachable moment, a perfect opportunity to use history-in-the-making to teach media awareness,” Mr. Hopkins said.

In addition to providing educators with various angles on the conflict, the Internet is being used by educators to swap suggestions and information on Web sites and other sources of material.

In recent days, Kosovo has become a popular topic on the electronic mailing list operated by the ncss, which has more than 25,000 members.

But for the Internet to be helpful, teachers must have access to it in the first place. Mr. Levy of the NCSS noted that it’s lessons like these--those lifted from the front-page headlines and unfolding by the hour--that demonstrate the gaps between communities where students have computers in their homes as well as their classrooms and those neighborhoods without such resources.

Still, even without access to the Web in the classroom, Alexa Maxwell, who also teaches history at University High, said she believes she has been able to give her students a well-rounded view of the situation by using the local newspaper.

While newspapers and round-the-clock television reports on the latest bombing raids help teachers keep their students on top of what’s happening at the moment, up-to-the-minute news stories don’t give teachers much historical context about Yugoslavia, said Charles Ingrao, a professor of history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and an expert on Central Europe.

“Journalists aren’t paid to be analytical. They are paid to present the news,” he said. “You’ve got to understand how the history relates to today.”

He encourages teachers not only to talk about recent events in the region but also to delve into the history of the long-troubled, multiethnic Balkans.

Ms. Maxwell agrees that students want to understand what led up to this point.

“They have no interest unless you weave in these long-standing animosities,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teachers Turn to Internet To Bring Foreign Crisis Home


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