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Confronting Controversy

Wire-tapping, war, and the aftermath of 9/11 are hot issues in the classroom.

By Cindy Long

Alongside posters of Gandhi and John Lennon, covers of Time magazine, and a life-size cutout of the Three Stooges dressed in caps and gowns, social studies teacher Michael Palermo’s ground rules for classroom behavior are prominently tacked on the classroom wall. The first rule: Respect People and Opinions.

Michael PalermoPalermo teaches at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia—a suburb of Washington, D.C., and a short drive from the Pentagon, where five years ago one of the hijacked jets crashed during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yorktown students were deeply affected by 9/11—many of their parents work at the Pentagon—and even five years later, discussions about the attacks and the aftermath occur frequently in Palermo’s social studies classes. Debating controversial topics is a favorite pastime in the Washington area, and Palermo’s classroom is no exception. A particularly heated discussion flared in his Leadership and Diversity class last May, a week after the National Security Agency’s massive phone records database was revealed.

“Our country was founded on the ideals of liberty and personal freedom!”

“If people have nothing to hide, then what are they afraid of? If an attack can be stopped by tracking just one person’s phone calls, it’s worth it!”

 “Instead of recording calls, why not focus on transportation—what about security on our trains and subways?”

On “Discussion Fridays,” Palermo leads the class in debates, aided by a Koosh—a stringy rubber ball named for the sound it makes on impact.

Unlike many Washington politicians and pundits squabbling over the same topic a short drive away, Palermo’s students were learning a critical lesson of debate: that there is no right or wrong answer, only reasoned arguments and personal perspectives, all of which deserve consideration. “I think it’s vital to address sensitive and controversial topics in the classroom, especially when it’s an issue that hits so close to home,” Palermo says.

When asked about the impact the French Revolution has had on history, Chou En-lai, the Chinese premier from 1949 to 1976, supposedly replied, “It’s too soon to tell.” Five years later, it is likely too soon to tell what the lasting impact of 9/11 will be (see “9/11, By the Book,” page 34). But educators are leveraging the ongoing debate for a lesson in civics. Around the country, the discussion may take on different tones and tenor, but teachers everywhere are showing students how to discuss controversial issues rationally and respectfully—a responsibility of an informed citizenry.

“The world we live in is complex and confusing—not just to children, but to all of us,” says Mara Sapon-Shevin, professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University and author of Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide for Building Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities. “It is vital that we help students develop the skills to look critically at what is happening in the world.”

That’s the aim of Palermo’s Leadership and Diversity class, an elective open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors based on the Help Increase the Peace Program (HIPP), a youth program developed in 1991 by the American Friends Service Committee. The class focuses on topics such as diversity, racism, and conflict resolution. They also plan and lead peer workshops that promote acceptance and mutual respect.

 “The ultimate goal of any good social studies teacher is to inspire students to think beyond themselves, to take an interest in the world around them, and do something to improve it, even in a small way,” Palermo says.

It begins with taking an interest in current events and being receptive to differing viewpoints. Palermo establishes ground rules for discussion that encourage respect, openness, and empathy. “With ice-breakers and team-building activities, the students usually bond pretty quickly and feel comfortable with each other,” Palermo says. “This allows them to be honest and open when we’re discussing controversial issues.”

“How the teacher acts is what gives the students reassurance that they can be open and honest.”
On “Discussion Fridays,” Palermo leads the class in debates, aided by a Koosh—a stringy rubber ball named for the sound it makes on impact. Students toss the ball around the room; whoever holds it has the floor—no one else is permitted to speak. When finished, the speaker surrenders the floor by tossing the ball to another student, and the process begins anew. “I don’t feel the need to jump in at every moment, and I don’t have to worry about kids trying to get my attention,” he says. “There is much greater student participation, and very often the discussion will move in an unexpected, and usually interesting, direction.”

With students representing a wide range of ethnicities, Palermo’s class reflects the diversity of the Washington, D.C., area. On the subject of national security versus privacy and personal freedom, their opinions were just as wide-ranging.

 “I value my personal liberty too much to sacrifice it. How long is the war on terror going to last? People have wanted to attack us for a long time because of the freedoms we stand for,” said senior Molly Schmalzbach. “We need basic securities and a strong military, but these extra measures go too far—they’re infringing upon what we stand for in the first place.”

“Liberty without security is meaningless—there’s no point,” countered James Taylor, a junior. “Without security, you’re living a life of liberty, but one that could end at any moment.”

Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, is separated by two time zones and a 180-degree culture shift from Arlington, Virginia, but students there were just as deeply affected—and conflicted—by the aftermath of 9/11. The school sits adjacent to Fort Huachuca, a large Army base.

“Their fathers and mothers are serving in Iraq, or have served,” says Barbara Williams, who teaches U.S. history, AP human geography, and philosophy. “They talk about that a lot. The war in Iraq is a central factor in their lives now.”

There is disagreement in Williams’ classes over whether or not the war in Iraq is the result of 9/11 and whether it’s justified, and while some students are anxious about aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act, many find it acceptable.
Like Palermo, Williams believes that an important part of a student’s education is learning to think critically, to disagree, and to debate respectfully. She believes modeling this behavior from the first day of class is essential to establishing a safe sense of community. “How the teacher acts is what gives the students reassurance that they can be open and honest,” she says.

Williams brings in news articles from a variety of sources to help students evaluate and question what they read. She also explains the importance of linking history to the present. “When we studied the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, it was obvious that the Middle East mandates set at that time are directly tied to some of our issues today,” she says. “The American Revolution is [also] a good starting point. What is an extremist? A patriot? An activist? There really isn’t anything in our history that cannot provoke discussion that touches on today and tomorrow. And tomorrow is in their hands.”

On Williams’ wall is a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But for many students living in a post-9/11 world, the threat of terrorism is very real and present. There is disagreement in Williams’ classes over whether or not the war in Iraq is the result of 9/11 and whether it’s justified, and while some students are anxious about aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act, many find it acceptable.

“A common feeling is ‘as long as I don’t do anything wrong, I’ll probably be OK.’ Teenagers are cognizant of freedoms, especially personal freedoms, but seem quick to give them up,” Williams says. “They say, ‘that’s cool, as long as it keeps us safe.’”

That’s also been Diane Wright’s experience. She teaches U.S. history at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, where most of her students lean toward the side of security. “They don’t understand why it’s a big deal,” Wright says. “They don’t think that their government would ever arrest them for a crime unrelated to terrorism, even if they did get the information from a phone tap.” However, a smaller but sizable group of her students believes wire-tapping is an illegal abuse of power.

Wright used the war in Iraq in an exercise to encourage debate and the analysis of differing viewpoints. She labeled the four corners of the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot that best corresponded with their position on the war—Strongly Support, Somewhat Support, Strongly Oppose, and Somewhat Oppose. A roughly equal number of students stood in each of the Somewhat corners, a smaller group stood in the Strongly Oppose corner, and just one student stood in the Strongly Support corner.

Williams’ students sometimes ask her why they have to study history when “what’s past is past.” She explains that the solutions to the problems of today can often be found in the lessons of the past.
The students wrote down four reasons why they chose their corner and the reasons they thought their classmates chose the others. She drew a grid on the board to capture their responses.

 “There was a large disconnect,” Wright says. “The young man in the Strongly Support corner wrote that those in the Strongly Oppose corner simply hated George Bush, which wasn’t even one of their responses.” The students in the Strongly Oppose corner hadn’t anticipated one of the responses for Strongly Support—which was 9/11. “They felt that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and they thought ‘everybody knew that,’” Wright says.

In addition to why they chose their corners, the students listed evidence supporting their positions, separating fact from opinion. “The debate turned out quite well—it was structured and lively, and the students learned that [in a debate] they must try to anticipate the other side’s arguments,” Wright says. “I also feel it’s important to talk about fact versus opinion—because they’re so intertwined, students often don’t know the difference.”

Back in Arizona, Williams grapples with the same issue. In the weeks following the attacks of 9/11, a local Sikh store owner was shot and killed because he was thought to be Muslim. Using that event as an example, she warns her students about the dangers of making generalizations without adequate information. To illustrate, she points to another quote on her wall: “The most violent element in society is ignorance.”

Williams’ students sometimes ask her why they have to study history when “what’s past is past.” She explains that the solutions to the problems of today can often be found in the lessons of the past. Textbook critic James Loewen, a professor at the University of Vermont, agrees. But rather than relying on the information found in history books, he encourages teachers to have “meta-conversations” with students—that is, discussions about the discussions surrounding sensitive subjects. Otherwise, he says, “they’ll decide that history isn’t fun. They’ll think it’s boring, little more than memorization.”

From Virginia to Arizona, teachers have used the events of the past half-decade to do just that, but Williams says it’s for reasons beyond entertainment value. “Every citizen has a role,” she says. “My hope is that they will be more than passive spectators as adults…actors rather than being acted upon.” Not surprisingly, her classroom boasts another quote to drive the point home: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”  

9/11, By the Book

In 2001, McDougal Littell was finishing up its latest social studies textbook, Creating America. On September 11, the textbook publisher stopped the presses to address what had just happened.

“[The] biggest challenge was finding the right approach—truthful and uncensored, but not overly graphic,” says Collin Earnst of the Houghton Mifflin Company, which owns McDougal Littell. Ultimately, the editors “focused on the heroism of Americans that day.”

Five years later, textbook publishers still struggle to find the “right approach” to document the attacks of 9/11—which, like Pearl Harbor for the World War II generation, triggered a series of major events, most of which are still unfolding.

In most textbooks, the war in Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, and offshore prison camps like Guantanamo Bay are treated as a chronology of dates and events with little explanation of their potential significance, according to Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council. “Content on terrorism and 9/11 is covered very quickly with a few lines or paragraphs, and the word ‘terrorism’ itself is used very abstractly,” he says.

Some publishers, however, endeavor to put events into context. In its coverage of 9/11, McGraw-Hill Education includes information on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City, the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa—as well as a broader look back at U.S.-Middle East relations. “It’s important that we provide materials that show what was going on in the world leading up to the attacks,” says April Hattori, vice president of communications for the K–12 textbook publisher. “Part of that involves making cause-and-effect connections between events.”

Textbook critic James Loewen, a professor at the University of Vermont and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, acknowledges that some recent books are focusing a more analytical eye on events like 9/11, but most still have a long way to go. “It’s not useful to just say it’s bad that we were attacked,” he says.

Textbooks have long avoided controversy, Loewen argues, by focusing on what has generally been agreed upon as the “right answer” to a historical issue instead of letting students consider all possibilities. Over time, though, the “right answer” can change. Japanese internment camps, for example, were explained in textbooks in the decades following WWII as essential to national security. Loewen argues that textbook authors knew otherwise as early as the 1950s, but that didn’t become the “official truth” until the American government “fixed it” by apologizing and paying indemnities. The question of how such current issues as the USA PATRIOT Act will ultimately be described, Loewen says, will likely reflect a historical perspective determined by the outcome of the war in Iraq and relations with the Arab world.

Confronting Controversy
Photos: Sandy Schaeffer

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