Helping kids read about terrorism

The Education Beat

Magazines: Three periodicals for children report last week's events while advising parents what to say in times of crisis.

September 16, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT WAS AN unspeakable tragedy, and an unreadable one, too, for the youngest kids.

Weekly Reader, which reaches 10 million American children each week, stopped the presses shortly after last week's calamity and added six pages under the theme "Day of Terror" - but only in those editions directed at children in the fourth grade and above.

"We can't have kindergarten children reading about exploding buildings," said Charles A. Piddock, the magazine's executive editor. "Of course, a lot of them are going to see it on television, and we can help their parents and teachers help them cope, which is what we tried to do in teachers' editions and on our Web site."

But explaining in depth last week's terrorist attack on the United States "requires readers with an understanding of the world that the littlest kids don't have," Piddock said.

That appeared to be the consensus among editors of the other two major newsmagazines for children, Time For Kids and Scholastic, although my observations about Scholastic are based solely on its Web site. The company's New York offices, a stone's throw from the disaster's epicenter, were closed by official order.

All three children's magazines reported the attack dispassionately at roughly a middle-school level of reading difficulty. All three provided daily and hourly online updates. All three advised parents and teachers what to say to children during times of crisis.

Scholastic, taking advantage of its location, carried first-person accounts from one of its staffers and from students at Stuyvesant High School, which sits at the base of what used to be the World Trade Center.

A Scholastic essay, "Who Is to Blame?" was notable for its lack of jingoism. Writer Steven Ehrenberg let others do the blaming and the speculating. Ehrenberg quoted Larry Johnson, an authority on terrorism: "This is the Pearl Harbor of American terrorism. Just as occurred with Pearl Harbor, we'll get through this."

I'll find out how Scholastic reported Pearl Harbor when its editors return from their own Pearl Harbor, but Weekly Reader and its sister publications reported the Japanese attack with drama and patriotism, and they didn't spare the youngest kids. There was no television 60 years ago, "and nothing like the immediacy of news reporting today," said Piddock.

"Sunday afternoon, December 7, will long be remembered by the people of the United States," Current Events, a Weekly Reader magazine directed at middle school-age children, reported Dec. 15, 1941.

"Many of them were sitting by their radios. Suddenly, clashing across soothing musical programs, came a news flash. It was an announcement from the White House. Japanese planes had just bombed Oahu (oh-ah-hoo), one of the Hawaiian Islands."

The article went on to depict Japan as an empire-builder that had simply run out of "free land" for expansion. Editions for younger children carried similar stories in simpler language under the headline: "We Are at War With Japan."

An accompanying article extolled the Bill of Rights, which the magazine said "makes possible our American way of living," including "free schools, unregulated churches of all kinds, trustworthy printed news and news broadcasts, labor unions and the many groups that meet to discuss the plans and actions of the Government."

Postwar memories

Last week's column about the venerable Weekly Reader elicited a delightful note from Susan McGinn of Annapolis, who enclosed a photocopy of the magazine dated Jan. 27, 1947. The lead story, "Nothing Can Take the Place of Tin," praised "the only metal which does not poison or change the taste of food left standing in it."

McGinn remembers other memorable postwar issues:

Sept. 23, 1946: Telephones were starting to travel. The great advantage was that doctors could use them on house calls.

Nov. 4, 1946: Farmers were turning to chemicals. McGinn says she remembers how excited her dad was about the possibilities of DDT.

Feb. 2, 1947: An American game went to Germany. It was basketball, introduced by the Yanks during the war.

`Mozart effect' reconsidered

Another myth exploded. If you want your child to speak, read or write better, exposure to drama is a better choice than Mozart, but neither is a magic bullet, according to researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The researchers analyzed 188 studies conducted over 50 years and concluded that the so-called "Mozart effect" is overblown. "Arts advocates need to stop making sweeping claims about the arts as a magic pill for turning students around academically," said Lois Hetland, project manager of the study.

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