War changes teachers' lesson plans

Schools shift studies to help kids cope, understand events

October 25, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl and Jennifer McMenamin | Stephen Kiehl and Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Lessons on the Middle Ages were set aside for lessons on the Middle East. Biology classes on cell division turned into impromptu anthrax seminars. And art classes moved from still lifes to reconstructions of the battered Manhattan skyline.

At schools across the Baltimore area, teachers have rearranged their lesson plans to meet the interests of students who want to know more about Sept. 11 and its aftermath. The challenge, educators say, is to do so in a way that's constructive, not alarming.

"I am still looking for [a way] to talk to them about anthrax and still make them feel safe," said Daniel Hellerbach, who teaches social studies at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School in North Baltimore.

Social studies and biology classes have spent the most time discussing topics related to the news, but almost all courses have found some link. Patriotic songs and art projects have returned to chorus, music and fine arts classes with an earnestness that teachers say they have not seen since the Persian Gulf war, as students seek an emotional outlet that their academic courses cannot provide.

High school students are hearing the most about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan, while younger children's studies are going mostly as usual.

"I have really tried to stay away from it," said Principal Irma Johnson of Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School in Baltimore. "I don't want to distract them any further. I just want them to focus on learning now."

Jacqueline C. Haas, Harford County schools superintendent, has limited current-events discussions to "appropriate" middle and high school classes, such as history and government.

"We don't want to spend all day on this," Haas said. "We have a responsibility to convey the curriculum."

Helping to understand

But educators, especially in high schools, are finding that even if they want to stay away from the topic, students bring it up. And they feel it's their job to help students make sense of an uncertain world.

"Almost every day, the kids have questions," said Bill Norris, social studies chairman at Arundel High School in Gambrills. "They're interested and they want information. There's definitely a level of concern there."

Norris said he does his best to answer students' questions, sometimes bringing in newspaper articles to share, and sometimes letting students discuss the situation for up to 20 minutes a day.

In Baltimore County, the school system has ordered highly detailed maps of Afghanistan for use in fourth- and fifth-grade classes to teach the natural and man-made features of the country.

Officials are anticipating students' questions and said they want to be able to answer them. So social studies department heads from county schools met this month with an expert on military affairs; next month, they'll meet to discuss Islamic culture and anti-Arab discrimination.

Some Anne Arundel County teachers have used their students' interest in the war to draw them into studying other topics. To help them learn the limits of the nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, one government teacher asked her students to explore how President Bush would be constrained if he were operating under them instead of the Constitution.

At Meade High School on Fort Meade, teacher Jennifer Powell asked her U.S. history students to compare the ways civil liberties were infringed during the Civil War with the bills Congress is considering in response to the attacks.

"It's a way students are able to attach some relevance to history they don't always see as relevant," Powell said.

World history teachers, she said, "have used this as an opportunity to teach about Islam. They have stepped aside from [studying the Renaissance] and are talking about Afghanistan and how it came to be, and the Taliban."

At Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie, seventh-graders took a test this week based on Afghanistan and the Taliban. The pupils compared a map showing Taliban army bases and training sites to a map showing Northern Alliance-held territory. They also studied charts from a newspaper comparing the combatants' military might.

"The children are interested in talking about it," said Anne Yakaitis, Corkran's social studies department chairwoman.

But at the same time, she said, teachers don't want to upset the pupils.

"We want to create an atmosphere where children feel safe in school," she said.

Matthew DeMunbrun, who teaches art to middle and high school students at Carroll County's Gateway alternative school, tweaked a project on designing a city of the future to encourage his class to envision what lower Manhattan should look like as New Yorkers rebuild.

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