WASHINGTON – Kathryn Robinson feels like a peacekeeper these days.
“I’m on a constant tight rope,” said Robinson, a U.S. history teacher at Baltimore County’s Parkville High School, who finds herself refereeing debates over Iraq between students who come from all over the globe and have opinions just as diverse.
Among Robinson’s 180 students are Kurds, Indians, Iraqis and native Marylanders, two of whom recently enlisted to serve in the military.
“It’s very difficult to be a social studies teacher right now,” she said. “I have kids who make racist statements because they have a brother being shipped out. I say, `Don’t say that, do you know that that child is an ethnic Kurd? His people hate Saddam Hussein more than you do.'”
Educators across the state are grappling with the “teachable moment” — not forcing the discussion of Iraq on their students but not avoiding it either.
Some counties have laid down guidelines for teachers to follow, encouraging middle and high school social studies teachers to facilitate discussion about war when it comes up, while urging them to keep personal political views to themselves. Teachers can talk about the war, but they have been urged to eventually steer the conversation back toward the curriculum.
In Calvert County, social studies supervisor Scott McComb is encouraging his teachers to “seize the teachable moment.” When a student asked about canceled airline travel because of the war, McComb told the teacher to talk about the interdependence of business with war.
In Montgomery County schools, social studies specialist Martin Creel said that connections are really easy to make right now between curriculum and world events. He said that two county elective courses, Peace Studies and Model U.N., for example, lend themselves to rich classroom discussion about different points of view on world events.
But Creel emphasized that with the vast ethnic diversity of his county discussion, can lead to potential conflict in the classroom.
“We teach that there are multiple American viewpoints but common values, and it’s OK to disagree, but we all get along,” Creel said.
Harford County teachers are striving to connect the current affairs to lessons.
“We want students to understand that history is a continuing thing, and if connecting to today’s events can make it more meaningful, we teach that way,” said Don Morrison, a spokesman for the county.
Harford is also home to the Aberdeen Proving Ground. At nearby Edgewood Elementary, where 75 percent of the 464 students are in military families, many students face the deployment of a parent in connection with the pending war, said Assistant Principal Donna E. Lewis.
As a result, she said, the school is dealing with more defiant behavior than usual. This week, the school had to suspend a kindergarten student.
“This is a transitional time for students with dad still here and they don’t want him to go so they are acting out,” Lewis said.
In an effort to help students deal with anxiety over the deployment, parents and teachers have dedicated a wall to the parents who are being deployed. A drive has begun to collect school supplies for Afghan girls, and coloring books that illustrate issues surrounding deployment are available to help children understand separation.
Howard County schools plan to have extra guidance counselors available on days when a difficult world event may occur, said Mark Stout, the county’s coordinator of social studies.
Stout has also recommended that teachers not turn on the television for breaking news — a recommendation seconded by Calvert County’s McComb.
“That’s not how you want a 15-year-old to find out that the building their parent works in has just been hit,” he said, a reference to fallout of kids watching television in the classroom on Sept. 11.
Despite the challenges, Creel contends that the teachers in his county are doing a “remarkable job.”
Parkville High School’s Robinson said she is determined to teach her students that what they are going through “isn’t that different than what people have seen in the past.”
“People think times are so much more complicated than they were in history, but we have the advantage of hindsight today,” she tells her students. “At some point we’re going to figure out how to work together again.”