Book Review: Making Active Citizenship Part of the Curriculum
Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Writing & Speaking Out About Issues of Peace and War by Chris Weber, Heinemann, 217 pages
After making a wish and blowing out the candles on a cake celebrating her tenth birthday, she was sobbing. "What's the matter?" her mother asked. The girl answered that her wish had been to end the Korean War, a wish she knew could not come true. She had been horrified by a newspaper photograph of dead soldiers lying in the snow.
"There was a long silence," Susan Ohanian writes. Her mother didn't know how to respond and didn't think about turning to the school. "School was about nouns agreeing with verbs and about Narcissa Whitman's journey to Oregon, not about war in a far-off land."
Ohanian remembers this childhood experience in her foreword to Chris Weber's Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Writing & Speaking Out About Issues of Peace and War. She asks, "If I could be so affected by a newspaper headline and photograph, what does today's media assault do to children? And where do they go for comfort and explanation?" And, one might add, how can they find age-appropriate ways to act on their understandings and feelings?
A classroom teacher in Portland, Oregon, Weber has pondered such questions and discussed them with writers, students, and other teachers. Now he has produced a guide and resource book that includes his comments and suggestions as well as those of contributors. Its three sections include "talking and writing about issues of war and peace," young people's first-hand accounts of "living in a world of war," and student action possibilities to respond to what they have learned. (Disclosure: One of the classroom activities I wrote for this website, "Nuclear Weapons Controversy," is part of the book's final section.)
Issues of war and peace are controversial, which of course is a reason why some teachers shy from raising them. But, as Peter Elbow demonstrates in "The Believing Game" (which is included in Weber's book), these are the very issues that give students a chance to enter into another person's points of view and to engage in nonadversarial dialogue rather than debate. Critical thinking usually emphasizes intelligent questioning, skepticism, analysis. But Elbow has invented and championed a powerful complement to and "mirror image" of this "doubting game," "the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming as possible to every idea we encounter—actually trying to believe them. We can use the tool of believing to scrutinize not for flaws but for hidden virtues in ideas that are unfashionable or repellent." He provides suggestions for helping students do just that.
Debating teams and classroom debates are often popular in high schools. Would that at least the same popularity might come to the believing game in a country where people talk noisily at and over each other 24/7 on TV. Teachers need to help students become active listeners who are able to carry on a dialogue with someone whose views are different, who look for points of agreement and who might one day become revolutionary politicians in the American political world by modeling a new breed of civic and civil behavior. Or at least ordinary citizens who know how to talk with another citizen.
Several other chapters discuss strategies for developing empathy. Nancy Gorrell describes a method to enable students "to 'enter into' the spirit and feeling of others" through reading poems that respond to great works of art and through writing such "ecphrastic" (a new one on me) poems themselves. Jim Burke suggests teaching students to write reflective essays that express their understandings and feelings.
Mark Hyman takes empathy and compassion another long step in "Nurturing Compassion and Global Citizenship in Youth," an unusually comprehensive guide for student learning about the global landmine problem. Included are journal writing, roleplays, research, the use of multiple media, presentations, fundraising to demine a village in Bosnia and rehabilitate landmine survivors in Cambodia, and the creation of a Global Care Youth Coalition. But this partial sketch cannot do justice to the scope and educational value of Hyman's guide, which can also serve as a model for approaching other issues of war and peace.
Unfortunately, "Developing Media Literate Students" is disappointing. For it is a vital subject at a time when we are drowning in information and misinformation and when dissatisfaction with the media has reached new heights. Weber includes in this chapter a useful list of resources and identifies key media literacy abilities: analyzing words and images; questioning motives, values, sources; critically viewing media messages; detecting bias and disinformation. But the chapter is very sketchy on how to develop these abilities.
In his1959 classic The Vanishing Adolescent on the impact of schools on adolescents (not included in Weber's book), Edgar Z. Friedenberg wrote, "Adolescents are alive, and the school is not the whole of life; given a consistent, honest, and coherent picture of the world, they can correct for themselves its biases and omissions. But it is quite another thing for the school to limit perception and responsiveness in every direction to what the society can tolerate without discord. Society thereby establishes within its members a cut-off point; no matter what happens, they do not see too much, get too involved, or try to overthrow the system." Not surprisingly, Friedenberg gave American schools a poor grade on helping adolescents clarify their experience and understand the world they live in. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they act "to limit perception."
In the third and final section of Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students, Bill Bigelow's "Lesson on Terrorism" provides an opportunity for the doors of perception to open. The lesson has students define terrorism, meet in small groups to discuss definitions and work for a consensus. Next, students receive for examination ten concise scenarios describing the real activities of countries whose names, for purposes of the exercise, are fictional. Group discussion of three questions follows. Which, if any, of the activities should be considered "terrorism" in terms of the group's definition? Who are the "terrorists"? What additional information might one need to be surer of an answer?
Bigelow's lesson is subversive, in the best sense. It opens eyes and undermines the received view of what constitutes a terrorist act and who the terrorists are. It both complicates and makes possible the clarification of experience.
Weber's book has multiple virtues: it deals with serious issues seriously and it focuses on the experiences of young people and lets us hear their voices again and again. It fosters active education both inside and outside the classroom and makes citizenship part of the curriculum.
This review was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Educators for Social Responsibility Metropolitan Area. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.