War and Teaching

Progressive teachers don’t want to tell our students what to think, or to shame either kids or parents who disagree with our personal politics. On the other hand, we’re not willing to teach unchallenged fictions masquerading as history. We’re not willing to say that patriotism requires uncritical acceptance of government policies and actions. In fact, we aim for the reverse, for graduates who can and will think critically, who assume that it’s part of citizenship to seek justice and inclusiveness in our political life. We want everyone touched by our schools to continue to consider the needs of the whole community, when that means the whole world.

All that is easier to say than to live. In my experience, war makes it really hard.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a participant in this year’s writing workshop sponsored by the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences (see my previous post), I listened and responded as both my poet self and my teacher self.

In one session, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges challenged all of the Joiner participants to write the truth of war–including, so importantly, the truth of war for the most vulnerable, for children, the elderly, the disabled, and others who don’t carry weapons, whose experience is one of terror, unmitigated by comradeship or glory.

In session after session, under a dozen different titles, I thought of my childhood with a victim of nameless and untreated Post Traumatic Stress.

On the other hand, in session after session, I thought with enormous gratitude about the literature that’s been available to help me open up at least some of the truth about war’s shadow, the books and poems offering young readers views of war simultaneously honest and accessible.

My Place Bertie croppedI thought of My Place, the extraordinary Australian picture book by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, which portrays war’s impact on ordinary families–on  parents, and younger brothers or sisters; on wounded veterans; on daughters and sons. (To the left, part of the page for 1918.)

I thought of time travel novels like The Root Cellar, by Janet Lunn, in which a young girl arrives in the time of the American Civil War and sees terrible suffering; or Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, in which a time-switch,  via a boarding school bed, sends a girl into the chaos and disruption of World War I.

I remembered the engagement of kids as they worked on understanding historical novels. For example, Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, makes clear the role of prejudicial conscription of Jewish young men, compounded by assignment to the worst, most dangerous military roles–all of this fueling emigration from Russia, among other places.

When Martha Collins and Fred Marchant asked us to think about war’s impacts far from the battlefield, I remembered kids acting out the events in  picture books such as Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, about the Japanese-Americans dispossessed and rounded up into internment camps during World War II, by the United States Government.

When Paul Atwood spoke about the history of only dimly remembered wars of aggression, I thought of Henry Climbs a Mountain, in which Henry David Thoreau, illustrated as a bear, takes his conscientious objection to the Mexican War right into jail, and gives away his shoes to an escaping slave.

Ramadan coverAt the Joiner Institute I watched veterans young and older reaching out to fellow writers from the countries where they were stationed. I was glad to remember that whenever our country was involved in fighting or funding or promoting a war, wonderful children’s literature helped me humanize the other side. I read books about Islam, including a beautiful picture book, Ramadan, by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi and Omar Rayyan, which describes Islam’s commitment to the community and to the poor, and accurately portrays Islam as a religion followed by people all over the world, not only Arabs.

I read aloud I Remember Palestine, a book about one Palestinian family’s flight and heartbreak. I read poems from Naomi Shihab Nye’s deeply moving anthology, The Flag of Childhood, with points of view from every side of the conflicts in the Middle East. I found books about the geography and people of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and read portions of them.

Flag of Childhood cover cropped

Sometimes, these past weeks at the Joiner,  I’ve forgotten that I’m not currently teaching young adolescents, and I’ve thought about things I’d like to try. I wanted to have my school’s brave, respectful students role-play the story of a young vet from Afghanistan, who bravely and generously shared his story of an incident he regretted. I wanted to try out the Forum Theater techniques described by an Iraqi playwright, Amir Al-Azrakii, as ways of exploring different outcomes, different reactions within moments of oppression or conflict.

At 93, my father is still proud to have fought in World War II. But I was very young, and the totality of his experience was never far from my mind, when I became committed to waging peace, which goes beyond opposition to war, and seeks to do everything possible to resolve a conflict by finding ways to meet the needs of all. Paying attention as an adult, I’ve gone further, and I’ve learned to ask, “Who benefits? Who’s making money off this war? Who has reasons to try to convince us that war is just or inescapable, even if that takes manufactured evidence?”

Sometimes those strongly-held positions have put me in an uncomfortable place with my teaching colleagues. (I’m not good at hiding anything I feel, I’ll admit.) In some of my least-resolved memories of teaching life, I struggle with a sense of alienation and deep discouragement, year by year and war by war.

Inevitably, other unresolved memories involve difficult decisions that I still question. One year a large group of boys spent every sketching time, every single morning, drawing scenes of battle and destruction. In desperation, I finally banned war as a topic for sketching, something I’d never had to do before, and never had to do again. Some of the boys were relieved, in fact, and cheerfully set about making other kinds of cartoons. Still I wonder what was going on, what I failed to explore deeply enough, what they might have needed help with, and why that year, or that group, was unique in that way.

Mostly, though, looking back at my teaching while thinking about war, I am grateful for what was possible at my wonderful school. I’m grateful, for example, for the way freedom from standardized testing let me allow a child obsessed with the Holocaust to read novel after novel, sorting out through the novels’ vividness whatever it was she needed to sort out. I’m grateful for the ways I could offer the empowerment in portraits of resistance: in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars; in books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Claudette Colvin. I was glad we could offer our students training for conflict resolution.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we are building peace whenever we encourage students to know the humanity of all their fellow humans. In a different way, we encourage peace when we help our students think about our species as predator primates, who have found and still are finding ways of using culture to become fully human.

I think of all the kinds of teaching described at the Joiner–using the invitation to write as a way to reach out to the homeless, to veterans of war and sex-trafficking, to prisoners. Then I think of my own young students and what writing often meant to them. We are building peace whenever we give students paper and pencils and encourage them to write, or help them build communities in which we encourage them to speak, to give respectful and authentic voice to their own complicated truths–and to listen as others do the same.

As students young or old, we are building peace when we help each other rise to all the many challenges involved in being conscious, and individual, and a part of the group, all at once.

I think of Chris Hedges’ words this past week, and I come finally to this: as teachers, as students, as citizens, we build peace when we choose life.

2 thoughts on “War and Teaching

  1. This is one of your very best posts, Polly! Full of resources, written from the heart, honest about contradictions, and true as rain.

  2. Pingback: Writing to Learn, Writing to Nourish Community | a year to think it over

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