- Andy Beutel
All students’ names have been changed to protect privacy.
Over the past few weeks, as schools closed in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers across the country have had to quickly adjust to remote instruction. The lack of in-person contact with our students, an increased reliance on technology, and the new reality of teaching from our homes pose obvious challenges for instruction. This dynamic has also increased the involvement of parents and guardians as they have assumed a more active role in the teaching and learning process. And students are now in a position where they have less direct support from their teachers and peers and have to work much more independently, a particular challenge for those with unique learning needs. Despite these challenges, I believe there are still opportunities to engage in critical teaching and learning in this environment.
I teach 7th grade social studies in a high-performing school district situated in an affluent, suburban, and conservative-learning community. Living in such a place, my students are generally well-served but tend to be personally unfamiliar with historical and modern injustices and unexposed to those marginalized in society. In this context, my goal in the classroom has been to help students think critically about their world through the lens of justice and equity and develop what Friere (1997) described as a “critical consciousness”. We explore issues of racism, religious discrimination, economic inequality, and the disproportionate effects of war. I try to help my students develop a more complete understanding of these issues by thinking about them from different perspectives with the goal of developing a deeper sense of empathy for those who are less fortunate and well-served. This type of empathy, what Mirra (2018) referred to as “critical civic empathy,” moves beyond individual feelings of tolerance and toward understanding the lives of others in the context of the power and positionality that shape our different experiences and views.
However, as Swalwell (2013) noted, it is uniquely difficult to engage in this type of teaching with this population of students while avoiding the alienation of students and accusations of indoctrination from parents and administrators. I believe these concerns are heightened during our current period of remote learning. The location of learning has moved from the classroom – a space where a teacher and students can explore questions and participate in critical discussions together – to the private homes of the students. In order to carefully walk this line, I design lessons that combine text-based analysis with reflective writing. Rather than relying on a lecture approach, I integrate different types of texts to drive content instruction with a focus on conceptual understanding and making connections across time and place (Downey & Long, 2016). I couple those texts with what hooks (1994) characterized as an “engaged pedagogy” where the students and I are in a constant state of exploration together through ongoing reading, reflection and dialogue. I contend that this approach is both possible and necessary during the current period of remote learning.
My goal for the learning activity described below was to help students think critically about the effects of war while being mindful of the constraints and challenges of remote learning. War is a difficult topic for my students to analyze and understand on a critical level. For my 12 and 13-year-old students, they have only known a world in which the United States has been fighting multiple wars. However, while these wars have been ongoing, they have also been distant and far-removed from these students, with only a handful knowing someone who has served in combat. Additionally, the US-centric nature of the information presented in most school textbooks discourages critically questioning US foreign policy (Loewen, 2007). This combination has generally resulted in a lack of understanding of foreign conflicts and empathy for the people on the sides opposing the US. For instance, a common question I hear from students when discussing modern conflicts is: “why do they hate us?” As a result, this is one of the topics I have students explore across different times and places in history and through different perspectives to promote ongoing reflection and reconsideration.
As part of our study of Japan, I had students read the book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, written by Eleanor Coerr and originally published in 1977. The widely read book is set in 1955 Hiroshima and is the story of a young girl, Sadako, who suffered from leukemia she contracted from the radiation of the US atomic bombing that led to the end of World War II in 1945. This text works in this context for a few reasons. In terms of content, the book connects to Japanese history and culture and creates openings to discuss the effects of a war that is familiar to the students through a perspective that is unfamiliar. Logistically, this book makes sense because it is available for free online for my students to read. This book is also particularly appealing during remote learning because the target reading level is upper elementary school which enabled all of my students, including the struggling readers, to be able to understand the text and read it in a relatively short amount of time.
I introduced the activity through a screen sharing video in which I provided context for the book and the purpose for reading it. I organized the reading over two one-hour virtual class periods with reflection questions for the students to answer. Students responded to two of four reflection questions after reading about half of the book. These questions asked students to connect to their prior knowledge, think about what it would be like to live in a place after a war, and consider how the fears of leukemia in Japan were similar and different to the fears of the coronavirus pandemic in the US today. The students wrote their responses on a document posted to our Google Classroom page which enabled me to engage in a written dialogue with them. This dialogue included clarifying questions from the students as well as suggestions and follow-up questions from me to encourage them to expand on their thinking.
The students then responded to two of four reflection questions after they finished the book. These questions were designed to help students think critically about the effects of war from the perspective of those most negatively affected as well as really examine their own views on war more broadly. I was particularly interested in the extent to which students’ views about war changed or deepended after reading the book, which I tried to capture through the following question: Did this story change your view of war? Why or why not?
I was hoping for students to use this historic example of war to think about war across time. Interestingly though, the students whose views on war did not change focused exclusively on World War II and the US bombing of Japan. For example, Paula wrote: “It does not change my opinion. The reason is that President Truman gave the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nocashaky (sic) Japan the results ended the war. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs resulted in Japan’s surrender; this ended up potentially saving more lives than might have been lost if the war had continued.” This response is reflective of the conventional, US-centric thinking about the atomic bombing of Japan and does not consider the perspective of the Japanese civilians.
Similarly, Leo wrote: “The story however didn’t change my view of the war because I have always grown up learning about the Americans’ side and I always knew that the nuclear bombs that America used on Japan was a horrible thing that had to happen. But I also knew that the Americans did that to force Japan to surrender. Overall my view of war was expanded because of this story but it still hasn’t changed because of the horrible events throughout history that have happened to people on both sides of the battlefield…Really, it brought more knowledge of the other countries (sic) devastation to my mind which enabled me to ponder about it for a while and I ended up with an expanded view of Japan’s view of the war which told me that they weren’t the only ones who did bad things.” Leo’s response is interesting because he remains insistent that the US was justified in their actions but he did express a recognition that the negative effects of war affect “people on both sides”. Overall, his words reflect a deep level of thinking about this conflict from multiple perspectives and introspection of his own position on the topic.
Other students developed a new understanding of war that they applied beyond World War II. For instance, Eva wrote, “This story greatly changed my view of war. It made me realize just how terrible it is. Of course I knew that war was devastating, but this made me think about it. War not only affects the soldiers who fight in it, but hundreds of thousands of people who had no involvement at all. It affects future generations…And there are still so many more children and adults that will die from a war that they had no involvement in.” Similarly, Bella wrote, “I thought of war being an event of history, as soon it was over my thought was the people who survived, survived and thought of it as a past event. But after reading this book I realized how much a war can impact a life even after it ended.” Both of these responses reflect a new understanding of war that includes a recognition that the negative effects extend well beyond the end of the conflict. Often war is reduced to numbers of deaths and casualties, but the perspective shared by these students offers a more expansive view of war that includes the long term impact.
Some students went even further in their thinking by really connecting to this topic on a personal level. Ava wrote: “Before reading this book when I thought of war everyone on the opposing team was evil and trying to hurt me and my loved ones. After reading this book I now understand how war affects the civilians living in an area. Innocent people get hurt. Even if their country is doing something ‘bad’ it isn’t their fault and they don’t deserve to die. Over the past few years, I have considered going into the military when I get older because I want to help people. I don’t think I could go into war any more knowing that I could be hurting innocent people who are just like you and me.” Ava’s response reflects a complete rethinking of war. She recognizes the unavoidable reality of innocent people being hurt and killed in war but goes further by seeing those people as fellow humans, “just like you and me”, and decides she doesn’t want to contribute to the harming of others when she is older.
The students’ reflective responses to this text demonstrate the potential for critically engaging students in deep thinking about complex issues during remote learning. Reading an accessible text that presented an underrepresented perspective on war coupled with guiding questions designed to elicit open-ended thinking, enabled the students to critically examine an unfamiliar topic and reflect on their own views.
That said, in the midst of this current crisis, I know this type of learning activity is not possible everywhere. I recognize the inherent privilege of my students and our remote learning environment. This lesson would not have been possible without each student having their school-issued computer at home and their homes being equipped with working wi-fi. All students and teachers are facing different circumstances during this period of remote learning. I share this work for those interested and able to engage students in this type of teaching and learning during this unusual and challenging time.
Downey, M. T., & Long, K. A. (2016). Teaching for historical literacy building knowledge in the history classroom. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised 20th anniversary ed). New York: Continuum. (Original work published in 1970).
Loewen, J. (2007). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mirra, N. (2018). Educating for empathy: Literacy learning and civic engagement. New York: Teachers College Press.
Swalwell, K. (2013). Educating activist allies: Social justice pedagogy with the suburban and urban elite. New York, NY: Routledge.