How does one teach about war?
With pictures or words?
With speeches or documentation?
With prayers or curses?
With laughter or tears?
I began my class like I always do – with a question.
“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.
A patter at first, then a storm.
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints.
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing.
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care.
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.
But it led to some interesting discussion.
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world.
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”
And after the result is graphically portrayed, the speaker extols their virtue:
“When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!”
So I ask my students what they think about it. Is it a soldier’s duty to follow orders no matter what? Should they question those orders?
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.
And then I present them with an 80s heavy metal video by Iron Maiden of the song “The Trooper.”
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field.
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.
The way I see it, this isn’t the time for me to insert my opinion into the class. It’s an opportunity for my students to think through the problem, themselves.
And, frankly, that’s really the point of most of school.
It’s not the transmission of knowledge. Teachers can’t magic information into children’s heads.
Instead, we provide opportunities to learn. We encourage students to think. We’re more like gardeners than anything else. We water, we weed, we make sure the soil is fertile. But it is up to the child to grow and in which direction to strive.
That’s why far right scare mongers are so ignorant and absurd when they try to constrain teachers from teaching about history or racism.
These campaigns are not aimed at educators. They are aimed at students.
The goal is to offer children only one path in which to grow.
They want to stifle thought, stifle free expression, stifle intellectual freedom by removing the option to think.
It may not be as dramatic as Putin invading. “Shot and shell” may not be flying. But the forces of fascism are equally at work on the minds of our children.
In teaching about the war in Europe, educators are waging a battle against the war at home.
Viva la revolución!
Long live the revolution!
Like this post? You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.
Plus you get subscriber only extras!
Just CLICK HERE.
I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!