American schools are dealing with an unplanned addition to their curriculum this year. The war in Iraq is provoking discussions that range from classrooms to hallway corridors to school cafeterias. VOA's Nancy Beardsley talked with students and teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. to learn more about how the conflict is affecting area schools.
Kyle Rogers, 17, lives in Springfield, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb that's home to many military families. In addition to watching nightly television coverage of the war in Iraq, he also follows the conflict during his days at school. "We read the paper at school. We talk about the war," he said. "It's not like we're involved in it, but we know people who are. One of our teachers has a son who's over there, and some people who have fathers over there. You see people more concerned."
Mostafa Abdel Karim is completing his final year at Fairfax High School, also in the Virginia suburbs. He too hears a lot about the war at school. "And it's not just government classes or history classes," said Mostafa. "We talk about it in English. Sometimes it's mentioned in Journalism. So it's hard not to hear about it in school."
The war can evoke strong opinions and emotions among students in the Washington D.C., region, where media coverage is heavy, many people work at the Pentagon and area military bases, and large numbers of immigrants come from the Middle East.
"Many are distressed by the pictures and the killing and bloodiness," said Gale Long, who teaches government at Falls Church High School in Virginia. "I have seniors who are looking at 18 and 19-year-olds out fighting who are their peers, and so this is a concern to them. You always have some students who like the strategy of battles. You have some students who want to look at it on a deeper level. And you have some students who just want to close it out because it is more anxiety than they can deal with."
The Fairfax County School System has laid down few ground rules for discussion of the war. County Social Studies Coordinator Sara Shoob said the main concerns are that discussions be objective, and that students continue to learn material they need to pass standardized tests at the end of the school year.
"Overall, teachers are not changing their curriculum, but they also know they need to address the questions their students have," said Ms. Shoob. "And I think teachers do have to say to their students, 'This is why George Bush thinks we need to be there. There are protestors on the street. This is why they think we shouldn't be there.' I think they need to talk about the issues and the two sides."
Teachers have found a range of ways to bring the war into the classroom. Gale Long, from Falls Church High School, teaches advanced placement, or AP, classes that count towards college credit. She has used the conflict in Iraq to help students understand a number of complex issues.
"Many of the things that led up to this - the policy making, the president's decision [on] dealing with the U.N. and Congress, we have integrated that into the regular curriculum as examples of things that have been going on," said Ms. Long. "We're looking at questions about an embedded press, because there's a media unit in AP government; we're looking at preventive war versus a defensive war. We're looking at things that integrate with the curriculum, as opposed to separating the war out by itself."
Mostafa Abdel Karim says some of the most interesting discussions in his classes revolve around coverage of the war. "That has played a huge role in our journalism class," he said. "The teacher is always showing us some sample of CNN's coverage and asking us is this fair coverage? We're saying [they have] freedom of speech, but how much can you really reveal? So that's had an impact on our curriculum when we're talking about the First Amendment in journalism." The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech.
Mostafa's family is Muslim and originally came to the United States from Egypt. He says he's never felt uncomfortable in discussions about the war. In fact, he's regarded as a resource.
"I think from my position you're really subject to a lot of questions coming in from the other students and teachers. They ask you how you think it's going, and what your opinions are because, especially teachers, are always trying to get the other view about it," said Mostafa.
While both teachers and students say they try to respect one another's views, they do express different opinions about the war, and debates can extend beyond the classroom. Kyle Rogers says some of the most intense discussions take place during lunch. "The more Republican-minded people are saying we need to go in there and help them out; and the more Democratic people say we're just going in for the oil," he said. "I think hearing other peoples' opinions makes you more aware. But it doesn't really change your opinion."
Mostafa Abdel Karim said school officials have imposed some limits on debate. Leaders of a model United Nations program he takes part in discouraged discussion of the war, saying students had to stick to assigned topics. And when a group of his classmates wanted to take part in a nationwide noontime walk-out to protest the conflict, the principal warned them they'd be suspended if they left school. Still, there's plenty of activism in his hallways.
"Just last week I saw one girl passing around anti-war buttons, and she had a T-shirt on that said 'No War on Iraq.' So students are expressing their ideas," Mostafa said.
And while the war has meant adjusting her teaching plan in some ways, Gale Long of Falls Church High School believes it also helps make school seem more relevant. "One of the things I love about teaching government is that government is a subject that always integrates with what's going on in the world around us," said Ms. Long. "You have things happen, and then we can use them to demonstrate examples of things that are actually in the text."
Gale Long says government classes aren't about history, but about the processes that help shape history. The war in Iraq is giving students powerful real life lessons in how those processes work."