Social Education 57(1) pps. 33-41
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies
During the 1990-1991 school year, social studies teachers in the United States were confronted with compelling current events-the troop buildup in the Persian Gulf, intense bombardment and fighting in Kuwait and Iraq, and the subsequent repercussions of war. The war touched the lives of students in the United States as the government ordered their fathers, mothers, cousins, and teachers to the Middle East. Students viewed the immediacy of war daily-the Scud missiles, the bombing of Baghdad, the liberation of Kuwait, the massacre of the Kurds and Shiites, and the homecoming of the U.S. troops. With the exception of some of the most recent immigrants to our country, it was the first real-life war this generation of K-12 students had ever seen.
How did social studies teachers respond to the Gulf War? In what ways did the war affect their instructional decisions? What factors influenced their decisions? In this case study, twelve teachers examined those and other questions weekly as part of a year-long study to document how teachers make decisions as they teach about the world.1
For the study I chose school districts based upon their commitment to global education as demonstrated through course development, allocation of resources, and staff development. District and building administrators recommended teachers based on their achievements in teaching and curriculum development related to global education, and their willingness to participate in a year-long study. The district and building administrators considered each of the twelve selected teachers exemplary. Six teachers (two elementary, two middle, and two secondary from each district) were selected from a large urban district. Their classes consisted primarily of working-class African-American and white students; most classes had a few new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. The other six teachers were selected from a small, affluent suburban district. The vast majority of their students were middle-class white students; again most classes had one or more students from Asia or the Middle East.
Once per week from September 1990 through May 1991, I and my doctoral students, Ann Ratliff and Steve Winslow, observed the teachers as they taught courses in world history or world cultures/regions. We recorded what teachers and students said during instruction and prepared transcripts of each class period that also included teacher and student actions, the use of instructional materials, and the physical arrangement of the room. We followed each observation with an interview, either after class or by telephone on the evening of the observation. The interview questions grew out of the observation notes; we most frequently asked the teachers to explain why they had made particular instructional decisions. From the beginning of the study we gave considerable attention to encouraging the teachers to identify contextual factors-such as teacher beliefs and experiences, course guidelines, materials, student characteristics, team teaching, parents, and state tests-that influenced their instructional decisions. The conflict in the Persian Gulf was an important contextual factor for some of the teachers and inconsequential for others.
The teachers helped improve written constructions of their perspectives through formal member checks-sessions in which the teachers reflected upon and discussed raw data and tentative findings. At regular intervals, the teachers examined all the observational and interview data for their own case study in order to review and consider decisions, content, strategies, students, and the myriad components of classroom teaching. We encouraged teachers to help us understand, interpret, and articulate their perspectives on teaching and learning. We continuously developed new questions from observational and interview data and from discussions during the member checks. We asked literally thousands of questions throughout the year. Questions addressed choices of content, time allocations, instructional materials, teaching strategies, and issues related to student motivation, learning, and evaluation. We posed certain questions to all teachers-such as, how the war in the Persian Gulf affected their instruction for that week. Other questions were specific to a teacher's instruction-such as, how he or she would assess the effectiveness of that day's role-play of an Arab family.
Tentative findings grew out of the content analysis of the "3 x 5 shuffle" (as described by Lincoln and Guba 1985, 332-56). We keyed each sentence (or groups of sentences in cases where meaning might otherwise be lost) according to teacher and date, then cut them apart and categorized them. The study produced more than twenty-five hundred pages of raw data. The teachers and I examined every line (and categorized and recategorized the data) at least six times. I also interviewed the teachers' building principals, school district administrators, and curriculum supervisors to understand better the contextual factors of school climate, constraints on teacher decision making, and the influence of parents and the community on teachers' instruction about the world. The major categories that emerged in the study include contextual factors, knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, instructional strategies, instructional resources, and classroom management. Each of these major categories had many subcategories.
This article focuses on how the twelve teachers studied responded to the Gulf War in their classes. Specifically:
1.how did the teachers respond to the conflict in the Gulf in their classes? and
2.how did the teachers explain those instructional decisions?
From the first month of the study it became evident that the twelve teachers differed greatly in the ways they perceived the relationship between the growing conflict in the Persian Gulf and their instruction in social studies. In important ways, each teacher had unique responses to the Gulf War. Yet, in their classroom activities, discussions, and subsequent reflections some common themes emerged. Because we were trying to examine in detail twelve teachers selected through a purposeful sample, we gave as much attention to understanding the nature of each individual teacher's decisions as exploring their commonalities.
Teachers' Responses to the Gulf War
To capture the flow of instructional activity related to the Gulf War, we developed table 1 as an overview of some of the teachers' instructional decisions in content (knowledge, skills, and attitudes), process (teaching strategies), and instructional time related to the Gulf War.
Second, most of the teachers responded to the war by developing individual lessons to help students understand and respond to unfolding events. For example, in September Lynn responded to the troop call-up by having her 5th grade students imagine they were members of the U.S. armed forces stationed in Saudi Arabia. The students wrote letters to their imaginary families back in the States, sharing their feelings about their circumstances and information they had learned about the Saudi desert and Arab culture. In March, Margo asked her 4th graders to consider how the world community felt about Iraq. She developed a lesson in which students took on roles as representatives of various countries in a world court. In small committees, the students developed possible solutions to the conflicts in the Gulf, such as establishing a zone protected by the United Nations between Iraq and Kuwait. One group insisted that Saddam Hussein be forced to clean up the oil spill in the Persian Gulf.
Seven of the teachers took class time for students to write to U.S. military personnel stationed in the Gulf. In one school, a teacher was called up and sent to the Gulf; teachers and students worked together to send him cookies and other goodies along with their letters. Four of the six schools in the study had some schoolwide or gradewide event or teach-in in which students talked with guest speakers, usually Arabs, about the conflicts in the Middle East. One of the most riveting sessions was held in May when the Marine with whom Wynn's students had corresponded all year came to the school and talked about his thoughts and experiences during the war.
A third way teachers responded to the events in the Persian Gulf was to integrate news updates into class time. Almost all of the teachers reacted to their students' questions, interests, and concerns by taking some time from the subject under study to share and discuss the latest news. Some teachers used student reporting on current events as an overall teaching strategy. Claude regularly used a news game patterned after "Jeopardy!" as a way for his 6th grade students to focus on current events. Cheryl planned brief news updates as a daily feature of her 9th and 10th grade global history class. She assigned her students dates on which each was responsible for bringing in and analyzing important news. Her colleague, B.J., designed formal news projects for her 9th and 10th graders in global history. Students assigned to six different groups provided regular, illustrated updates on events affecting their part of the world. The majority of news updates, however, were less formal-for example, teachers and students sharing and discussing the previous night's new stories. Some teachers turned to C-Span or CNN during class time at the height of the war. As expected, the intensity of these immediate responses to events peaked in January 1991 during the bombing and retaking of Kuwait. By February and March several classes held discussions on war weariness. Students and teachers commented on being tired of discussing the events in the Gulf.
A fourth strategy these teachers used was to connect the Gulf War and their regular course content through references or comparisons. All of the teachers employed this strategy to some degree. At one point, Cheryl's students were having difficulty understanding the relationship between the Basques and other Spaniards. Cheryl drew a parallel between the problems Kurds have experienced in Iraq with the history of the Basques in Spain. In a similar fashion, B.J. had students compare Saddam Hussein's politics with the tenets of Machiavellian philosophy to see if the students understood the new term. Teachers also made geographical references to names and places related to the Gulf War. Matt's 6th grade students connected the Silk Road and Marco Polo's travels with the names of countries and places they had heard about through the Persian Gulf crisis. In addition to making maps of the political boundaries and physical features of the Middle East, Claude's 6th graders drew in the location of and discussed the oil spill in the Persian Gulf.
Attitudes and Values
The Gulf War also influenced instruction related to attitudes and values. "I think it is important to capitalize on their allegiance to the U.S....I don't want them to lose sight of the American way," Lynn noted. Several of the teachers introduced or intensified attention to patriotic rituals, such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs. Elementary, middle, and high school teachers commented to students that they had noticed increased patriotic feelings in assemblies or in journal entries. The majority of the teachers emphasized the development of empathy for people in the war zone, tolerance of cultural differences, and positive attitudes toward the cooperation of the Allies.
Most of the teachers linked their mandated attitudinal objectives to content about the Gulf War. Roland tied in the students' examination of prejudice and stereotyping in a unit on migrations to media attention about the Gulf conflict. Bill related ethnocentrism and multiple perspectives to events in the Gulf. Two teachers reacted to overheard remarks such as "let's just nuke 'em" by having students think about the values underlying such statements. Margo noted that an activity on understanding both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives was part of a concerted effort to change attitudes:
I really want to get away from "places we can trust" type of ideas and broaden their view of other people and cultural differences. I want this experience to teach them that patriotism and appreciation of other countries can go hand in hand. Teachers frequently addressed value, skill, and knowledge objectives in a single lesson. In November, Lynn divided her 4th graders into two groups, one to investigate similarities between Saudi and U.S. children, the other to find differences. At first, the similarities group groaned that they would not be able to find anything. By the end of their analysis, the group's representative marveled that "there were so many [similarities] I couldn't write them all down." In the follow-up interview, Lynn noted "I wanted them to see similarities as more overwhelming than differences. I hoped they would experience a sense of 'gosh, we are alike.' And it happened." Within the lesson the students also practiced skills in research and content analysis and learned about customs and daily life in Saudi Arabia.
Some teachers chose to concentrate on the mandated content and did not respond to the events in the Gulf. Patrick noted that February was Black History month, and he decided to go along with his 9th graders' preferences and focus on Africa instead of the Middle East. Jean, a colleague of Wynn's, summed up her teaching related to the Gulf War in one thirty-minute period.
Basically, it included one day of discussion when the administration threw in an assembly [because of the beginning of the Allied attack]. So, since some of our time was taken [from regularly scheduled classes], I had to figure what I could do with the limits on class time, and we spent that day discussing the war. Although Jean taught a great deal about the Middle East in the context of world history, she chose not to relate topics to the crisis in the Gulf. Other teachers taught about such world cultures or history topics as the Bedouin, Sumer, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire without connecting them to current events in the Gulf.
The teachers had a number of reasons for bringing the Gulf War into their classrooms. Their reasons can be divided, generally, into three categories.
1.A concern over students' understanding of today's world in relation to the content of world history and geography courses.
2.Perceived opportunities to take advantage of students' interests, concerns, and questions.
3.The belief that current events are important topics for study.
In practice, of course, these reasons overlap.
Almost all the teachers voiced the opinion that relating events in the Middle East to course content helped students recognize the importance of understanding historical contexts and interconnections among peoples over time. The events of the Gulf War increased students' understanding of past events, course concepts, and, as B. J. noted, "the essence of what social studies is all about-recognizing the dynamics of an interrelated world." Although regretting the war was happening, several teachers did perceive it as an invaluable tool for teaching.
A second category of reasons could be described as motivational:
For once I have their interest. They want to understand what is going on, what Arabs want, how Israel fits into the Gulf crisis. They are curious about our Palestinian students. I can build on this interest to turn them on to [other topics].
[First] it was me, my newspapers. Then as the troops began going overseas it became the students' cousins, their uncles. The kids started asking questions. They wanted to know, What is going on? Where is this? When the war started, we saw some fear. They were worried about where the Scud missiles will go.
Students aren't just going through the motions of learning world cultures to get a grade. Suddenly Saudi Arabia is where a brother or uncle is being sent to fight. What an opportunity we have to link [social studies] with their lives.
Student interests appear to influence how teachers plan instruction. Teachers frequently spend more time on topics for which their students have demonstrated interest and involvement. For some of the teachers in this study it was their students' continual questions that convinced them that class time should be spent on the events occurring in the Persian Gulf.
It all started with their questions about the news: What is a jihad? Why can't Saudi women drive? Why should we care about Kuwait? In order to answer those questions we looked at the role of the British in the Middle East, the beliefs of Islam, the geography of oil exports. They wanted to know more.
Finally, some teachers believed that these current events were important in their own right:
I think as a social studies teacher I am responsible for teaching about what's going on in the world. I was going to do Africa next, but because of the Gulf crisis, I thought it was best to cover Arab civilization.
Sometimes I can tie in the events in the Middle East to [the course] and sometimes I can't. I still take a few minutes to update what is happening, let them share their feelings or opinions, and then go on with my regular lesson. It's too important to ignore.
I want them to have a sense of how our servicemen are feeling. I want them to think about what war is like and search out ways to find peace.
Our country is at war. People are dying. How can I not teach about it?
On the other hand, some teachers chose not to teach about the Gulf War and, in general, choose not to connect current events to their course content. These reasons include the overcrowded curricula and time pressures, concern over a lack of knowledge or materials, and a belief that mandated curricula are more important.
During the school year, every teacher in the study referred to the social studies phenomenon of having "too much content to cover it all well." The teachers who spent considerable time on the Gulf War recognized that they were making a decision to teach content not specified in their mandated curriculum. The realities of mandated content, however, led other teachers to choose not to respond to events in the Gulf.
Other teachers believed they should focus on their mandated course content because they had neither the expertise nor the materials to teach about current events:
I do not feel competent to teach the history of these events. I don't have a good, basic source of information or analysis available.
I didn't do more [about the Gulf War] because I didn't feel I knew enough.
Several teachers noted that they learned about the war and the region with their students. Some also commented that they often could not answer the students' questions because they did not have enough background knowledge. Two teachers explained that they did not know enough about the current events in the Gulf to teach about them. Some teachers noted that they did not want to take extensive class time for the students to share opinions instead of attending to mandated content.
Complex Decisions on What to Teach
Although we found commonalities among the twelve teachers (as noted in table 1), no two teachers taught about the Gulf War in exactly the same way. Although it is possible to group overall outcomes of teachers' instructional decisions as we have done here, it is misleading to think such summaries capture the complexity of teachers' decisions. In planning instruction, each teacher had many ideas on what should be taught and how it should be taught. These decisions grew more complex in the classroom as they were affected by students' questions and responses, and other school-related factors such as testing, assemblies, or an overheated room. When teachers had several sections of the same course, instruction on the Gulf War varied considerably as teachers responded to the characteristics of each group of students. Most of the middle school and secondary teachers noted that variability between classes was especially relevant to current events instruction.
Furthermore, it appears that for these twelve teachers having even one student from another culture-Asian or Arab in most cases-in the class affected how the teachers taught about other cultures and other countries. Teachers explained these differences as stemming from their sensitivity to these students. They were constantly aware of these students, their feelings about the conflicts in the Middle East, their familial connections, and their personal experiences. Because several of the teachers had Lebanese, Palestinian, Saudi, or Kuwaiti students in their classes, they were concerned about what they perceived the students must be going through, with grandparents in Kuwait City or a parent in the West Bank, for example. The teachers also saw these students as potent resources for helping other students understand and appreciate the Middle East in all its complexity. 3
This study captures some of the complexities of teacher decision making. As previous inquiry has found, teachers are influenced by their own personal beliefs and theories as well as contextual factors related to their students, their schools, and the world (Ross, Cornett, and McCutcheon in press; Goodman and Adler 1985; Kindsvatter, Wilen, and Ishler 1992). Teachers not only plan instruction, but also constantly modify what they teach and how they teach it as they take into account student actions and reactions (Peterman 1983). McNair (1978-79) and Shavelson (1983) have noted that teachers most frequently change their plans during instruction when a discrepancy exists between their plan and classroom reality, particularly student behavior. By their very nature, current events precipitate spontaneous instructional decisions as teachers build on a student's question or make a connection between course content and the day's headlines. Thus, the effect of current events on one classroom's instruction may differ considerably from another's because of differences in the students, their questions and interests, or international connections and experiences.
Teacher decision making is incredibly complex, continually evolving, and shaped by myriad factors. As previous studies have demonstrated, good teachers, even in similar circumstances, do not make identical instructional decisions (Thornton 1985). Although the teachers in this study referred to common themes as they explained their decisions, the factors influencing teachers' decision making are to a large degree unique to the beliefs and experiences of each teacher and the context, especially student characteristics, of each decision. In the hundreds of answers to our constant question "why did you decide to...?" we rarely received the same combination of factors as an explanation from any one teacher. We found patterns within the answers over time, but we could formulate no simple generalizations about how teachers plan instruction or modify their plans as they teach. The findings of this study support Connelly and Clandinin's (1988) conclusion that curriculum is experienced in situations that are constantly evolving in a dynamic interaction among things, people, and processes.
Teachers build a case for including current events upon a belief that significant connections exist between current events and mandated social studies content. They must take advantage of students' interests, concerns, and motivations during instruction. Some events are too important to ignore within the larger goals of social education.
Some teachers nevertheless forego attention to current events based upon a belief that mandated content is more important. Some other teachers do not address current events because they believe their own preparation or available instructional materials are inadequate. Most of the teachers in this study agreed that they do not have the option of including current events without compromising mandated content because of time constraints and overcrowded curricula.
This study has critical implications for schools and curriculum mandates. If teachers are to take advantage of the teachable moment, relate the news of the day to the study of history or geography, or respond to student questions, they need flexibility in handling mandated content. If they are to teach current events, some teachers may need instructional materials such as newspapers or current periodicals-the supplements most frequently used by teachers in this study.
For those who support the movement toward global perspectives in education, the findings of this study are a paradox. By directly infusing global events into instruction, it is more likely that students will learn about the world at large, global interconnections, and other people's perspectives. This integration of current events into social studies can help students come to appreciate the relevance of history in understanding their world today. Problems emerge, however, in the hot-spot approach to learning about the world; students may never get beyond the headlines to understand the complexity of issues and problems. They may see the world as one of constant conflicts that have no solutions. Several teachers expressed concern about the results of bringing the complexities of war into the classroom:
There's just so much, and you don't know how much to do. They were very upset by the friendly fire that killed our own soldiers....How much do you put on 11- and 12-year-olds?
After seeing the Kurds starving in the hills, they just want to think about the football game Friday night.
I don't know how much to include or where to stop. They are afraid of the Scuds, and I am afraid I don't know how to teach about such things.
In most school years, of course, teachers are not faced with the issue of teaching about the United States currently at war. The power and potential of current events, however, will stay with us. The compelling immediacy of world events will likely grow as the process of globalization accelerates. As social studies educators, we need to address the issue of studying current events and ask ourselves, What is best for our students-our future citizens?
1This article is one aspect of a larger study that documents how exemplary teachers make decisions on teaching about the world. See also Merry M. Merryfield, "Teacher Decision-Making and Global Perspectives in Education: The Dynamism of Contextual Factors and Teachers' Worldviews," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1992.2All names have been changed.References
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3As one of the most significant findings in the larger study, this issue is described in depth in Merry Merryfield's "Teaching about the World in Multicultural Classrooms: Student Diversity and Teacher Decision-Making," a paper presented at the annual conference of the American Forum for Global Education, Philadelphia, May 1991.