Educators use war conflicts as classroom curriculum

Just to the left of the American flag hanging in teacher Michael Stagnaro's Los Banos High School classroom is a banner displaying these words from John Adams -- "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people."

Stagnaro, who also is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, hopes he is providing his students with some of that knowledge. “Very rarely is learning just listening to a teacher,” said the 32-year-old world history instructor. “The students, they have to be the ones to keep the conversation going.”

But even getting that conversation started when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia can be a challenging task for today’s teachers. Just as it was after America’s last controversial war, the decade it spent in Vietnam. If George Santayana is right — that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it — then teaching about war becomes a vital part of any curriculum.

The late congressman, professor and author Walter Capps knew this. Three years after the fall of Saigon, he began his famous and long-running class at UC Santa Barbara, “Religion and the Impact of Vietnam,” which routinely drew 900 students and was featured three times on “60 Minutes.” Capps believed that “politics is born in conversation,” and he enlisted a vast array of soldiers, scholars, refugees and others to speak in his classroom. “We are strongest as a people when we are directed by that which unites us,” he wrote, “rather than giving into the fears, suspicions, innuendos and paranoias that divide.”

For today’s students, it seems that in most classrooms, conversation about the war is off limits. With little direction from their superiors or the broader education community, many instructors find it easier to breeze over the subject or not address it at all.

Not Stagnaro. On Thursday, during a lesson on World War I refugees, the teacher passed out a news article on the estimated 1,600 Iraqi refugees who are returning home on a daily basis. Stagnaro read the article aloud to his class, asking them to imagine “the size of this school returning to Iraq today.” What do you think they have to come back to, he asked his class of 30 sophomores.

“Homes,” one student yelled out. “If they’re there,” Stagnaro quietly replied.

“Work,” another kid ventured. “If they can find it,” their teacher answered. “Remember that war is never pretty. War is ugly. It is unfriendly. It takes no sides and the innocent suffer.”

Stagnaro has seen that side of war firsthand. After growing up in the Bay Area, attending Bethany University in Santa Cruz and earning a master’s degree in 2002 from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Stagnaro joined the Army Reserves. In October 2005, Stagnaro was deployed to Kuwait, where he served as a base camp and battalion chaplain for a year. His experience has made Stagnaro approach all of his subject matter differently from many world history teachers. “I have the students look at the human cost,” he said, offering this example: “True, there were 40,000 that died in this battle, but just think about that. That’s 40,000 sons, maybe 40,000 fathers, a whole generation from one town.”

This kind of information is harder for some of Stagnaro’s students to swallow. Eight of his 30 fourth- period world history students said they have family members stationed in the Middle East. One of them was sophomore Alyssa Aguilar, whose soldier cousin is serving in Iraq. She said his involvement makes the war very real to her. “It hits over here too,” she said. “It sucks, but they’re fighting so we don’t have to suffer.”Maci Freeman, also a Los Banos sophomore, said a close family friend is also stationed in Iraq. Before Stagnaro’s class, she admitted that “I kind of had an idea (about what was going on in the Middle East), but I didn’t know as much as I know now.”

Other Merced County teachers have noticed that students’ ears perk up when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are mentioned and use that to their advantage. “My students seem to be particularly interested in the war in Iraq,” said Atwater High School world history teacher Seth Medefind. He said he often uses news stories to ignite discussions on the subject in his classroom. In order to make history more relevant, Medefind also said he has students “compare and contrast Iraq to wars in history.”

How much — or how little — about the war is taught in history and government classrooms is up to the teacher. “There is no specific guidance given involving the Iraqi war,” said Buhach Colony High School social studies teacher John Stimac. But, he added, teachers are expected to be objective and “teach both sides of an argument” when it comes to all controversial aspects of their curriculum.

“We are taught to be impartial on the subjects we teach in history,” said Los Banos High School world history teacher Robert Arambel. “You have to show both sides of the conflict and the reasons leading up to war, then show the history behind it.” Students often ask Arambel what his opinion is on various parts of history he covers, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “But once again, you temper that with impartiality.”He added, “To be honest, their interest in the war isn’t all that prevalent.”

Stimac echoes Arambel’s views, saying some of his students are concerned about what us happening, but most aren’t. Stimac said he thinks that is because students “are not confronted with what is really happening over there on a daily basis.”

This is also most likely the reason schools haven’t seen the protests and debates that spread in the late 1960s and early ‘70s about the Vietnam War. “Unlike the 1960s, students today do not see the war as a personal threat to their lives or America,” he said. “Since there is no real peace movement on college campuses, high school students haven’t followed their lead.”

Stagnaro said students he encounters “are just as curious about the war as anyone else would be.” Unsure of how much to share, Stagnaro said he questioned what he should tell his students about his time in Kuwait. Before becoming a full-time teacher two years ago, the answer he came up with was, “You let them know your experiences because reading about war and experiencing war are two different things.”

He told his classes that war was not a beautiful thing. It wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster or a mature-rated video game. “War is gut-wrenching, difficult and lonely,” he said. “I was there as soldiers died,” when they cried and opened up, when they celebrated and when family members shared accounts of those they’d never see again.

These kinds of stories — the “human side of war” as Stagnaro called it — is what students often ask him about and want to hear. “I’m always afraid that students will hate history,” he said. “But when you have experiences that bridge the gap between the history books and students’ lives, that makes it more interesting and engaging.”

While sharing war stories with teenagers might help them gain perspective, those dealing with elementary school students have to use a softer touch, said Barbara Tinsley, Arizona State University’s social and behavioral sciences department chair who has researched the effects of traumatic events on children. “In general, honesty is the best policy with children,” she declared, keeping in mind the age and individual personality of the child.

For children under 9, Tinsley suggests that “it’s best to wait for them to ask a question.” Parents or teachers should then answer without going beyond what the child asked.

Nine to 13-year-olds often cope with fear by asking technical questions that might catch adults off guard, but help them wrap their minds around the confusing situation. Tinsley suggests adults take those questions — which could range from where Saddam Hussein went to college or if it’s possible to poison a large body of water with germs — as they come. “They’ll ask what they need to know to feel reassured,” she said.

Whatever the age of child, it is just as important how a parent or teacher tells the story as what they are telling. “Children gauge adults’ reactions before they decide how scared they should be,” she reminded.

The Connecticut-based National Center for Children Exposed to Violence concludes that children react to war in different ways, depending on their age and personal history. While some children not directly affected by the war may not take notice, others could have a heightened concern for their personal safety or increased anxiety because of a loved one’s involvement in the military.

“One of my students this year was sad one day because her friend was going back to Iraq and she was going to miss him,” said Sarah Morgan, who taught kindergarten at Merced’s Fremont Charter School the first half of this school year. Morgan, who has worked in the Merced City School District for many years as a Library Media Teacher, hasn’t had many students approach her with questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Younger students seem to be more interested in sharing stories about siblings and relatives who are on their way or already are stationed overseas — a phenomenon that is putting a new spin on the term “children of war.” No longer does it just refer to kids growing up in a war zone, but those who are moved by the ripples of a conflict fought thousands of miles from their schools and playgrounds.

“It’s not all about the cost of the war, the soldiers or even the Iraqis,” Morgan said. It’s about the innocent children here at home experiencing the secondary trauma of the war. Children losing brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers to a conflict that even well-educated adults have a hard time understanding — let alone a child growing up in an educational system that is more focused on standardized tests than America’s most pivotal foreign policy issue. “We’ll have a whole generation of these types of kids,” Morgan said. “How will that change our world?”America’s near- and mid-term destiny depends on whether this generation can take the knowledge they have — or haven’t — gained and, as Adams hoped, preserve their country’s liberty.

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209 385-2407 or asouza@mercedsun-star.com.