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Middle School Students Blog Their Way to Afghanistan

by Cathey Seaton & Ashley Bodell - July 16, 2009

This is a description of a class project in which a blog was used to correspond with a local man who is stationed in Afghanistan. Students asked questions and made comments to which the soldier replied.This is a reflection on what we learned as teachers and student's reaction to the blog.

I have been a teacher for fourteen years, and for the last three I have worked with sixth-graders at Ballard County Middle School in La Center, Kentucky. Special education teacher Ashley Bodell graduated from Ballard Memorial, our western Kentucky county’s only high school, with Aaron Connor. Connor now is a member of the 33rd Infantry Battalion of the Illinois National Guard stationed near Ghazni City, Afghanistan. Bodell’s small church had been working to send “care packages” to the soldier, and she remembered Aaron as a gregarious man with a love of children and his rural home.

Bodell thought it would be good for Aaron if he could hear from students from his home county, so she asked me whether our students could write to him. The sixth-graders soon were to begin a unit on the Middle East, and we thought it would be a great opportunity for them to practice their writing skills on letters to Aaron. Also, they’d have the chance to ask questions and to relay what they had learned about Afghanistan.

We quickly realized that a blog would be the perfect outlet to communicate with Aaron. Instead of concentrating on the form of letter writing, students would be free to ask questions, make comments, and relate information from home. Aaron would be able to respond to students individually or as a whole, and there wouldn’t be the time constraints that would have been present if we used the postal system.

We set up the account, and enlisted one of our most technologically gifted students to add graphics to the site. That helped establish student ownership, instead of the site being something solely created by teachers. We told students that they could post from home if they had Internet access there; if they didn’t, they could use the computers at school.

By the day after we introduced the blog, several students had made posts and Aaron had answered each one individually. We looked at the blog in class every day on the Smart Board. There were always new questions and comments and Aaron’s answers. After a few days, there were so many student posts that Aaron wasn’t able to answer them individually anymore; instead, he divided his answers into subject areas, such as his daily life and the culture and geography of Afghanistan. He often sent photos to illustrate his subjects. (If you’d like to visit, the blog it is at http://aaronafghanistan.blogspot.com.)

One of the hardest things for me, as a teacher, was to let the students’ posts go through without correcting spelling, grammar, and so forth. I even thought that some of the questions were silly and lacked substance. I had to realize that this was the students’ work. They wrote about what they genuinely wanted to know, in a way that suited them, and expressed their own feelings and observations…and I had to respect that.

Aaron treated each post as if were the most profound question or comment he’d ever heard. He showed respect for the students and they responded to that in a positive way. For my students, Afghanistan became more than just a name on the news. It was personal to them because Aaron was there, and they were concerned for his safety. If they saw or read anything about the conflict, their first question was, “How will it affect Aaron?” There was a real connection that developed on the part of students – and this is an age group not necessarily known for too much concern about anything outside of their own skin.

On the blog, the students shared their own stories about absent family members, and told about relatives who had gone off to war and who had returned, happy they had been able to serve their country. I was impressed that these young teenagers were trying to reassure Aaron that the same thing would happen for him. A lot of times, you could read Aaron’s mood by his postings. I remember once he talked about having guard duty, which he did not enjoy (it was plain he’d rather be in the field). The kids wrote posts to cheer him up.

They learned that involvement in Afghanistan wasn’t solely an American effort when Aaron told them about an Easter dinner provided by Polish troops that are stationed at the same forward operating base as the Americans. They also learned about the danger involved with Aaron’s job and about the Taliban – a word they had heard, but had no idea who or what it was. In describing that 16-hour convoy escort, Aaron had mentioned that there were three fire-fights “before breakfast.” He said, “I make mention about our little shootouts not to scare folks, but because I want people to know that this is a dangerous country. People hear about 'safe' parts of this country. There is no such thing. There are only places with more or less a degree of danger.”

My students learned that being in the military is much more than the endless run-and-shoot gun battles on their video games. Aaron repeatedly told the kids how he had to work on staying healthy, exercising and keeping up his strength, because his life and the lives of other soldiers depended on it. He told about practicing by walking around the camp in his body armor. His old body armor was here at home with his mother, who also is a school employee. She brought it to class one day, and every student had a chance to try it on. They were surprised to find that it weighed approximately 45 pounds, and that didn’t include any of the other vital equipment that would normally be attached to it. It really brought home the point of all of Aaron’s exercise, and how physically demanding his job was.

They learned about Aaron’s unit’s role in training Afghan police and mentoring local children. The soldiers liked to treat the children to lollipops, and Aaron sent a photo of one little girl along with her story. He gave her the treat, but when he looked back, an older child had taken the sucker away from her. Aaron stopped his vehicle, took the sucker and gave it back to the little girl. She was delighted to have it returned, but couldn’t seem to understand that an American soldier cared enough about her to make that effort. We made the comparison in class to a strong U.S. military helping the weaker Afghans citizens protect themselves against their political “bullies.” In an effort to do something tangible to show their concern, the students decided to collect money so they could send lollipops to Connor for their Afghan counterparts. Even though it was the end of our school year, the students came up with enough money to buy and send five big boxes of treats.

Because Aaron was from the same rural area, he was able to relate what he was experiencing in a way that my students really could understand. He knew that the majority of our students love hunting and the outdoors, so he was careful to include descriptions of wildlife and the weapons the troops use in Afghanistan. Aaron also contrasted life in Afghanistan and Kentucky by telling what a luxury a hot meal, a shower and flush toilets were – something the students had taken for granted.

Aaron wrote about being in a fortress where Alexander the Great had been. I had one student make it a point to show me a library book he’d found about the 2,300-year-old conquests of that young Macedonian king. Students also told me about finding references and maps in their Bibles that they studied in Sunday school class. They were able to locate Afghanistan relative to the countries in the Middle East that they were hearing about during church services.

Our soldier even described the local food in a way that made picky, pizza-eating teens want to taste it. One of Aaron’s favorites was the kabobs that were sold from numerous street stalls. He told the students that they were made of grilled meat, usually goat, mutton or beef. I asked what the class thought would be the predominant animal on the menu. They used the background knowledge they had from growing up in a rural setting and combined it with research on the food crops and livestock that would be native to Afghanistan. The students remembered Aaron’s description of the dry, hilly countryside, and knew that smaller animals could survive better on the available scrub vegetation. The students determined that the kabobs probably came from goats or sheep, since they didn’t require as much sustenance as cattle. In a later post, Aaron verified their very well-reasoned conclusion.

Perhaps one of the topics that most interested the students was the stray dogs that Aaron and the other troops “adopted.” They all waited anxiously to hear about one dog and her expected litter of puppies. And they wanted to know all about the X-Box games Aaron played. I think these things represented the "normal" side of his life in Afghanistan to them – and gave them subjects that were a little easier for them to deal with than life and death.

Aaron was overwhelmed by the positive response from the students, the community, and as it turned out, other parts of the country. His commanding officer, Capt. Keith W. Humbard, posted this on the blog: “I just wanted to say that I am very proud of SPC Connor…. I only wish I had more soldiers like Connor. I am also very proud of you kids for taking such an interest in what is going on over here and in the welfare of our soldiers. The most important thing for a soldier is to know that he has not been forgotten by those back home. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.”

Aaron was scheduled for a mid-tour leave near the end of the school year, and was looking forward to meeting the students. He had planned to treat them all to ice cream, but the late June date was after our classes had dismissed for the summer, making it difficult to get everyone back together. We’ve put that celebration off until he's discharged this fall. I know all of us are eager for a face-to-face meeting.

Despite the recent media attention we have received, we feel like we’re only trying to do what every teacher in the United States is trying to do: enhance learning for our students. We try to find subjects the students are interested in and build on them. We use a lot of “back door learning” where the learning is disguised as fun activities, instead of what many students consider to be the traditional boring classes. The blog gave us immediate feedback, and put flesh, blood, personality, and emotion into an otherwise bare-bones textbook subject. It was a truly “social” way to teach social studies.

The highest compliment that I have received as a teacher is when the bell rings to signal the end of class and the students tell me that they can’t believe class is already over, that the class time has flown by.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 16, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15719, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:24:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Cathey Seaton
    Ballard County Middle School
    E-mail Author
    CATHEY SEATON teaches Social Studies at Ballard County Middle School in La Center, KY.
  • Ashley Bodell
    Ballard County Middle School
    ASHLEY BODELL teaches Special Education at Ballard County Middle School in La Center, KY.
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