Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Writing and Speaking Out About Issues of War and of Peace
reviewed by Steven Cohen - November 27, 2006
Title: Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Writing and Speaking Out About Issues of War and of Peace
Author(s): Chris Weber
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325007497 , Pages: 232, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com
In the 1980s, I was part of a group writing a curriculum for middle and high school students about the dangers of nuclear warfare. We collected some extraordinary material, created some timely and thoughtful activities, and saw many teachers use them in the classroom. At the same time, the curriculum itself had a serious hole in the center. Much of its impetus came from our fears and memories of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. The air raid drills, duck and cover, and particularly the dog tags that some New York City public school students had been issued were impossible to forget. Those memories had returned with the election of Ronald Reagan. The curriculum, then, took on a campaign against nuclear war. The problem, of course, is that everyone opposes nuclear war. Even those who can bear to contemplate it as a possibility are not in the habit of advocating it. The effort, therefore, had something of the feeling of fighting a straw man.
I thought of that as I read Chris Webers recent publication. Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Writing & Speaking Out About Issues of War & of Peace contains a great many worthwhile and creative articles, ideas, and references. The first part of the book, Talking and Writing About Issues of War and Peace, seems to me the most successful. Weber, with contributions from outstanding teachers and scholars like Peter Elbow, Jim Burke, Nancy Gorrell, and Leonore Gordon, provides guidelines for teachers who want to talk about these questions in the classroom. The authors make a strong and convincing argument for the reasons to do so, and they provide ways to make classrooms safe places where controversial issues of war and peace can be discussed. Weber and his colleagues are particularly interested in allowing students to express their emotional reactions to war and its horrors.
The second part, Children in War: How They Suffer, details more ideas from Weber along with those of Mark Hyman, Doug DuBrin, Barbara Biebel, and Alan Shapiro. These contributions go further than the previous ones because they show teachers how to help students take their learning beyond the classroom and become actively engaged in the issues that they have been studying. Hymans work on landmines was particularly impressive. Students in Hymans classes have taken part in international conferences on the dangers of landmines, and some have even traveled to Cambodia to present their work.
The last part of the book, Empowering Our Students to Make a Difference, gives snapshots of lessons similar to the longer ones in the previous section. An appendix and index that follow provide teachers with helpful articles, books, and websites to peruse. Weber focuses on teachers in this book. An elementary school teacher, he is very aware of the power of the emotional responses that students bring to thinking about and studying war. Some of his contributors write from the middle school and high school viewpoint, so this is a valuable compendium of ideas for all teachers. This is not a book likely to be read cover-to-cover, but it is one that teachers might find very useful as a guidebook to review before raising questions that they know will bring about powerful responses. Weber keeps teachers and their needs clearly in focus throughout this book.
Weber makes it quite clear in his introduction that the present war in Iraq was the occasion that prompted this work. While Novembers election may have demonstrated that a majority of the rest of the country has finally come around to his politically antiwar viewpoint, Weber began this book at a time when most citizens of the United States were willing to let their president take them to war. Weber saw in his students, and his collaborators saw in theirs, that many children did not know what to think about this war and had few places to talk about it. The response to the war in many schools was a non-response. After all, the curriculum had to be covered.
This book provides teachers with some techniques, warnings, and encouragement not to ignore the big issues of the day. Weber would like to see teachers discussing these weighty issues in class and in a way in which students would be able to reveal their emotional reactions to war. He is never dogmatic about pedagogical style and recognizes that teachers should not be script readers. They have to bring their own strengths into the classroom. Weber respects teachers and their abilities to focus their lessons for their particular group of students. The ideas that he and his colleagues provide are suggestions, not dictates.
While Weber was very strong on feelings, I worried a bit about the issue I raised at the beginning of this review. The underlying feeling of the book was that peace is better than war. I agree. I expect that you do, too. But does that mean that war is always a crime? Personally, I think that it is. Yet, I do think that that is a question that needs to be discussed, not proclaimed, in a school setting. At times, preaching may have gotten ahead of teaching here. Page 142 may serve as an example. A series of quotations about war are provided. I like them, but they all take basically the same viewpoint. That doesnt really allow students to have the sort of discussion about war that would challenge their assumptions and expose them to divergent views. With those quotations, the committed would be preaching to the converted.
While I expect I share Webers views on questions of war and peace, and admire and am grateful for many of the ideas that he has collected in this book, I think that the emphasis on emotion to the exclusion of all else leaves students needing more. Emotions matter and need to be aired, but so do ideas and arguments. A little more of the latter would have been nice.