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Facing Nuclear Facts--and Fears--in the Classroom

September 03, 1986|SUE HORTON | Horton lives in Los Angeles

When the nuclear holocaust movie "The Day After" aired on television two years ago, Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg's telephone was flooded with calls from teachers.

"They all wanted to know if the district had a policy," she said. "Could they assign (watching the film) to their students? Should they discuss it in class? How should they deal with their students' fears?"

After making a few calls, Goldberg found that the board of education had no guidelines for teachers who wanted to discuss nuclear issues with their pupils. "We really had nothing to give teachers any guidance on how to handle a subject that is at once political, scientific, emotional and a lot of other things."

Goldberg decided the district should offer teachers some help and so last year introduced a board resolution calling for the development of a curriculum for teachers who want to teach about such things as nuclear energy and nuclear war.

The board quickly passed the resolution, asking the district's Office of Instruction to prepare academic materials and lesson plans. But Goldberg and the board felt that academics alone were insufficient, given the fears students and teachers had expressed about living in the Nuclear Age.

Members of the Thursday Night Group, a local nuclear education organization, agreed that an emotional component was essential for the new curriculum and volunteered to help. The group, which has among its members many therapists and educators, had developed workshops to help adults and children deal with their feelings about nuclear issues and had presented the workshops many times to teachers.

Since the Thursday Night Group had spent five years developing these techniques, said Lynn Greenberg, a Santa Monica psychotherapist and the group's executive director, "it seemed appropriate that we should offer these skills to enhance the program the district is creating."

Realizing it couldn't give enough workshops to train all Los Angeles teachers, the Thursday Night Group, in conjunction with the district, decided to videotape a teacher workshop and a classroom discussion with students. The tapes, now nearly finished, will--if approved by the school board, as is expected--be used as a supplemental tool by the district in a series of workshops for teachers who want to learn how to use the new curriculum.

The videos are both titled "Dealing With Feelings Regarding Nuclear Issues." Part 1 is subtitled "A Workshop for Educators and Parents"; Part 2, "A Classroom Demonstration."

"The tapes are designed to give teachers some understanding of the kinds of emotions that arise in themselves and their students around the nuclear issue," Greenberg said. "They will also provide teachers with some tools for dealing with these emotions so they don't interfere with effective education."

Essential Component

Board member Goldberg thinks the tapes will provide an essential component of the curriculum. "These issues are not easy things to contemplate," she said. "The most typical response of all of us, including teachers, is 'I don't want to think about it.' "

Indeed, during the teacher workshop taped by the Thursday Night Group, district teachers expressed many fears. First, teachers were asked to write down an image, feeling, thought or picture that came to mind when they heard the words Nuclear Age.

While some of the responses were hopeful--one teacher wrote down the words "positive potential"--many expressed fears. A number visualized a mushroom cloud when they heard the words. Others expressed a sense of powerlessness. One woman, whose family in Poland had recently been exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, felt frustrated that "this just happened to us without our knowledge and there's nothing we can do."

Unblocking Education

Greenberg explained to teachers why it is important to understand such feelings. "With the Nuclear Age come lots of images of fear, hopelessness and destruction. These feelings, if they are repressed, will block teachers from being willing to teach and students from being able or willing to learn about all the various aspects of the nuclear issue."

Teachers at the workshop also expressed fears about how to best communicate with their students about nuclear issues. "You can teach the children pros and cons, but they have a tendency to focus on the cons," one teacher said. "How far should we go?" Another expressed doubts about his ability to teach the issues effectively. "I don't have the experience to answer some of their questions because I'm not an expert," he said.

Greenberg believes that by examining their own concerns, teachers will be better able to understand what the students are feeling. "Kids and adults experience many of the same feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness," she said. "But the students have fewer psychological defenses to deal with these feelings. They tend to be more aware of their feelings that the world may end."

Voicing Shared Fears

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