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The Lessons of War : Curriculum Tries to Fuse Past and Present to Make History Come Alive

DIFFERENT VOICES: One eighth-grade class tackles the new, literature-based social studies curriculum. One in a series.


TEMPLE CITY — How does a president make the agonizing decision to send his nation to war?

Thirty social studies students at Oak Avenue School grappled with the same fears that dogged Abraham Lincoln in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War.

The dilemma for the Temple City eighth-graders went like this: You are an adviser to President Lincoln during a time when some Southern states not only are withdrawing from the Union but also are taking military action against federal property in the South.

Now, Confederate cannons have been aimed at Ft. Sumter in South Carolina.

Should Lincoln order Maj. Robert Anderson at Ft. Sumter to surrender? Should he send in ships bearing food only? Or should he order in Union battleships that will risk war if they use military force?

Teacher John Lopez said his aim was to impart an important history lesson while allowing students to put themselves in the shoes of the weary 16th president. He got the exercise from a civics text called "The Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court."

While the exercise isn't new, the application is. It's part of Lopez's effort to implement the new multicultural, literature-based social studies curriculum that the Temple City Unified School District adopted last year.

And while the 1861-65 Civil War might not resonate immediately with these eighth-graders, they all recalled January, 1991, when the United States stood poised on the brink of war with Saddam Hussein over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

By pointing out the connection between the two events, Lopez was able to make the decisions leading up to the Civil War come alive for his class.

"Think back about a year ago to a decision made that affected the lives of many people," Lopez urged his class. "That's right," he said, as he heard the murmured answer. "The Persian Gulf War."

The previous day, students had broken up into small groups to discuss what strategies they would recommend to Lincoln and why. Now they were ready to share their conclusions with the class.

A group composed of Darlene Tamanaha, Alfred Padilla and Katie Kemper decided that Lincoln should send in food only. "We believe this is the right choice because each party involved would be happy and it would buy time," they wrote. "War is wrong because violence is wrong; it never solves anything."

Chris Garlinghouse, Kim Nguyen, Brian Facey and Katie Dougherty agreed that war is tragic because lives are lost. But this group decided that Lincoln should send in a fleet of warships to rescue the fort. "We believe this is the right choice because the South will be scared and will back down," they concluded.

Some of these students have fathers or uncles who had fought in Vietnam. Others recalled being glued to their television sets last January, as they watched Operation Desert Storm explode across their sets like so many video games.

Perhaps spurred on by the vivid memory of speedy American victory in the Gulf War, five of the eight groups said Lincoln should send in troops. They came to this decision while acknowledging that war would bring injuries and death.

"Americans should stand up for their country," said Nickie Downey. "It's not about death, it's about what we believe in."

The eighth-grade class seemed taken aback when Lopez revealed what Lincoln had actually done in 1861 to respond to the Ft. Sumter crisis: "A couple of ships, bearing food only, sailed into Charleston Harbor to provide supplies for the men at the fort," Lopez said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Do you know what happened after that?"

"The South took it," said Tony Kim.

"That's right," Lopez said. "They fired on those unarmed ships and boarded them. What do you call that?"

"An act of stealing!" one student shouted.

"Piracy!" another called out.

"War," announced Kiyomi Onogi, and a hush fell over the room.

Lopez, an animated teacher who moves around the room as he speaks and often calls on students who don't raise their hands, said he was delighted with how the exercise stimulated the students' imaginations.

"You go around and listen to the small group interaction and you hear all sorts of insightful comments," Lopez said. "I was trying to get them to talk about their decisions. The process is the lesson."

Lopez also gives homework that ties in with the lessons. For instance, he covered the beginning of the Civil War while teaching students about the executive branch of government and Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which says that the President is the chief executive and the supreme commander of the Armed Forces.

Students had to clip a newspaper article about Congress and President Bush and list the main idea, five supporting ideas and a summary of the article.

In a lesson about Washington, students pretended that they were tourism consultants hired to create an advertisement that stressed the city's historical significance.

"The city that freedom built," one student offered.

"Home of the Smithsonian, which houses everything from matchsticks to space capsules," another said.

Since the class was on the subject of presidents and executive power, Lopez also planned to examine the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon and his administration in 1974, about four years before most of his eighth-graders were born.

Then he would assign the class to write a newspaper article describing Watergate, explaining what message Nixon's downfall might hold for future presidents and predicting what future presidents might learn from the Watergate imbroglio.

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