02 March 2011

World Wars With Inner City Kids

When I taught World History, World War II was one of my favorite units. It was always taught near the end of the year after TAKS testing and spring break. Everything on campus was much more relaxed after TAKS testing, and the kids responded by behaving much more appropriately. They were also slightly more mature in May than they had been the previous August, and were moderately more interested in Nazis than any other subject that I tried to teach them. Basically the universe aligned perfectly for the teaching of World War II, and tended to produce the most successful teaching experiences that I ever had with inner city kids. My second year of teaching, the unit went so well that I gained new hope for the future of America.

Throughout the year, my student Virgil would make references to Iraqistan. I valiantly tried to convince him that no such country existed, but he continued to insist not only that it existed, but that he was the country’s soverign. One day he told me that Iraqistan was as real as platform 9 ¾. I had never told my kids about my love of all things Harry Potter, but somehow he knew that calling upon the authority of JK Rowling would settle the issue. I conceded the point. In true nationalistic form he brought up his imaginary country as frequently as possible. When I taught the kids about propaganda I asked each student to create a propaganda poster for a country of their choosing. Virgil immediately declared that he would make a poster for Iraqistan. I told him he had to pick a real country. When he asked why I told him that propaganda relies heavily on national symbolism, and Iraqistan had no national symbols that he could utilize. He informed me that the national colors of Iraqistan were green and yellow and the country’s flag was a black chicken on green background. He then drew a picture of it for me.

When we were talking about Pearl Harbor and the United States entering the war, I had the students working in groups. Virgil quickly enfranchised all of his group members as citizens of Iraqistan. He then proceeded to declare war on Antemyra. When I asked him about Antemyra he explained, “That group over there with Alice and Myra.” I asked him if he could just declare war on another country unprovoked like that. He replied, “Of course I can. This is a dictatorship.” Alice, not wanting to be outdone, responded quickly: “Well, Antemyra is a democracy.” Following which she convened congress who then voted to declare war on Iraqistan. Virgil quickly turned to the group next to him and asked if they would enter an alliance.

Alice then walked over to Iraqistan and handed Virgil a crumpled up piece of paper. She walked back to her desk, and told him to open it. Virgil unwrinkled the paper and read out loud, “Grenade. Boom!” He wrote “Bomb, boom!” on another piece of paper and threw it across the room at her. Deciding it was time to intervene, I insisted that throwing things was not allowed in my classroom. Someone from across the room called out “Don’t worry Virgil, she’s like the League of Nations. She’s not really going to do anything to stop you.” Meanwhile Alice and Myra were busily crumpling paper balls and had quite a pile stacked up on their desks. The citizens of Iraqistan responded by crumpling their own paper balls. Dustin, who had been watching the whole event from the opposite corner of the room decided to add his own commentary: “Oh no. Now we’ve got an arms race.” Being situated close to the recycle bin Antemyra was able to quickly produce many more weapons than Iraqistan. Virgil, AKA King of Iraqistan, saw that he was being outdone. He grabbed a pile of paper off of my desk and commenced crumpling. Not wanting to waste a whole pile of new paper I told Virgil that he was not allowed to use my raw materials to make his weapons. Now fully caught up in the analogy Oscar indignantly commented, “Yeah, go colonize elsewhere.”

I was ever so proud of my students for their use of their knowledge of history, but I had not forgotten that I had just been compared to the League of Nations. I decided that my only option was to prove that I had no intention of getting myself involved in a rather large mess by practicing appeasement. I picked up the trashcan and confiscated the weapons of both Iraqistan and Antemyra. Denise decided that such an act made me not the League of Nations, as the class had anticipated, but instead the UN. I placed my peacekeeping forces (myself) on the border of Iraqistan and Antemyra, and the class went back to work.