For the girls in Juliette Zener's world-history classes, this
should have been a routine year.
Not that the Newton Country Day School 10th-graders didn't show
up on Sept. 11 for their first day of school lit with excitement, or
that Ms. Zener and teaching fellow Abe George didn't care deeply
about their material. But they had five centuries to cover in eight
months. Ibn Battuta, Isaac Newton, the Crimean War - they didn't
have time to waste, especially not on current events.
Then the planes hit, the towers fell, and Zener faced a decision.
Under pressure to cover ground, she and Mr. George might simply
have spent a few periods talking about Sept. 11 and then moved on.
But instead, she reshuffled lesson plans to spend a class period
every two weeks mediating a conversation about current events.
It's not what she might have done previously. But Zener had just
attended a workshop by Workable Peace, a conflict-resolution
project in Cambridge, Mass., that changed her approach.
History - especially in high school - is often taught as a
catalog of conquests and catastrophes: a dusty parade of shifting
borders and inevitable bloodshed.
To David Fairman, that's exactly the wrong way to involve
students with the forces and events that have shaped their world. A
founder of Workable Peace, Mr. Fairman has another vision of how
history can be taught, a way that engages students more deeply, both
in the study of the past - and in the present and future of
conflicts in their own communities. "There's lots to study besides
all the horrible things that happen," he says. "There's maybe even
more to be learned from the things that didn't happen, but could
No lack of response
For homework a month after the terrorist attacks, Zener's 10th-
graders considered the question: "What should the US response to the
Sept. 11 attacks be?" In class the next day, the girls have no
problem jumping into the middle of such a tough political conundrum -
even one that's already in some ways a moot point. They quickly
rearrange their seats around the classroom according to their views.
Four are in favor of immediate US military retaliation, even if
that means going it alone. Seven say military action is OK only if
the US works with an international alliance. Four more are for
flushing out Al Qaeda members and trying them as war criminals in
international court. One, hesitating, admits she might be a
Emily Simon says she supports US military action, because at
least that means the country is doing something. "The pacifists,
they seem too la-di-da, you know?" she says. "It makes me angry that
they just want to sit around and, like, talk about their emotions."
"I think that the US should take action too," argues Elizabeth
St. Victor, the reluctant pacifist, "but by going against [terrorist
suspects] in criminal court. Going to attack another nation, I think
is an inappropriate response, because it's beginning a cycle of
killing other people."
"I don't think it's fair to us to give them trials and put them
in our jails," Emily counters. "I don't know. I just want them away.
Ewww." She makes a face. Around the room, more than a few people
giggle. For a moment, even though these students are debating the
country's hardest questions with sometimes startling maturity, it's
clear that they're also kids - at least half of them sporting '80s-
style neckties, shinguards, and field hockey skirts in anticipation
of today's big game.
But Kathleen O'Brien, at the war crimes table, isn't deterred.
"What about their right to have a trial?" she demands. "In America,
that's a freedom, like your right to have a trial. If you're
defending America, you have to defend what it stands for."
"Good point!" Elizabeth whispers.
"But they aren't Americans!" Emily says. "They don't get our same