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History class puts current events on the map

Teachers tap into student interest in news headlines, comparing the Iraqi standoff to prior instances of conflict

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For seventh-graders in Michael Yell's world history class, Desert Storm might seem as ancient as the land of Mesopotamia.

They, after all, were born in the year of the conflict. But with a new confrontation brewing with Iraq, Mr. Yell says the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is drawing new interest from students at his Hudson, Wisc., middle school. So a lesson about ancient Mesopotamia begins with a discussion of modern-day Iraq.

It's just one way social-studies teachers are adjusting their classes to incorporate the Iraqi conflict. Whatever the grade level or geographic focus, current events are giving many routine history classes more relevance. As a result, just as after the Sept. 11 attacks, teachers are searching for ways to teach students without heightening their fears.

"They really want kids to understand both the immediacy of this and the long-term American interests, and how this fits in with actions other countries may take," says Merry Merryfield, a professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, who instructs social-studies teachers.

In some courses, the conflict may be used to illustrate concepts already in the curriculum. US history classes, for example might compare President Bush's new foreign policy approach with the Monroe Doctrine. A civics-class discussion about Congress's power to declare war has a new urgency.

Students in Deborah Twyman's civics and government class in North Kansas City, Mo., compared the Iraqi standoff to prior instances of conflict, including the Cuban missile crisis and President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.

The question that recurs, says Ms. Twyman, is whether the US has the right to take preemptive military action. "One student asked, 'Isn't it like punishing me for being late tomorrow when I haven't been late yet?' " Twyman says.

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