The fifth graders at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, are all too young to have any memories pf the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But the news about the death of bin Laden moved them as much as everyone else, temporarily interrupting their preoccupation with the English Language Arts state tests that were to begin the next day.
“As soon as I came in, they were asking me about it,” teacher Aracely Camacho said on the Monday after the news broke. Like some other teachers, she chose to address the topic in morning meeting, a time she sets aside about once a week for the students to discuss issues that are on their mind.
While most of the students had already seen the news on TV, a few didn’t yet know and also didn’t know the details of when most were just babies. She briefly went over the history of the attacks.
She said she thought that most of the students were happy that bin Laden died. “They heard that men might want revenge,” she said. She added that she told them that some people would have preferred if he had had a trial.
“We’re very proud of them even if we may never know their names,” she said in response to students who asked about the Navy Seals. She encouraged the children to keep up with the news and watch the evening newscasts but added that “Channel 5 is sometimes more one-sided.” And she reminded them that this was a major historic event. “Someday you will say, I remember where I was when that happened, I was in fifth grade,” she said.
Maria Diaz, another fifth-grade teacher, also discussed the news with her students during the morning meeting, and added that it was necessary to provide an outlet so the students could go on and focus on their work. In moderating the conversation, she said it was important to her to keep in mind that P.S. 24 is a school devoted to conflict resolution with an emphasis on not responding to disagreements with violence and that she wanted the boys and girls to think about other positive ways that they could make the world a better place.
She added that her class had a new paraprofessional from Egypt, but that some of the students thought that he looked like he was from Pakistan and asked “does he know [bin Laden]?” For Diaz, that was a sign that “I need to teach more about stereotypes.”
In general, Diaz said, she tried to incorporate news content into the regular teaching curriculum and teaching preparation when she could, but noted that the standardized state social studies test had been discontinued last year.
In the conversation, she said she emphasized that all the students are entitled to their opinion but was also honest about her own conflicted point of view as she tried to reconcile personal experiences with violence, patriotism and a wish for more peaceful solutions. “Boys that age, they hear killing and it’s like a big celebration,” she said, in part because of video games, adding that she wanted to encourage her students to be more thoughtful.
“We do not glorify a killing,” she told them, speaking for herself and her co-teacher. “Though his ideas are bad, we don’t feel that killing makes killing right.”
She then encouraged the students to talk in small groups about their feelings and then share their thoughts with the class.
“I feel like it was right and wrong at the same time,” one boy said. “I feel good that he died…[but] I feel bad that he had to be killed. It’s a wrong thing because his people are going to be angry — they want revenge — but it was right because he would have kept on going.” He added though that if bin Laden had been in jail, his followers might also have revenged him by attacking the prison. “He very likely has a right-hand man.”
“He should have had the death sentence,” another student said. “I think that he should have been in jail for the rest of his life,” a classmate echoed.
Another student worried that bin Laden’s “next generation” or another member of his family could be dangerous. Diaz and her coteacher pointed out that bin Laden was different from many members of his family. “People don’t always agree with their parents.”
As the conversation drew to a close, Diaz urged the students to think about the bigger picture. And just before the class was about to return to the routine of test preparation, a boy had one last comment. “There are so many bad people in the world. What are we supposed to do, kill all of them?”