George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching War: Making History Relevant (Highlight Video)

Seventh-grade students at ASCEND School in East Oakland, CA improve their media literacy and dig into world affairs in a semester-long project on the Iraq war.
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Teaching War: Making History Relevant (Transcript)

Teacher: Today, we're going to start our study of nuclear weapons, and atoms, and chemistry by giving a little context to why some of this science-y stuff is important to study about.

Narrator: A bold experiment in education is underway at Ascend School in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California.

Elena: So I'd like you to write down your feelings and thoughts that you have as you look at each of those photos.

Hae-Sin: Quality education is a curriculum that pushes kids. It's not making them feel safe or comfortable all the time. Or successful. It's supposed to be frustrating. It's supposed to make kids really think. It's supposed to push them out of their comfort zone. Give them new experiences, ask questions, find answers to their questions. Understand that like life is not an answer; life is a question.

Keiko: I think that some people would say that seventh graders shouldn't be looking at these images, and that they're too young. And I don't agree with that. I think that you look at the video games that our third graders are playing, and they're just as graphic. The first day that I was here, one of my brand-new students came into me during lunchtime and he was like, "Keiko, have you ever seen anybody get killed?" And I said, "Well, in fact, I have seen somebody get shot." He was like, "Yeah, I've seen 11 people get shot." And so our kids are really dealing with some very heavy issues in their lives.

Narrator: Heavy issues like violence, overcrowding, low test scores, and low expectations, led parents in this East Oakland Community to demand something better for their kids.

Emma: This is about their child's future. And we, the parents, need to learn that we can make a difference just by getting involved at the school. So I think that's so important for parents to understand that. We cannot let other people decide for our kids.

Narrator: With help from the non-profit Oakland Community Organizations, a group of parents lobbied the school board to create a new K through eighth grade school for 200 students. One of five new schools to open in the Fall of 2001, Ascend stands for "a school cultivating excellence, nurturing diversity."

Keiko: We're actually out to reform the public school system. And I think that we have definitely taken a step in the right direction.

Narrator: One key to the reformation effort is the concept of expeditionary learning. A teaching method that encourages students to dig deeply into a single subject.

Teacher: So that's not absolutely set in stone.

Narrator: Twice a year, students work with their teachers to come up with a question or area of inquiry that they will pursue for the next several months. They integrate math, science and English studies, and with the help of local artists express themselves in artwork, dance, video, drama and music.

Elena: At the end of our last semester, which ended in January, I gave the students a survey asking them what topics and themes in history they wanted to study more about. And the results were that the kids wanted to study about Islam. They wanted to study about the Middle East. And they wanted to study about war. And in order to do that, the kids immediately realized, "We need to hear multiple voices. And one of those voices we want to hear are Iraqi people, and Iraqi children." And so we had email pen-pals in Baghdad.

Student: "My dear Mr. Louis, We are people who love peace. We won't accept occupation. We say "no" to war. "Yes" to peace."

Student: "Dear Joan, I was so excited to hear from you. I really don't want this war because it is pretty harmful."

Student: "What do they want? Our oil? It's not theirs after all."

Hae-Sin: We're about to march in there. They're doing this massive build-up, and you sense the tension building, and we're getting it first-hand. I mean, this is a primary source. It's a brilliant way for these children to learn about Iraq.

Student: "Anyway, I felt better when I knew that someone really cares over there."

President: "My fellow citizens, this hour, American and Coalition forces in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger."

Elena: When the war started, right away they started asking questions that were-- sort of came out naturally. "Well, we're seeing all this coverage, but where are the stories about the children? What about our pen-pals? Are they okay? You know, these anonymous lights in the sky, but what are those bombs hitting? Are they hitting my friend?"

Reporter: They gathered at Market and Powell this morning around 9:00 a.m., holding pictures of Iraqi children. Today, they say their march was about expressing their feelings, and it's not an anti-war march.

Elena: It's not black and white when you're talking with kids. They have complex emotions. They're confused. They're sad. They're frustrated. And they feel disempowered, because they feel like people don't listen to children. And they are worried about their friends.

Sarita: I think that we shouldn't have this war, because Iraq already is kind of poor, in a way, and it's like 50 percent of the people there are children. So basically, more children are getting bombed than the parents.

Huber: The march was really cool, ’cause it was silent, just with the posters. And then this man came up to us saying, "Get back to your country. Why are you over here marching? You're not even from this nation?" And I felt really bad, ’cause this is actually my nation. And it made me feel like intimidated, but then I believe like they're just saying that so that young kids will feel scared and not come out and speak out what they feel.

Narrator: The seventh graders peaceful protest caught the attention of news media around the world. From CNN to NBC's "Today Show."

Reporter: Huber, are you concerned about your friends?

Huber: If they're dead, it's really sad. So I don't know what to do. I feel really confused.

Reporter: Carina, some of the response was not positive for the anti-war protest. In fact, there were many adults who said they felt like the students were being used as pawns for the adults. Do you think that that's the case? How would you respond to those people.

Carina: Those people are wrong, because we all have a mind of our own. If they want to believe that our teacher was forcing us to do that, they didn't. Some students refused to go, but I really wanted to go, because I really wanted to get my voice out.

Reporter: Well, Carina, thank you for joining us.

Narrator: Having become the subject of media coverage themselves, the students gained new insights as they studied how the war was being covered in print and on TV.

Elena: I have a list of questions here. Not all of them apply to every photo. But in this photo, who do you identify with? And who do you feel empathy for?

Student: The Iraqi civilian.

Elena: The Iraqi civilian. What other kinds of things do you think you might think?

Student: Well, I realize this. It's like if you look at this picture, you feel sorry for the soldiers, and that kind of makes you want to support the war. But then if you look at this picture, you feel sorry for the Iraqi people. And that makes you think that the war isn't necessary.

Narrator: At the end of the semester, the seventh graders held an evening class Teach-In for their parents about the war.

Narrator: For the parents, it was a chance to discover how much their children had learned about the war, and how to get new information on the subject.

Student: We'd been studying this a really long time, and they don't have the education like we have. They just learned a whole lot.

Elena: Academically, we're starting to see what difference these schools can make. Our Stanford 9 test scores just came out across all the schools. And our school, as well as the other small schools, showed dramatic gains.

Narrator: The last stop on the seventh grade expedition was Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, where the class recorded a CD of peace songs, hoping to send the proceeds from their sales to their pen-pals in Iraq.

Elena: In the beginning of the war, we started working with our musician, Sarah, and singing songs of peace. And as we started singing them, it was such a relief in the middle of all this misery to be able to sing and create something beautiful, and express our feelings in that way.

Hae-Sin: I think there's a switch in all of us, you know. Something that turns you on to suddenly not only like learning, but just your own thinking. I feel like our seventh graders have become thinkers now. The switch is on. They're thinking of themselves as change-makers. As people who have voices, who have power, who can articulate, who are respected. They just made this huge leap. Suddenly they are deep, critical, reflective, powerful thinkers. And I think this curriculum turned the switch on.

Elena: I look at a few of my kids and I say, "He would have dropped out in any other school by now. He would be out. This one would never be singing like this in front of all his peers." They're learning stuff that they're going to remember for their lives. They're so motivated. These kids are going to go to college. That's why I'm a teacher. And I couldn't be a teacher anywhere else, because it doesn't happen like that elsewhere. You know, what I envisioned and what I hoped would happen here, is happening. And it makes it all worth it.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Roberta Furger


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Ken Ellis
  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Jerry Neuman
  • Lewis Block


  • Kris Welch


  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of:

  • KGO-TV / ABC7
  • Oakland Community Organizations
  • Keiko Suda

Former principal Hae-Sin Kim moved on from the ASCEND School in 2004 to spend several years working with the Oakland Unified School District's New School Development Group. She recently left the district to found urbanED Solutions, a nonprofit education consulting organization. ASCEND teacher Elena Aguilar moved on to become an instructional coach -- and an blogger. (Read her occasional blog posts about where these students are now, including this one.) ASCEND is still growing and going strong, with Principal Larissa Adam at the helm.


Watch the full twelve-minute version of this video to learn more about ASCEND school.

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