Parents and educators are often faced with the need to present a difficult or sensitive topic using an approach that doesn’t send their children away in tears or cause them to develop a sort of personal mythology around an idea they simply can’t comprehend. As a special educator of over ten years, this challenge has arisen almost daily as I have attempted to introduce innocent and frangible little minds to the kinds of reality-based lessons they need to navigate a complex and risky world.
My experiences with children of all levels, since oftentimes my lessons would be presented to children with special needs along with their typical peers, have proven that almost any topic can be addressed if it is treated like a conscientious walk through a forest of thorns. Each bush is identified, both its thorns and flowers acknowledged, and it is pushed aside ever so delicately so that the students can step through, look back, and see that although it was a frightening prospect, they survived .
Civics lessons, especially those that touch upon the darker eras of American History, are tricky for parents and teachers of younger children. All wars from the Revolutionary War through our current conflicts, slavery, deadly epidemics, and embarrassing political errors, can be taught if you choose language that accommodates the background knowledge and developmental level of your audience.
Not unlike the sometimes awkward “human growth and development” lessons that intermediate grades must endure, the anticipation is always worse than the reality because the language in such lessons is NOT sexually explicit. It is usually clinically correct yet simple, with terminology that is familiar to fifth graders. By the same token, if I am teaching a lesson about the Civil Rights Era to first graders I wouldn’t use terms like “racism” and “murder.” I would introduce those ideas truthfully yet understandably. For example: “Many people just didn’t see that people who had different colored skin were wonderful citizens. Some people were mean and rude and sometimes wouldn’t let people of African heritage enjoy the same things as the white people. It was wrong. And it was against the Declaration of Independence! Many great men such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. knew this had to change!”
The goal is always to explore a topic truthfully, but make it appropriate for the young or developmentally-delayed student by making the language palatable. In teaching a unit about Veteran’s Day, for example, you wouldn’t dwell on the horrors of combat or even the extreme rigors of military training. Terms like, “protect,” or “defend our freedom,” gently lead the listener to the more difficult truths, but leave them with the comforting knowledge that they are important and safe.
I have published the first book in my series, “The Heroes of the Vietnam War: Books for Children.” Book one, “Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship” is a true story of events on the last day of the Vietnam War during the evacuation code-named Operation Frequent Wind. The real-life story took place amid enemy gunfire, chaos in the air, and death on the ground. I chose to leave in some danger, such as the bullets flying past the little Cessna O-1 Bird Dog airplane while the central characters climbed aboard, but I followed up with their successful escape and the feelings of relief that ensued. I described the helicopters and refugees crowding the deck of the Big Ship, the USS Midway, but I bypassed mentioning the slaughter taking place on the mainland that forced thousands of Vietnamese evacuees to find safety there.
I am often asked why I chose the Vietnam War as the topic for my series of historical non-fiction books. First of all, this is a niche that is completely void of children’s literature. Secondly, because of my experience in tailoring difficult lessons to fit the needs of guileless learners, I enjoy the writer’s challenge of taking the stories of heroism during a difficult and often confusing era in American History, and drawing out those aspects that make it meaningful and valuable as a tool that teaches principles such as bravery, friendship, compassion, and sacrifice.
Book two of my series, “Saving the Vietnamese Orphans,” is about the equally dangerous mission of Operation Babylift. I hope that with these books, and others like them, educators and parents will feel more comfortable in addressing those daunting life lessons that we often wish we didn’t have to teach at all.
By Marjorie Haun 10/3/12