On the first day of the unit I asked students to reflect in writing about this question I'd written on the board: "When you hear the country name, Afghanistan, what comes to mind?"
I gave students markers and asked them to write their responses on poster paper. Most were vague: "Afghanistan is far away," "The women there are treated bad with masks," "I think it's near Africa or something," and my favorite, "Afghanistan? Like with the war and stuff there?" I used this activity not to amuse myself — I also didn't know much about Afghanistan before I decided to study it with my class — but to find out what students already knew. I anticipated that at least one student would mention the current war in Afghanistan, and so I decided on an activity to follow this pre-assessment.
In a Rethinking Schools interview with Portland teacher Sandra Childs (Vol. 17, No. 4) she suggested an idea to allow students, as she said, to "[get] inside the imagined lives of these people and... honor, acknowledge, and voice their suffering." This was one of my goals in the unit: to make the lives of the people of Afghanistan real for my students so that they might feel compassion and understand the human cost of war. Taking Childs' advice and her website suggestion, www.dqc.org/-ben/index3.htm, I reserved computer time for my English class in the library. Before I gave each student the URL, I told them that they would be seeing some photographs that were disturbing and showed some of the horrors of war. I let them know that the images were taken in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. I asked students to choose one photo that touched them or that they found particularly powerful.
I waited and watched students' reactions as they pulled up the war images onto their computers. Some, like Donete, turned away from the screen when the website came up. "I don't want to see that, man," he said. "McFeat, I know what you want me to get here. War is horrible." Kourtney was shocked. "We did this?" she asked her classmate, Heidi, sitting next to her.
Students used most of our class time viewing the 63 pictures from the website. When students had selected their photographs, I told them that they were going to write interior monologues, the inner thoughts and feelings of the individuals in their picture — trying to imagine that they were the people in the photographs. Students worked on drafts of their interior monologues the next day in class, and we spent time revising and editing the following day. Once students had typed out their final copies, we gathered for a read-around. Kourtney wanted to read her piece first. She'd written hers as a poem: