Images of War

A bilingual elementary teacher helps students think about the images of war that they see — and don't see — in the U.S. media.

On Monday Oct. 9, the day after the U.S. government began to bomb Afghanistan, I asked my fourth grade students about the images they remembered from the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. I approached the discussion with both enthusiasm and apprehension.

I know it is important for students to understand world events and different perspectives on what is happening. But I teach all subjects in Spanish in a two-way bilingual program with Spanish- and English-dominant children, and I know that sometimes the English-dominant children have difficulty when they must use Spanish to understand and express complex ideas.

It was not the first time we had talked about Sept. 11. We had also discussed the actual events and students' feelings, and stereotypes and hate crimes against Arab Americans.

However, this was the first time I specifically asked students to talk about the images they had seen. Part of my focus on images was logistical. In the absence of sufficient Spanish language material, I gravitated toward images, which can be discussed in any language one chooses. I also felt compelled to help students examine photos of the war on Afghanistan because, especially in those early days of bombing, the media did not portray with either words or pictures the suffering that must have been occurring in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. attack. Through our discussion, I hoped to help students develop a critical perspective on the stories and images that they and their families are consuming everyday.

Even though the images of Sept. 11 were almost a month old, when I asked students about images from that day, an animated conversation ensued. Native speakers of Spanish and Spanish language learners shared their memories in Spanish.

"Yo via las personas saltando de los edificios," said one student ["I saw the people jumping from the buildings"].

"Yo vi la gente en la calle corriendo y tratando de escapar," said another ["I saw people in the streets running and trying to escape"].

"Vi los bomberos que se murieron tratando de salvar a las personas," remembered a third student ["I saw the firefighters who died trying to save people"].

After several comments about people, I asked if they remembered images that did not involve people. More hands.

"Los edificios cuando el avión chocó" ["The buildings when the plane crashed into them"].

"Los edificios cuando se cayeron" ["The buildings when they collapsed"].

"Los zapatos de una mujer que se quedó atrapada" ["The shoes of a woman who was trapped"].

I then asked the students what they had seen on TV or in the newspaper since the United States began attacking Afghanistan.

"Los soldados" ["Soldiers"].

"Bombas listas para lanzarse" ["Bombs getting ready to be launched"].

"Fotos de Osama bin Laden" ["Pictures of bin Laden"].

I then asked the students if they had seen any of the people in Afghanistan since the attacks began. No hands. I asked if they had seen any pictures of Afghanistan. One student raised his hand and mentioned something about a bomb dropping in the middle of a barren field.

"Piensen en esto mientras ven las noticias en los días que vienen. Presten atencion y vean si hay personas," I said. ["Keep this in mind as you watch the news in the next few days. Look closely and see if you see any people"].

That Friday, five days after the bombing began, I brought all the newspapers I had received since the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. In groups of four, students studied the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the New York Times. Their task was to look at all the images and pick out one image of the war in Afghanistan that impressed their group.

When they were done, we gathered as a class to look at the images. Two groups shared pictures of bombs ready to be launched. One group shared a picture of an anti-U.S. demonstration in Pakistan where a Pakistani demonstrator had set himself on fire while burning a U.S. flag. Another group showed a picture of an Osama bin Laden target available at a firearms store for $10. ("Por qué hay tiendas que venden armas?" one student wanted to know ["Why are there stores that sell guns?"])

One group found a page which had two different pictures of planes: one plane that dropped bombs and another that dropped food. One student offered a thoughtful response: "Después de bombardear, van a tener que mandar comida para los niños que perdieron sus padres" ["After they bomb, they will need to send food in for the children who lost their parents in the bombing"].

We finished looking at the pictures. "¿Hay algo que no estamos viendo?" I asked ["Is there anything we're not seeing?"]

A few hands went up slowly. Rosana said: "No estamos viendo las personas de Afganistán que se están muriendo" ["We're not seeing the people from Afghanistan who are dying"].

Roberto spoke next: "No estamos viendo la guerra" ["We're not seeing the war"].

Several weeks have gone by since our initial discussion. In our local newspaper, pictures of human suffering in Afghanistan remain scarce; the images are still dominated by photos of fighters from the Northern Alliance and maps with dots and starbursts to show where the bombs are falling. (The New York Times has done a better job of expanding its images, but my students only see those photos if I bring them to class.)

In the weeks to come, I know I will need to build on our initial discussions. I want to help my students to move beyond the compassion they felt for those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, and develop a sense of the tragedy the U.S. government is imposing on many innocent Afghani people. I also want my students to ask whether the U.S. media are reliably reporting what is happening around the world.

Kelley Dawson teaches fourth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, and is an editorial associate of Rethinking Schools.

Winter 2001 / 2002