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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:10:26 Central Daylight Time


Wisconsin Students Learning Rules of War

As the war in Iraq unfolded on American television sets and in newspapers this Spring, the conduct of the conflict held special meaning for young people in western Wisconsin.

High school students from New Richmond, River Falls and Ellsworth became critical observers of the war as a result of their participation in adapting a new national curriculum that describes the humanitarian conduct toward enemy combatants, prisoners of war and to civilians that is required of combatant nations during war.

The western Wisconsin students are the first in the United States to participate in learning humanitarian law through the pilot implementation project coordinated by UW-River Falls.

Teaching the curriculum is a legal obligation of every nation that is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which define conduct to protect human life and dignity. The U.S. Department of Defense must instruct the military in the rules of war, while schools are expected to help teach America's future leaders, diplomats and soldiers about the rules and humanitarian precepts.

Adaptation of the curriculum to meet the decentralized educational standards decision-making culture of American schools systems is being coordinated by social work Professor Ogden Rogers in conjunction with the American Red Cross. Rogers is a senior volunteer consultant and teacher on humanitarian law with the International Services Division of the International Red Cross. He has lectured widely for the past six years on the law to community groups and Red Cross chapters throughout the Midwest for the IRC.

Joining Rogers in field testing the practicality of the curriculum on an IRC task group are Emily Coleman, a disaster services specialist with the ARC office in St. Paul; Mark Stoesz, the social studies department chair and a teacher at Ellsworth Senior High School; Doug Hjersjo, an economics and social studies teacher at River Falls High School; Mandi Frawley-Erickson, a teacher at New Richmond High School; Michelle Riba-Doerr, New Richmond High School Alternative School; and Toni Hull, with the American Creativity Academy in Kuwait. UW-RF faculty include history Professor Kurt Leichtle and education Emeriti Professor DeAn Krey.

The 22-hour curriculum produced by the International Red Cross, "Exploring Humanitarian Law," has been adopted in many other Conventions signatory nations. The Geneva Conventions charge the International Red Cross with accomplishing the adoption world wide.

Citing the 40 wars and civil wars in the world currently monitored by the Red Cross, Rogers notes, "War has not gone away in the world. The International Red Cross wants to make sure everyone knows the rules of war. There is a new generation of young people in the United States and throughout the world who need to catch up with what those rules are."

Students are introduced to the rationales and reasoning for providing basic human rights to combatants, civilians and prisoners of war.

Among the concepts that middle and high school students will learn are how nations interact with each other, the humanitarian norms and the limits of combatants such as the use of child soldiers or landmines, understanding the perspectives of those in armed conflict while placing human life and dignity at the center of the analysis, developing an interest in humanitarian issues and overcoming hopelessness, ensuring justice, and seeking active involvement through community service to protect and promote humanitarian attitudes.

Work on the curriculum implementation began last summer and started as intellectual exercise for Ellsworth's Mark Stoesz on finding a practical way to incorporate a massive amount of material into existing classes. Stoesz brought technical experience to the task group through his service on two curriculum adaptation committees for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

This time, though, Stoesz relates, as he and the other committee members reviewed the IRC materials it became a work of the heart.

"As we began to look at the material the group became absorbed in it. It has become a passion for us. This material is critical to what we're trying to accomplish with our students. We want them to have a global awareness and a sense of humanity."

At Ellsworth, Stoesz has introduced components to sophomores through seniors in his Advanced Placement courses and mainstream courses including history, social sciences and psychology.

Opportunities to introduce the rules have been abundant. As examples, he cites a lecture to eighth-graders in which the rules for the treatment of prisoners of war were related to the experiences of captured Union soldiers who died by the thousands at the notorious Andersonville prisoner camp in the Civil War.

In another class, he introduced what the rules say about the responsibilities of bystanders, and applied them to conduct toward Freedom Marchers in the Civil Rights movement as well as to the role played by a U.S. helicopter pilot whose threats to shoot his fellow soldiers halted the massacre of civilians in the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai III.

For a history class, Stoesz's students mapped out a refugee camp for the civilian victims of war. "In this class we try to transmit the devastation of Europe and the utter destruction of society as a result of World War II. The students see the materials, but as a teacher you wonder, 'Do they really get it?'.

Stoesz directed his students to conduct research on displaced persons, and on their needs, such as shelter, sanitation, water, food, recreation and medical services.

Translating the abstract theories of the rules of war into their practical application has shone through in the students' projects, essays and classroom discussions, Stoesz says.

"I'm really pleased with the reaction. I found the classroom dialogues to be quite enlightening. The students have been very thoughtful and they find the rules to be applicable.

"Now when they go home at night and watch television about the war in Iraq, there is an "Ah, ha!'. Now they know why it is important to know these rules, and that this knowledge does come in handy."

The essay comments of Stoesz's students testify to their engagement. Among his students' comments are:

"At first I felt war was very distant, but in reality it is something we need to learn about."

"I think it's very important that there's an international agreement on the rights of displaced people."

Wrote another, "Before I thought that war was just killing and destructionÉ.Now I think of the victims and their plight."

Enthusiasm among the Wisconsin committee's teachers and insight among their students is quickly propelling the curriculum into a national spotlight, Rogers says.

Over the past several months, Stoesz and New Richmond's Michelle Riba-Doerr have traveled either to San Francisco or to Connecticut to share the Wisconsin model at conferences of teachers and students. They've had a warm reception.

That's because the Wisconsin model and the IRC curriculum poses crucial questions, Rogers says.

"Students get to question for themselves whether all's fair in love and war. Or are there limits on how humans can behave in armed conflict? Students really wrestle with that issue."

The American Red Cross curriculum is especially suited to fostering that discussion, Rogers says. "The Red Cross is neither pacifist nor a supporter of war. We are a neutral proponent for humanitarian relief. The Geneva Conventions are about helping to mitigate the suffering of war."

As Rogers coordinates with the ARC, Professor Krey is demonstrating how the curriculum aligns with national standards to the U.S. Department of Education and to the National Council on Social Studies. Partnerships also are being explored with other major national organizations and foundations.

Rogers is presenting on the project this spring to the Wisconsin State Social Studies Association, and this summer UW-RF will host a national workshop to introduce up to 50 high school educators to the curriculum. Those teachers will continue to explore how best to implement the classroom material and provide feedback to Rogers.

Ultimately, Rogers says, he expects the work performed by the Wisconsin task group to convince the ARC to invest up to $4 million to share the curriculum with 54,000 high school social studies teachers in the United States. Within the next four years that means four million American high school student s will be exposed to humanitarian law.

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