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Teachers Try To Explain Kosovo

May 6, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Most of Les Gambee’s students at East Rochester High School barely remember the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They may know something of Vietnam from their parents or textbooks. They regard the Civil War as ancient history.

But the current conflict in Kosovo is real _ it’s on television, in the newspapers, on the Internet. And Gambee is determined that his students achieve a good understanding of it.

``Their biggest question was why are we there, why are we bombing?″ said Gambee, who has designed a Web site on the Balkan fighting for his 25 government students at the suburban Rochester, N.Y., school. ``There was not a simple answer.″

U.S. educators, often lacking background on the Balkan region’s underlying ethnic, political and religious differences, find they must try new ways of educating their students about a part of the world they know little about. They are using Internet pages or building their own, and seeking the expertise of community leaders and scholars, as well as news reports. Some are simply shying away from what can be an emotional topic, but those who take on the task say it’s worth it.

``The Civil War is very long in the past,″ said Gambee. ``It’s very hard for some students to realize the depth of destruction and despair in an event that happened over 100 years ago. Students tend to view this as more reality based.″

Along with a seven-page briefing book he created, Gambee’s students study with the Web site, which features maps, news articles and a history of the conflict that has led the United States and other NATO allied countries to launch air strikes against Yugoslav forces.

Kosovo is a Serbian province in Yugoslavia that is heavily populated by ethnic Albanians. Serbian leaders in Belgrade are trying to reassert their authority over the formerly autonomous region. The nations that united in the World War II era have joined the conflict, siding with the Kosovo Albanians.

For such a story, the news media, especially print, have always helped classroom teachers.

``Textbooks and many other educational materials are not very timely,″ said David Goddy, editor in chief of Scholastic’s classroom magazines. ``There are teachers who want to be able to get kids to talk about what is happening today.″

The Internet is creating even more resources beyond having students clip articles from newspapers and magazines. Gambee admits his Web site is a chance to supervise what students are reading.

``I don’t want to tell them what to believe,″ he said. ``But with the Internet, they can get into trouble faster with bad information.″

The wealth of information deserves careful scrutiny from teachers too, said Anna Pavichevich, a spokeswoman for the Serbian National Defense Council of America in Chicago.

Her third-grade son has come home crying, believing he is a bad person because his class discussed reported atrocities being committed by Serbs against the Kosovo Albanians.

``Everything comes down to good and bad,″ said Pavichevich, who is a teacher at a Chicago high school. ``There are lot of levels. It’s human rights; it’s economic rights. Teachers don’t have enough time to educate themselves.″

It’s difficult to shield children from violence in this particular topic, Gambee said. Newscasts often show images of Albanian children who are hungry and scared as they wait at a refugee mission; those photos can start the discussion.

``Sometimes adults don’t think children can handle it but they can,″ he said. ``There’s a gentleness you have to use. You can’t slam them in the face with it.″

Scholars can be a resource for teachers, said Judy Breck, content master of homeworkcentral.com, an educational Web site that uses graduate students in relevant fields to glean the Internet for information on Kosovo.

Their expertise helps educators focus on history, she said, adding that news sources tend to feature current events over historical background.

Emmanuel Skoulas, an adjunct instructor at Queens College who teaches Western civilization, said teachers must review history before using terms such as ``ethnic cleansing,″ which is NATO’s description of what Serbs are doing to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, generally meaning driving out, killing or otherwise nullifying the influence or presence of an ethnic group.

He said the region’s boundaries have been redefined repeatedly, leading to ethnic groups living within the national borders of other groups they might be hostile to, and students of the subject need to understand that.

``It’s not a simple war,″ said Skoulas. ``It’s a war that goes back to the 14th and 15th centuries.″

Pavichevich added that community groups can help by lecturing schools. But many teachers, she adds, just as soon avoid the issue in Chicago, where they are large number of Eastern European immigrants.

``They take the position we’re not going to bring that into the school,″ she said. ``Even some small child with an American-sounding last name might have a close family member who is involved in this conflict.″

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