Teaching third grade for the first time, I found that the New Haven’s Social Development unit on communicable diseases has provided my students with many positive experiences. With an emphasis on the cause, transmission, and prevention of AIDS, lessons allowed my pupils to begin acquiring a factual understanding of this disease as well as to begin developing more realistic emotional reactions to the illness.
The population of my particular classroom is over 90% African American with one Latino student. This is close to the average for our school. They range in age from 8 to 10. They come from a variety of social-economic backgrounds and home situations. Their academic ability and the level of their general knowledge also vary considerably. A number of children have considerable trouble reading on grade level while a few qualify for the city’s Talented and Gifted program. Generally, their basic skill level is below average, but many have potential well beyond this point. Some are members of families with multiple problems. Few of their lives are without difficulties. At this stage of their educational life, most enjoy school but not just for the academics. Many, though not all, parents or guardians are supportive of school. Most want to be helpful but are not sure of the best way to go about it. Often the struggles of everyday life interfere with their efforts.
As is the case with the general public, as we began our discussions, most of these children possessed the sanitized and highly circumscribed stereotypes that mold many people’s reactions to AIDS and its victims. The image gained from motion picture and newspaper depiction’s of the “innocent,” usually white, victim who acquired the disease through an unfortunate blood transfusion, does not fit well with the reality of death and affliction often present within their own neighborhood and even family. High profile personalities such as Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson appear in sharp contrast to the victims my pupils may know. At the same time, documentary material stresses the increasing incidence of AIDS in the African American and Latino communities, linking it here with intravenous drug use and unprotected sex. Finally, there is still the message, spread perhaps a bit more subtly, that AIDS is a “gay” disease.
In an attempt to present a somewhat boarder view of AIDS, I am developing a unit, geared for this age level. In the unit, we will look at the representation of AIDS and its victims in film. We will then use this examination as a springboard for further study and, ultimately understanding. It is my objective to first increase the amount and accuracy of scientific information possessed by these children and second to guide them toward a position of understanding, tolerance, and caring relative toward victims of AIDS.
As I conducted my preliminary research, I gradually, and at times painfully, began to understand the far-reaching effect this modern day epidemic is having upon the children we teach. In varying degree, most are affected, few are left untouched.
Most directly, among the children in our classrooms, there are pupils who are afflicted themselves. Somewhat over half of the children infected by the AIDS virus at birth live to seven and some have survived into adolescence. Though we may not know that they are victims, the potential exists that a pupil or pupils in our classroom could be infected. Some of our pupils have lost a mother, father, sibling, close relative, or significant care-giver to this disease. Still others are helplessly watching the slow deterioration of one, and sometimes more than one, of these family members. Often the child may not fully understand what is happening around them. Most families develop a method of avoiding the complete truth. In an attempt to protect these children from reality as well as from the negative reactions of others, the family may make no mention of illness or disease. Despite evidence to the contrary, children are told that nothing out of the ordinary is wrong. In other cases, they are told that their loved-one is suffering from a less stigmatizing illness, usually cancer. Finally, in some instances children are told the truth but admonished about protecting the secrecy of this information. This disease reaches out to touch other children in ways that, at least on the surface, seem less direct. The news is readily obtained that a friend of the family, the person down the street, a relative of a classmate, a teacher in their sister’s school, the man who delivers the mail, or any of the many varied individual who cross the path of most elementary age pupil may have died or is suffering from AIDS. Finally, probably all of our pupils have been affected in some way by the media attention given to AIDS victims who are celebrities such as Arthur Ashe, Magic Johnson, Ryan White, movie or TV star the child might have seen in rerun last week, and any number of other stars who may have gained public attention because of their connection with AIDS. Through illness and death, somehow these individuals become greater heroes than before, a sharp contrast to the reactions given to similar illness or death occurring in the child’s own community or family. It is a contradiction which must be difficult to understand.
The sharpening of this realization that the AIDS epidemic is having a profound effect upon the pupils in our classrooms reinforced my goal of using films of all types as a basic tool for educating and humanizing students as they deal with the realities of AIDS, whatever they might be, in their lives. There are a wide variety of films available, instructional, fictional, documentary, animated, interviews, and various combinations of these.
It seems obvious that the teacher who undertakes the challenge of teaching an AIDS unit should be adequately and appropriately informed. Since data, research, and evaluation are changing constantly, this is not an easy task. This unit does not attempt to directly present AIDS information to the teacher, but it does include sources relevant at this time and discussion of the basic information which needs to be covered. Many local agencies and school systems, especially those in larger metropolitan areas, seem to be a good source of up-to-date information. This is particularly true of the New Haven School system.
Though film will be its core, this unit is interdisciplinary in approach. The pertinent nature and high interest of this topic should allow for its use in many curriculum areas where the basic academies skills so vital to the future of our children may be developed naturally around a topic that is easily holds their attention. As the various approaches are presented in the unit, suggestions for integrating learning into other areas of the curriculum will be made, along with possible techniques for developing specific academic skills. These in turn should motivate other teachers to expand and modify lessons to meet the needs of other specific groups.
The presentation of material related to AIDS is not an easy task since it touches on many difficult issues: life and death, illness, drug use, sexual activity, and homosexuality. These are uncomfortable topics for adults to confront, even among themselves. It may be helpful to remember that there is no need to present material beyond a child’s understanding. Often it is not necessary to be explicit while still being appropriate and informative.
At first, the focus will be on communicable diseases and good health habits. It will deal with the scientific, more concrete aspects of communicable diseases in general and AIDS in particular. an understanding of this material is an essential step before moving on to a more specific understanding of HIV and AIDS and a further realization of the impact of this disease upon its victims, family, and other associates, as well as upon society in general. New Haven provides an excellent guide, especially in
Building Blocks, An AIDS Curriculum for Early Elementary Education
, which may be followed in this approach. Besides the information it includes,
contains a number of activities which help to develop basic reading, language arts, and science skills.
I have set up a series of films, possible related readings and discussions, and suggested related activities which the teacher may use in a manner and amount that will best suit the individual situation. Other material from the bibliography and other sources available to the individual teacher easily can fit my framework.
To begin, the film
AIDS, A Different Kind of Germ
and portions of
Update of AIDS
, another video, will be shown to supplement the discussion and activities suggested in the New Haven Guide. There are a number of books listed in the bibliography which may be used in whole or in part to explain the progress and prevention of this disease.
Once children have demonstrated a basic understanding of communicable diseases, the transmission of the HIV virus, the progression of the virus as it gains control of its victim’s immune system and the eventual on-set of AIDS, a series of videos dealing with specific examples of youthful AIDS victims and their interrelated problems will be presented. The first is the
The Ryan White Story
The Ryan White Story
Ryan White was a hemophiliac since birth who contracted AIDS through a transfusion given at home by his mother. A biopsy performed to diagnose a severe case of pneumonia revealed the presence of AIDS when Ryan was a young teenager. The film chronicles the family’s struggles involving Ryan, his mother and younger sister as they fight to gain Ryan’s admittance to public school in Kocomo, Indiana.
Ryan and his mother are depicted as strong individuals, pitted against the fears and bigotry of a community largely ignorant of the realities of AIDS. There are numerous opportunities where children can discuss or write about the misconceptions held by those who opposed Ryan’s admittance to school. “Could other kids really get AIDS from using the same water fountain as Ryan?” “Were the accusations that Ryan was a homosexual reasonable?” “Would it have made any difference if he had been?”
The film places the media in a very negative light. Perpetuating stereotypes, hounding the family and generally showing little understanding of the disease of compassion for the family, they open avenues for further discussion and/or writing. “Were the reporters fair to the family?” “Did they have a responsibility to follow the family so closely?” “How would you have covered the story had you been a reported?”
Interaction within the family also provides possibilities for further development by pupils. Ryan and his mother are often frustrated and discouraged. His sister has to take a backseat to Ryan which brings forth obviously conflicting feelings. Pupils might ponder: “Was Ryan’s mother right in pushing for his acceptance in school?” “Would going to school create any dangers for Ryan?” “If you were Ryan would you have kept fighting?” “How do you think he felt when his girlfriend rejected him?” “Why do you think she did that?” “Would you have done the same?” “Was his sister justified feeling anger and jealousy?” “Why?” “How would you have reacted?” The same question could be posed relative to the two supportive adults and Ryan’s grandparents.
Despite the fact that the judge lifted the injunction against Ryan’s admittance to school, Ryan’s mother moved the family to Cicero, Indiana where threats, including a gun shot, were made against them. In contrast to the Kocomo system, the school administrators in Cicero were prepared for Ryan’s arrival. Through appropriate education, they were able to defuse any existing fears, so that Ryan is show being positively accepted by both staff and pupils. This provides an opportunity for the teacher to have students speculate on what information might have been provided for Cicero pupils. Again role playing might be employed to develop a reenactment of the group meeting where Ryan’s arrival was discussed.
As a summary activity pupils might develop two lists, one stating the reasons why Ryan should be in school and the other enumerating the reasons against. This could be followed by a third list containing the realities of how AIDS is spread. Pupils could then be encouraged to draw their own conclusions.
Follow-up to the Ryan White Story
After this film is shown, pupils will be read the photographic essay on Arthur Ashe with a narrative written by his daughter, Camera. The book, Daddy and Me, contains some very moving photos of Arthur and Camera taken by his wife during the course of Arthur’s illness, which was also contracted through a blood transfusion. I have found that children relate well to this book. They will be encouraged to reread the text independently.
The Ryan White film will be followed by a videotape from the Sally Jessie Raphael Show three and one half years after Ryan had been diagnosed with AIDS. Probably not all segments of this program are appropriate for their graders, but the first two are definitely excellent follow-up to the movie.
In this interview, we learn some of the details behind events in the movie and see Ryan and his mother as positive, very human individuals. The misconceptions of Kocomo’s population are made even more real as Mrs. White tells of co-workers who refuse to use the restroom after her and Ryan tells of being called a “faggot” and “killer”.
A phone conversation with an unidentified mother who fears telling even her own mother that her son of twelve has AIDS, provides opportunity to discuss the reasons why people lie about HIV and the resulting stress this places on both victim and family. In this case, the mother has told her son, who is aware of his condition, not to tell others.
The remaining segments of this show contain discussion that seems more appropriate for fifth graders and above. As part of our school’s team activities, all or portions of these sections will be shared with fifth graders. In a combined activity, third and fifth graders will work together to create posters urging a healthy life-style and promoting positive attitudes towards the victims of AIDS.
Continuing with the themes developed from
The Ryan White Story
, I have a video tape made in l991 showing a mock trial staged by seventh grade students at New Haven’s Fair Haven Middle School. The students, an interracial group from the City’s Talented and Gifted program, are attempting to decide whether an Aids victim who, like Ryan, has contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, should be allowed in school. Lawyers from each side put forth their arguments through various witnesses who present contrasting views. As in the case of Ryan White, the students decide that Ryan has the right to be included in the system. Through the students how typical nervousness and resulting omissions, the same motivational questions can be used here in elicit discussion and writing from the viewing class. Further, the children may be asked to evaluate the TAG student’s presentation, grasp and accuracy of information, and omission of information which might have been included in their arguments. Students might be encouraged to enact their own mock trial.
After this video is shown, the children will be read the book,
Alex a Ki
. Alex, a fictitious character, is in school with staff and pupils aware that he has AIDS. He is not openly rejected buy has few friends other than Jim who appreciates the sarcastic poems that Alex writes. The teacher overtly ignores minor misbehavior by Alex until events force her to change her course. The same type of questions appropriate to The Ryan White Story will be applicable here with the addition of speculation concerning the teacher’s reactions.
A More Intense Examination
The next in this series of relate videos comes from the TV show Currents narrated by Marlene Sanders. It examines the plight of babies with AIDS. In contrast to previous videos, most participants are African Americans and the primary cause of transmission is traced in intravenous drug use. The interrelated factors of poverty, drugs and AIDS are highlighted. Further discussion outside of the film is needed in order to help students avoid forming generalizations that are not only inaccurate but could easily produce unnecessary fear in younger children. It must be reinforced that not all poor people are drug users, not all drug users have or will acquire AIDS, white people also get AIDS through IV drug use, not all African Americans or Latinos with AIDS were IV drug users, and there are people of all races who are victims of poverty and therefore susceptible to the dangers depicted in this video. Pointing out various examples from this tape should also help children to form a less stereotypical picture of AIDS victims. The children shown in this film were white, African American, and Latino. The primary African American mother being depicted was a good student who eventually graduated from Howard University before becoming an IV drug user through a blood transfusion. And African American foster mother fought like Ryan White’s mother to have her child admitted to school and won.
Though it is extremely important to counteract these stereotypes with reality, it is important that children still see the very real and very dangerous cause and effect relationship among the factors of poverty, drug use, and the contracting of AIDS in a growing number of cases. As the video reinforces, proper knowledge is the first step toward protection.
In general, parts of the Sanders TV program are quite suitable for this age level, especially in showing the impact of AIDS upon people other than the victim, the growing problem of babies with AIDS, as well as the personal, emotional difficulties faced by foster and adoptive parents of AIDS babies. The sections discussing safe-sex could possibly be used with fifth grade in our team exchange, but they are generally too advanced for third graders.
Developing Further Empathy
The next phase of this unit will deal with the reactions children who are either victims of AIDS or are closely connected to a victim, some of whom are still alive and some who have died. A number of books are listed in the bibliography which contain very poignant letters and art work written and created by these children. Some will be read and shown by the teacher. Others will be read directly by the students. As this is done, it is important for the teacher to point out the strengths displayed by these children even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Children will be asked to comment on these letters and will be asked to write letters of their own, providing an academic opportunity to develop appropriate letter writing skills in a meaningful context. Students also might be asked to assume the role of one of these children and asked to write a letter from their point of view. A specific lesson plan is included on this topic.
The next film, The Cure, is a fictionalized story of a hemophiliac, eleven year old boy with AIDS who becomes friends with a lightly older neighbor, a boy who also, for various reasons, has faced a number of rejections in his life. As their friendship grows, they set out in a variety of ways, including “overdosing” on candy, to find a cure for AIDS. In their final quest, they venture down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans to find a man whom “The examiner” has touted as having conquered the disease. After a number of adventures, the older boy finally realizes that the attempt has taken a tremendous toll on his friend and returns the feverish boy to his mother. Though death comes quickly, we are left with the feeling that each boy’s life was made richer through their mutual friendship. Though the film has some obvious weaknesses, including some language that some would think unacceptable, the film provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the prejudices and myths that surround AIDS and its victims. It also presents pupils with a person with AIDS, along with someone who, despite obstacles, has become his friend, in a setting and with circumstances which should allow pupils to identify with their emotions.
The Memorial Quilt
The last film to be included in my framework is a documentary that was produced in 1989 and received Academy Award for best feature documentary. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt introduces us to five varied individuals who share the common fate of being a victim of AIDS. Each story is presented to us by a narrator (wife, mother, father, partner, and lover) who knew the victim intimately. Through flashes of photographs, video tapes, and recollections, we too come to know the victims and their loved-ones as they faced the on-set of AIDS together. These portraits are skillfully intertwined with clips from newscasts, demonstrations, and headlines which show us the changing theories attitudes, and statistics of AIDS as it moved through the 80’s. Apparent government apathy and inaction, resentment and hatred towards homosexuals and drug users, the ever-mounting death rate, and finally some recognition that AIDS has invaded the heterosexuals community provide the background to the five victims and their loved-ones who by now have become much more than just statistics to the viewer. This personalization of the victim is further achieved as the survivors, despite their varied backgrounds, become involved in creation a panel for The Memorial Quilt to be displayed in Washington, D.C. The final scene showing this enormous quilt being laid out with respect and caring, while those who knew them read the names of victims, including the five whom we have met., provides a moving ending. Even the flashes shown of the many panels created for people we have not met, take on a personal meaning.
I have saved this film for last because positioned here, after the scientific facts are in place and after other films have told personal and fictitious stories of victims, its message seems to epitomize my basic goal of guiding pupils toward a position of understanding, tolerance, and caring relative to the victims of AIDS.
In using this film with third graders considerable interruptions with informative discussion will be needed to focus and clarify material; however, there is no need to dwell on some of the implied sexual aspects which most children of this age are not ready to accurately understand. Since it will also be used with fifth graders as part of our “teams” exchanges, they should require less clarification but certainly no less follow-up discussion. I hope to combine the groups in a effort to design their own Memorial Quilt dedicated to the people we have met in film and story, fictional people whom pupils create, and, depending upon circumstances, actual people know through anonymous information secured from local agencies. (See sample lesson plan.)
Though this unit was written primarily for a third grade class, it can be easily adapted to a higher grade level, even middle school. Parts are appropriate for those in a lower grade, Although activities can be condensed into a shorter time span, I intend to spread this unit over a time period beginning in September and lasting to the culminating “team” activity in April. This will allow for constant reinforcement of concepts, and specific information. As the year progresses, it will also benefit from pupils’ increasing maturity as they begin to deal with less concrete understandings toward the end of the unit. Naturally it is up to the individual teacher to make these decisions.
As has been implied before, this unit is part of a team effort by five L.W. Beecher school teachers who will all be using film as a means of combating stereotypes through providing a clearer look at reality. Each of these units will be interdisciplinary and will involve team teaching and exchanges among the different grade levels. The grades participation include first, second, two third grades, and a fifth. Topics to be covered include an examination of the Uncle Remus tale, concepts of beauty, using puppetry to examine the depiction of wolves and Native Americans i film, a general study of stereotypes in film, TV, and literature, and this unit on AIDS. Together the group will work throughout the year to expand their plans of helping pupils to avoid and overcome negative stereotypes with the truth. Variations of this approach might be attempted in different settings. All units are included in this volume.
Some contributions which this particular unit will make to the group effort have been previously mentioned. Tentative activities this unit will provide for the “team’s” culminating event will include the reading of pupils’ letters to victims, related pupil poetry, presentation of a Memorial Quilt, sharing of AIDS posters created by the children. If pupils are able to take part in any type of local AIDS activity or helping even, these will be documented through photos and videos for display.