“This is happening right now?” a student blurted out and smacked the table with her hand. “Yes, while we are all sitting here, this is happening,” I responded. “How could anyone allow this to go on?” she continued. And she was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide.
“What was Syria like before the war?” another student asked.
“How many refugees do we have in America?”
“What about in our town or school?”
The conversation and engagement continued for three days.
Syria is a hard topic to teach, as the war itself is complicated and the outlook is bleak. Yet there are also stories of hope, refugees who have survived and thrived, heroic actions by people such as the White Helmets, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors without Borders. So while there is a lot of heaviness to wade through, there are also stories of hope, selflessness and humanity that can be used to teach empathy and activism.
A great starting point is the website I Am Syria which offers a curriculum and page for educators which can be modified to fit the needs and structure of a classroom. Start with their background resources for an overview.
For my lesson, I followed much of the video tour. I created a reflection sheet based on the videos. We viewed a clip together, students had an opportunity to write, and then we had a discussion. While initially I was planning for students to watch the videos at their own pace, I decided to watch all together using my projector and screen and I am happy that I did. The videos provided good detail and were great conversation starters, and the sequence walked my classroom through the start of the war to the journey of refugees. The material was pretty heavy, and the camaraderie and community viewing allowed for us to process what we viewed.
For elementary students there are more basic resources and a page for activism after kids learn about the situation. As I told my students, your first responsibility to learn as much as you can, then you can teach others and make your voices heard. I ended the unit with opportunities to make change and an impact that varied from talking to others about the situation, teaching other students, writing letters or editorials, creating fundraisers for an organization, and learning about the refugees who live in our town and attend our school.