As classroom teachers, there are always lessons we retire because they didn’t go as we hoped, maybe we didn’t like the level of student engagement or the learning outcomes. After all, teaching is reflective work, and teachers must always be willing to change whether to meet the changing needs of students or the daily changes around the world. Then there are some lessons we wish we could retire but they are too important to teach– such as the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria. Not having to teach about it would mean that perhaps there was a resolution, an end, and some peace and recovery for the millions of people who have been impacted. Yet last week I found myself teaching the 3 day unit again, and while I wish the crisis would end, I feel it is an essential thing for students to know about.
“I can’t believe that while we are sitting here in this beautiful classroom, this is going on for people.,” one student shared. “How is this okay?” he continued. And he was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide. Conversations went on for so long, that I needed to add an extra day to the lesson.
“What was Syria like before the war?” one student asked.
“Are there any Syrian refugees in America, or in our town?”
“How can we help these people? This is not right.”
The conversation, engagement and high level of critical thinking continued for three days.
Syria is a difficult 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. The lesson also adds a great deal of perspective and reflection for students, who might not recognize their own privilege. Many students in our conversations reflected on how lucky they felt in school, in their community, even those who have struggles of their own.
A great starting point to teach about Syria 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.