Syria: Teaching about the Civil War and Refugee Crisis

“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.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In September, a novel I wrote called The Pirates of Cologne was published by Levellers Press. It is YA book that is based on the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, over 5,000 working class German youth, who fought against the Hitler Youth and were part of the organized resistance. Many of the kids were imprisoned, beaten or killed for their involvement, and they were considered war criminals by the German government for sixty years after the war until they were finally recognized in 2005.

Unknown copy

I think of these heroic kids today,  on International Holocaust Remembrance day, and on most days.

On the first page of my novel there is a quote from Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” How do we teach our youth how to recognize injustice and empower them to protest? How do we give them opportunities to develop a voice to speak out, and the skills to learn, research and build strong arguments?

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are some resources about the Holocaust for elementary, middle grade and YA readers.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

information on the Edelweiss Pirates

Middle Grade and YA titles

The Pirates of Cologne  The year is 1942, and thirteen-year-old Sebastian Jaeger has escaped from a Hitler Youth camp and returned to the city of Cologne. Five years earlier, his father, a Communist leader, was imprisoned, leaving Sebastian alone to care for his grandmother. Attracted by the possibility of true friendship, Sebastian joins a group of street kids called the Edelweiss Pirates who make a game out of their rebellion against the Hitler Youth and the Nazis. But their childish antics soon take a more serious and dangerous turn as they begin to work with the organized resistance.

The Book Thief Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s novel is about Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl It is 1942 in Holland and the Germans have invaded. All Jewish people are frightened for their lives, so the Frank family hide. Life is dangerous but they hope for the best – until they are finally discovered. Anne Frank was a real person, and this is her diary.

Milkweed He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.

 

Empowering Students to Change the World

Empowering Students to Change the World explores creating student-led projects with real world implications to raise empathy and develop altruism. The article explores areas to consider, such as group size, teaching creative problem solving and allowing for creative freedom to ensure that students feel ownership and find success.

“If an end goal of education is to create skilled, altruistic citizens, why wait until after a student’s post-secondary training? Whether it’s an after-school community service group, project-based unit, or team-building event, allowing students the time, support, and freedom to create a positivity project is a direct route to building better thinkers and doers.”

In Classroom Activists: How Service-Learning Challenges Prejudices, teacher Lisa Weinbaum explores the ways in which middle-schoolers are naturally drawn to social activism. And while some students are reluctant to write, when given the opportunity to write for an authentic audience and see that their words can effect change, they are excited by the opportunity and delve more deeply into their topics.

In her article, At Risk of Greatness in Teaching Tolerance, Weinbaum describes a unit on the societal causes of homelessness that she taught to her students, 70 percent of whom were living in poverty. In this unit, the students discovered that poverty even impacted death, dismayed to find that the cemetery where people were buried was littered and uncared for.

“Rough, weather-worn crosses lay haphazardly on the ground, nails protruding. Remnants of windblown Wal-Mart bags, broken Budweiser bottles and faded pink plastic roses littered the landscape. But the final disgrace was the presence of tiny American flags, obviously planted decades ago, perhaps to honor fallen veterans. Tattered and torn, they were threadbare and colorless.  Clearly, the souls buried within the cemetery had long since been abandoned by our community.”

Weinbaum’s students vowed to clean the cemetery and were able, through protest letter writing and political activism and media coverage, to convince the local government to hold a community cleanup.

“My students were so proud of themselves. Through the strength of their collective speech, they learned their voices are valued. They learned they have political power, the ability to help eradicate injustice. Through their passion, perseverance and eloquence, they captured our attention. And perhaps for the first time in their educational lives, they were taken seriously. No longer were they labeled as “at-risk” kids relegated to remedial reading; they were the kids who forced our community to look. They were the kids who forced our community to act.”

 

 

Self-Esteem and Helping Strangers

From NPR, Teen’s Self-Esteem Grows When Volunteering To Help Strangers

“While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.”

In the three-year study of 681 youth between the ages 11 and 14, researchers found that youth who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem a year later. “Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.”

How can we incorporate helping strangers into our classroom curriculum? 

How can parents encourage children to commit to community service and helping strangers?

Some recent idea from my Social Studies classroom:

  • Study and support the organization Skateistan. Examine the political and cultural geography of the areas they serve, explore big issues such as equity, the rights of girls, the impacts of poverty
  • Examine food scarcity, watch the film A Place at the Table, and work with the local food bank to raise money, food or help at the facility
  • A unit on the issue of child labor globally with the reading of two texts Iqbal and Free the Children
  • An exploration into global terrorism and the way it impacts girls’ education by reading the young readers version of I Am Malala. Have students use their knowledge to educate others through writing editorials, creating bulletin boards, working with other classrooms, etc.
  • Create a Day of Service where the entire school-wide community helps local organizations and neighbors. Have students and faculty brainstorm things they can do in their local community to reach out and foster connections.

Democracy and Social Justice

“Democracy is not a state. It is not some high plateau that we struggle to reach so we can finally settle down to rest. Democracy is an act. It is an act that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles. It is an act, and a series of actions that require us to continuously verify our commitment to civil rights and social justice at every challenge.”Rep. John Lewis Reflections on a Dream Deferred

It is 2018, and seemingly now more than ever, our nation is rediscovering the true meaning of our fragile democracy. It is the American classroom perhaps, that now finds itself at the center of the fight for social justice, for it is there that teachers find themselves inundated daily with the need to undo the social damage caused by the ignorant words and deeds of our current politicians. Our classrooms are at the front lines as our students try to make sense of things our political leaders say, and it is our collective responsibility to help our youth learn how to come to their own understandings, find the truth through research, and articulate their own political and social views. As Rep. John Lewis writes, “Democracy is an act…that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles.”

Not just on Martin Luther King day, but everyday, our classrooms need to teach and model the connection between democracy and social justice.  We must ask the essential question: How  is standing up against racism and injustice a democratic obligation? And we must model this connection through our own actions, our treatment of those in our school-wide communities, and also in the curriculum we design for our youth.

“Now I realize that there are those all over who are telling us that we must slow up. … But we cannot afford to slow up. We have a moral obligation to press on. We have our self-respect to maintain. But even more we can’t afford to slow up because of our love for America and our love for the democratic way of life. … We must keep moving. We must keep going.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “The Montgomery Story,” an address to the 47th annual NAACP Convention, San Francisco, June 27, 1956

For resources on Martin Luther King, Jr. visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, where you can find  papers, documents and video, a liberation curriculum, as well as  a collection of lesson plans for teachers of all grade levels.

Or try one of the 8 extension activities from this lesson: Dr King and the Movement from Teaching Tolerance for a unique way to explore, celebrate and question the progress made since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

 

The Benefit of Helping Teens Find Their Purpose in Life

From KQED news, a story from Mind/Shift about a semester-long elective called the QUESTion Project designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life. The project helps students answer the most difficult question: What is my purpose? What do I want to become in life? 

Welcome to Youth Activism 101

Welcome to Youth Activism 101, a place to find resources and ideas for empowering students and young people to make social change. We all know that youth activism is an essential part of any democratic and civil society, yet finding the resources to become active citizens can be difficult. This site will support youth, teachers and parents by providing tools, resources and a forum for cultivating youth-led social activism.

The blog was created as a tool for youth, teachers and parents to find valuable resources with a common theme: how can we make ideas and resources about activism and creating social change more accessible to youth? Tabs on the header will lead to book suggestions, podcasts, lesson ideas, and a detailed list of changemakers and organizations that youth might wish to contact to get involved. From building skateboards and skate parks in Afghanistan, to getting bicycles to girls so they can get to school safely, to working to eradicate child labor globally, there are so many opportunities for our youth to work with others to improve the state of our world today. Wander around the site, and if you have any suggestions, organizations that you would like to see featured, or successful lessons, please contact us.