Syria and Current Events

syria-burning-building-1024x682Last Thursday, I began class as I normally do. Individual students report on a news story, we summarize, their peers ask questions, and we dig a bit deeper into the topic, all with the aim of ensuring students are actively widening their ability to communicate on a myriad issues in Spanish. Over the years, I have found this to be the best way to start an upper-level language class because it engages everyone on a variety of topics and allows for a natural way to get students talking.

One student reported on the Syrian crisis, and more specifically, Russia’s pressure and questioning of the United States over proof of the use of chemical weapons. The student did a great job of reporting the story, which he had read on El Pais, a Spanish newspaper. As I usually do, I turned and asked one of his peers to summarize the story, and then began to ask others in the class questions about the crisis in Syria. Silence.

I persisted. I knew that this bright class of 15 students could communicate without too much difficulty. “There is a civil war,” one student said, “Russia is against any action,” said another. I couldn’t get the exchange out of my head.  What struck me was not the level of knowledge students had about the crisis, but what I perceived to be indifference to it. As if the crisis, like others before it, is so far away or so removed from their reality, that its level of importance doesn’t rank very high.

These are early days, and I know I pre-judged their interest or care. Today, a student asked if she could also report on the crisis in Syria, which was a welcome antagonist to my own preconceptions. They are capable students, and they take responsibility for what they are learning. Regardless, I was left thinking about our collective responsibility to teach current events, including conflict and war, and how complicated it can be to teach issues that are developing right before us. For this very reason, the social studies review recognized the importance of engaging with current events, and ensured it’s purposeful inclusion in the curriculum.

Reports put the death toll in Syria at more than 100,000, and calls for military action are getting stronger and stronger each day. How does a society come undone? Who’s to blame? How do religious, sectarian, geographic, etc., differences increasingly fuel these conflicts? How do we resolve them? How do we move these conversations beyond the “good-evil” rhetoric that is displayed by the media? When do we stop and take time to talk about news that is unfolding before us?

The conflict in Syria is complicated, but if you have the space and room to engage students in this topic, there are great resources out there:

-       New York Times: The Fog of War, Helping Students Make Sense of Syria

-       UN Lesson Plans: Conflict in Syria

-       PBS News Hour: Teach Syria

-       Brown University: The Choices Project

-       Educationworld: Class Discussion Guide

After all, as Coreen mentioned at our opening meeting, our ultimate purpose is to educate students so that they can be change agents in an ever-changing world. Teaching is predicated on the belief that students can (and should) understand our world and change it for the better. To believe in teaching is to believe in the possibility of change. Is my 10 minutes of news sharing and questioning each day a small step in that direction? Maybe.

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