Teaching About Syria
A Meaningful Lecture On Human Rights
NEW: Here is a four-day version of my Syria unit, which I highly recommend. Given that my current students are pretty high-skilled, it might need a few extra days for most classrooms. I strongly suggest watching the video "Who's Fighting Who in Syria" TWICE with the students and I also think it is essential to watch about 20 minutes of White Helmets. This movie shows Syrians in a really important light -- the extent which some Syrian go to bring good to their country and their countrymen.
I’m putting together this special section of the website to provide some ideas and materials to teachers who are considering teaching about the crises in Syria. I term it “crises” because there are so many different things happening: civil war, starvation, human rights abuses, and refugees. It is the most important international political issue of the moment and one through which we have the opportunity to teach a whole realm of crucial historical topics. The more I teach about it the more passionate I become and the more certain I am that Syria should be a focus of more of our global courses.
I have had the chance to spend about two weeks teaching about Syria, together with a brilliant co-teacher named Zoe Roben and a wonderful student teacher Bassem Elbendary, which is a good chunk of time but not as long as I’d like.
In fact, we could spend a whole semester on Syria and Iraq in which they serve as current lenses to trace a web of causation from the past, including the U.S. invasion and aftermath, colonialism, Crusades, world religions, etc. In this, I’ve been strongly influence by the “It’s Complicated” curriculum of my colleague, Stephen Lazar. His goal has been to use the C3 Framework and to think about how we can get students to understand complicated connections through a backwards walk from the present to the past.
I've been fortunate enough to team up with some great and generous people, in addition to Zoe. My great friend, Noah Gottschalk, who is Oxfam's senior policy advisor on Syria, helped me think through the unit, the most important questions, and all of the major players who could be involved in the UN conference. As I will mention below, wonderful people at the MET, UNICEF, the NYU Near East Center, the Multifaith Alliance, Tutt Cafe, and the Kings County Supreme Court helped make this a learning experience byond the classroom.
My own goals for the Syria unit fall mostly within the areas of comprehension, connections, and perspective. On the base level, I want students to comprehend the major actors involved, the causes of the various problems, and the possible solutions. I want them to know things like what “Sunni” and “Shiite” are, what types of human rights abuses are taking place, and what the United States’ policy has been regarding the civil war and refugees.
Connections are perhaps even more important. Students should be able to connect the various players and their interests that are at stake. Why is Iran allied with Assad and Saudi Arabia with the rebels? What is the connection between ISIS in Iraq and in Syria? How do tensions between Russia and the U.S. come into this? What are the connections between the civil war, refugees, terrorism, and international politics? They also need to make connections to the past. How does the current situation in Syria connect to the rich history and culture of Islamic and pre-Islamic civilization in the region? How did the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq help contribute to this crisis?
On the level of perspective, students should work to empathize with the people caught up in the conflict. I tell them that we are ping-ponging back and forth between learning “facts” and trying to connect with the humanity and emotion of the story.
We can’t just understand what is happening. We need to understand what it means to the people involved. In that sense, perspective also means trying to understand the conflict, civil war, and refugee issues from various perspectives. What does it mean to a regular person who supports the government or another who supports the rebels? And how to outside actors like the governments in Turkey and Germany view the crisis?
The ideas and materials below are an initial sketch from my first attempt at teaching about Syria. I hope that it becomes a starting place for others to contribute ideas. There are a plethora of sources out there on the internet for our use. But how do we use them?
Our Big and “Simple” Questions:
What is happening?
Why is it happening?
What can we do about it?
One more thing…the most important move before teaching a current topic like Syria is to get in touch with people. The more we can bring in other voices, the more the students gain a richer and deeper experience. Perhaps this is easier where I teach, in New York City, but see where you can get in contact with organizations that work with Syrian refugees, Syrians in the United States, libraries, museums, and more. In my discussion below, I’ll outline some of the ways that I did that.
Here are two ideas that I did not do, but that I think would be really valuable: 1) a museum gallery or public teaching from the students to the rest of the school; 2) a letter from the students to their elected officials about their recommendation on the U.S. policy toward Syria and Syrian refugees. Each of those would compel students to show what they know and to produce a real piece of civic action. If I had one more week, I would do those.
Instead, I opted for a mock U.N. mediation modeled loosely on the current talks taking place in Geneva. This project is focused on the idea of perspectives. Students take on the role of a diplomat or NGO advisor and we meet to discuss possible solutions or resolutions. A copy of the project is here. To make it even meatier, bring the students to a public place to hold the forum. Somewhere outside of the school. Zoe and I brought our students to the Kings County Courthouse to hold the negotiations there.
Now let’s trace back to see some of the ways in which we taught the unit:
Here I want to point out that much of the teaching involves engaging students with a source and then having rich partner or group conversations afterwards. To do the latter part, you need to have a toolkit of some discussion protocols. I might suggest a particular one for a source, but oftentimes we can mix or match. Here are some of my favorite discussion protocols (the only one I invented is the “Something Protocol.”
I don't think it is helpful to go over every news article that we shared with the students, but I will say we ended up with three reading packets, each with about 6-10 articles. Larry Ferlazzo's site on Syria was a great starting point for gathering resources. We tried to give students freedom to read in-class and for homework what they found interesting and , to annotate them, and then to come in to class ready to discuss them with partners and the larger group.
Below is a list of the readings we used to make our packets