Teaching About the War in Ukraine

The morning after Russian president Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces into “combat readiness,” students at Magnolia Middle School in Maryland crowded around social studies teacher Dustin Rhodes to ask him about it.

“As soon as they got off the bus kids rushed over to me to ask if Russia would ‘nuke’ Ukraine,” he says. “There was some anxiety mixed into the question, and they were using adult terminology they didn’t fully understand, but it was a hot topic for all our students.”

Anxiety and fear are common reactions to the events in Ukraine, but students also want more knowledge and understanding, especially as the situation worsens.

The war in Ukraine is providing an array of the “teachable moments” educators constantly seek – even the most hard to reach students are paying attention and have questions – but teachers are treading carefully.

War is grisly, and the images of Ukraine’s bombardment are grim. After two years of pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind the social and emotional wellbeing of students while offering lessons from Ukraine.

Target Instruction Appropriately

Current events offer instant engagement, Rhodes says, and since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war was the only subject his students wanted to talk about in class.

Most students are understandably alarmed by what they’re hearing; like all of us, they’re troubled by the possibility of another world war. The job of their teachers is to help them understand and process the news at an age-appropriate level while giving them opportunities to dig more deeply into the events, make connections to the history of the region and to other global crises, current and past.

Dustin Rhodes
Social Studies teacher Dustin Rhodes.

“We talk about current events all the time, and the ultimate goal is to teach our students how to apply what they’re learning to real world scenarios,” Rhodes says. “But it’s important to target the information to the age and comfort level of your students.”

Finding the right way to engage all students begins with building relationships and really getting to know them, says Rhodes, whose school in Harford County is in the greater Baltimore region and home to the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.

“You have to know where they’re coming from. For example, we have a lot military families and some kids have family or friends of family who’ve been deployed to eastern Europe,” he says. “They’ve asked, are we going to war?”

There are no easy answers as the situation escalates and unfolds, but that’s exactly why it provides so many critical lessons.

Rhodes has reassured students that President Biden has said he won’t send ground troops and, despite rumors they’ve heard on social media, there could not be a draft without an act of Congress, and even in that unlikely event, the sixth graders are far too young to be called.

But while offering reassurances, he also asks students to explore complicated issues world leaders are grappling with. Should the U.S. become more directly involved? Are the current sanctions effective on the Russian government? What about the people of Russia? What effects do they have on the rest of the world?

“One student raised the excellent point about how reckless it is for Russia to start a war during a global pandemic when economies are still struggling to recover,” Rhodes says. “This is a sixth grader!”

Dustin Rhodes Air Force
Dustin Rhodes: My students know that I served for six years in the Air Force. I was in security and guarded nuclear weapons. They know I understand the military life and it’s important that they know where I’m coming from as we build relationships.

The class also discusses the human rights abuses happening in Ukraine, which are disturbing but impossible to miss, even for younger students, like the bombing of a maternity hospital and its link to genocide.

“We have examined human rights abuses and genocide in history, including genocide in Darfur and Rwanda, for example,” Rhodes says. “My students, many of whom are African American, raised the point that, while what is happening to the people of Ukraine right now is horrific, it was also horrific in Africa but the refugees there didn’t get the same attention. Another important observation of these impressive sixth graders.”

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