It was a typical Monday morning in my 1st- and 2nd-grade classroom. The students entered, greeted their friends, and chose a morning work activity. After everyone settled in, Sarat chose “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” for the clean-up song and the students danced while cleaning before we circled up for our morning meeting. We had been learning how to greet one another in many different languages, so the students each chose a different language and said hello to their neighbors in Bengali, Japanese, Swahili, Arabic, Spanish, and other tongues. Then we moved onto sharing. The topic was simple and one of our favorites: “How are you feeling today?”
“I’m feeling nervous,” said Grace, who shared that her parent was going in for surgery that morning.
“I’m happy to be at school and see my friends,” exclaimed Willow, smiling brightly.
Next, it was our student teacher Ruqayya’s turn. “I’m feeling sad,” she said. “Is it OK if I share about it?”
The children nodded enthusiastically. I, too, was curious to hear what was concerning my friend and colleague.
“I was listening to the radio on my way to school,” she said. “I am not sure if many of you know, but there is a war going on in a country that is near my home, in a place called Syria.” The children’s eyes grew wide and they leaned in closer. War wasn’t something we had talked about in our classroom and it seemed to make them a little nervous.
“They were interviewing children who had to leave their homes because of war and were asking them how they were feeling,” said Ruqayya, who identifies as a Palestinian refugee.
“One of the children was saying they wanted some paper and a crayon. Just one crayon so they could write and draw to help themselves feel better. It made me so sad and made me think about all of the things we have in our classroom that we should feel grateful for. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
At this point, a tear fell down Ruqayya’s cheek. Willow asked Ruqayya if she would like a hug. Harper grabbed a tissue and the other kids gathered close to comfort her. I sat back in awe of this organic moment. And then, like so often happens in classrooms, it was time to transition for math. I thanked the class for taking such good care of one another and let them know we could revisit this important topic soon.
Is War “Age-Appropriate?”
That evening I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during our morning meeting. Stories of the civil war in Syria, the government’s humanitarian crimes against their own people, and the largest refugee crisis since World War II had been flooding my television and computer screen for months. Intellectually, I knew that the number of people affected was staggering and nearly half of them were children. Yet I had been watching in what could best be described as detached horror as I saw images of children the same age as my students being pulled from the rubble, or washing up lifeless on the beach. I had donated a small amount of money to help, but mostly felt powerless to do anything about what was happening halfway around the world.
Then there was this. This real, tangible moment that gripped my attention. After all, as a teacher, it is both my privilege and responsibility to empower children to become change makers. I knew that my students couldn’t care about things they didn’t know. They had shown a genuine interest in what Ruqayya shared and now I needed to figure out how to build their understanding. But I also worried that if I dug too much into the topic of war and refugees, parents in our mostly white, privileged community would be upset.
The following week I sat down with Ruqayya. We talked through the many concerns that had been running through my head, and ultimately agreed that this was something we shouldn’t ignore. Although our students were young, they had the capacity to understand complex issues. More importantly, their hearts were wide open. So, I began by emailing parents and school administrators. It was like any other email that a teacher sends to inform families about classroom work and how they can provide support at home. Then, I sat back and waited for the inevitable pushback.
But to my surprise, most of what I got was support.
“I absolutely love that you are doing this! I trust you completely to strike the right tone,” one father responded almost instantly.
Minutes later another email popped up in my inbox. “I love this idea, Cami. Thank you for not teaching down to our little ones.”
It continued that way the rest of the evening. Some parents even replied all and began to email back and forth about the importance of helping children develop global awareness and responsibility, about how this unit could build empathy, and about helping their children navigate the rampant anti-Muslim rhetoric in our country.
Planning and Pausing
The next day Ruqayya and I began fleshing out our ideas for a unit about Syria. We knew we wanted to help students build a basic understanding of the oppressive regime, the resulting civil war, and the refugee crisis. We planned to use both stories in books and real-life stories from people in our community to help students define what it means to be a refugee, and learn to push back against harmful stereotypes of people from the Middle East or the Muslim faith. Finally, we felt it was important to provide students opportunities to learn about Syrian culture.
But our biggest goal was to build empathy that would empower students to take action. We hoped that through this unit, students would find even a small way to help. We decided to begin with a simulation the very next day.
That night, however, the resistance I initially feared became a reality. As I sat down at my laptop bubbling with excitement to do more planning, I opened an email from a parent:
While I understand the value of cultural studies and current events, I am not sure how I feel about fielding this topic with my child. Madeline becomes overwhelmed very easily by injustice and suffering. Her heart is huge. She cries. She feels it all.
So, I would prefer you do not bring up the concept of displaced families and refugee children in class. I know your intentions are in the right place and your language is careful, but that is my honest opinion.
I responded with some questions to help me better understand the parent’s concerns, shared a bit more about our plans for the unit, and asked them to collaborate with me on differentiating to make it work for their child.
However, I knew this mom was partially right; the issue would bring up big feelings that Madeline would need to process at home. I couldn’t help but wonder though, was it so bad to feel sadness about what was happening in Syria? After all, it is sad. And perhaps tapping into our feelings is exactly what needs to happen more often at home and at school. If we don’t feel anything, if we are oblivious or numb, then we won’t do anything to make a difference.
I decided to wait. I wanted to see if there was a way to work with this parent to make our unit work for her and her child. I let Ruqayya know our unit was on hold and then scrambled to make alternate plans. However, a few days passed and the only thing I got was radio silence. I tried emailing and calling several times, but suddenly this parent, who was typically prompt and communicative, wasn’t responding at all.
Unsure of what to do, I checked in with my assistant principal. She had been supportive from the start and gave me the green light to proceed. She encouraged me to differentiate as I saw fit, and let me know she would be there to help navigate the fallout should that parent still be upset.
Finally, we were able to begin our simulation. Our objective was to offer students a glimpse into what was happening so that they could better understand the refugee crisis. We hoped this activity would help them begin to understand that the government in Syria was unfair to its people, that the Syrian people fought back, and that this led to a civil war, which caused people to flee.
We knew we were leaving lots out. What is happening in Syria is complex. In fact, as we began planning and teaching our unit, I realized just how much I didn’t know. I learned the U.S. war in Iraq contributed to the destabilization of the region, that climate change caused the worst drought in Syrian history and exacerbated tensions between the people and the government, and I began to understand the intricate role that the United States and Russia continue to play. And although I chose not to teach with the same depth that I would have if working with older students, I knew we could offer students a glimpse of why people decide to flee their homes when they are faced with unfair circumstances and no good choices. As Ruqayya read aloud Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, I pulled a few students aside at a time to tell them about their role.
“During this activity we will sit in a big circle. Each of you will take turns coming to a teacher to ask one question about our school day. For example, Amir, I know you love to dance, so you could ask ‘Can we take a break to dance?'”
Amir grinned and nodded his head.
“I love to read!” Willow cheered. “Can I ask to read a book?”
“Perfect!” I answered.
I made sure they understood their job would be to approach a teacher, ask their question loud enough for all to hear, and then return to their spot in the circle. I also let them know that when they weren’t asking their question, their job was to stay in the circle with the group, listen to how the teachers responded to everyone, and focus on how our answers made them feel.
After the story, we stretched and then circled up to get started. Ruqayya began by reminding them of what she had shared. As she was sharing, Madeline came to me with a concern and we stepped outside the circle to talk.
“I think you are going to be unfair and I don’t want to be part of it, even if it’s pretend,” she said.
“Maddie, you know I wouldn’t force you to do something that feels wrong inside, so if you choose not to, we can come up with a different plan for you during this time. But I have an idea. I know you love to write and draw. What if your job was a little different? How would you feel about writing and drawing about what you see? You could be the class reporter and document what is happening.”
“That works for me, Cami. As long as I can sit right by you.”
I told Madeline I was proud of her for advocating for herself and we rejoined the circle.
“Today we are going to do an activity that will help you understand more about the war that I told you about at morning meeting. Many of you were concerned about the children that had to leave their homes. Our activity today will help you understand why that is happening.
You have each chosen a question to ask us. We will start with Clay and move our way around the circle, taking turns asking questions. Remember to pay close attention to how we answer and how our answers make you feel.”
Clay approached Ruqayya first. With all of the others watching he said “Ruqayya, can I get out a piece of paper to draw?”
Ruqayya smiled sweetly. “Of course Clay! Go ahead and get some paper. You can draw while we work.”
Amir went next. He came up to me and said “Cami, could I take a break and dance?”
“Yep! Have fun!” I replied as he danced his way back to his spot in the circle.
Next up was Harper. “Ruqayya, may I please fill up my water bottle?”
“Absolutely not!” Ruqayya said sternly. “Now back to your seat!”
The students watched with curious intrigue as some were treated with love while others were denied basic needs.
Madeline sat in the circle too. She busily wrote speech bubbles, drew facial expressions, and jotted down notes. She was engaged and snuggled up right by my feet. I was thrilled to have adapted it in a way that worked for her.
We gathered after the simulation to debrief.
“Remember that we asked you to focus on how our answers made you feel. So — how are all of you feeling?” Ruqayya asked.
“You weren’t fair!” hollered Riley.
“Why did I get to draw but Harper couldn’t get a drink of water?” asked Clay. “I felt so excited because I got to do what I wanted. But when I saw how you treated Harper, I didn’t feel excited anymore.”
“Well, I’m just happy I got my way,” said Christopher. “I mean life isn’t fair anyways.”
After debriefing a bit on what had happened and how everyone felt, we switched gears.
“The activity today was to help you understand the conflict in Syria and why people have decided to flee. Why do you think what happened today in our class could help you understand that?”
Willow made the connection instantaneously.
“I know!” she exclaimed. “It’s because just like the things in our class today weren’t fair, there are things happening in Syria that aren’t fair. If I came to school every day and it was unfair like this, I would leave and go to a different school. That must be why people are leaving Syria!”
Elle chimed in next. “I wouldn’t leave. No way. I would fight back. I would go to the principal and tell on you. I would get them to help and make you treat us better.”
And then, unexpectedly, Madeline jumped in. “That’s it! Things in Syria are not fair and people are either choosing to leave or staying to fight back. That’s why there is a war and that’s why people are leaving their homes.”
“Wow! You are all right on target!” Ruqayya beamed. “How many of you have heard of the word ‘dictator’?”
As she explained what it means to be a dictator, Ruqayya and I guided the discussion by sharing a bit more about the regime in Syria and the protests of the Syrian people against the regime. Although we knew there are many groups involved in the Syrian war, we kept our discussion focused on the rebels and the Syrian government, the instability that their fighting caused, and the impossible decisions that the people living there had to make. As the children reflected, we led them through a whole-group discussion where they debated what they thought they would do if faced with a similar situation, and they began to understand on a simplified level what was happening halfway around the world.
That afternoon, Ruqayya and I debriefed on our own and decided to proceed with a geography lesson the next day. Leo, a student in our class, had family living in Germany who had welcomed refugees from Syria into their home. He brought in maps and was excited to share where his family lived and how his family had helped.
We felt the unit was going fairly well but that evening I was met with more resistance from Madeline’s mom. This time, she was angry. She finally ended her silence and sent me an outraged email. Then she followed up with a more subdued email to the whole community:
The Syrian refugee crisis is not a topic that I feel is age-appropriate for 6- to 8-year-olds. Displacement and war are not teaching points I am comfortable with having my child focus on at school. I understand the lesson plans involve geography, art, writing, and many other easy-to-navigate concepts, but the core issue, one that was not lost on my child, is that these are families and children fleeing their homes because of war. It caused my child anxiety, fear, and pain. These are kids. Little kids. They have many, many, many years ahead of them to contemplate the travesties of our world.
As I read her emails, those original fears about discussing Syria with children crept back into my mind. Maybe the topic of war isn’t “age-appropriate” after all. Just as I began to fill with self-doubt, Leo’s mom responded to the group:
Thanks for starting the conversation. I definitely respect your opinion but I want to share my thoughts as well. I strongly believe that education creates empathy. As humans it is our shared experience and compassion that helps build peace. We were very proud of our family in Germany when they opened their home to refugee families. My sister-in-law needed to discuss this topic with her kids and it created a need for us to discuss it in our home as well.
War is a difficult topic, and if your child is sensitive to the issue, as hard as it is to see our kids feel pain for other people, it is also a beautiful thing that they understand the weight and gravity of what these families face. Your child will no doubt welcome a Syrian refugee with open arms and empathy if they were to join our class. That’s the reason the topic is being addressed with our little kids. Because they have big hearts.
Thankfully, most of the parents in our community felt the same way and we had full support from our administrators. With fresh resolve, Ruqayya and I forged ahead. We continued to open the lines of communication with families and work with Madeline’s mom in order to address her concerns. At first, we simply had to create an alternate plan for Madeline, as her mom insisted that she did not want her to be a part of this unit. However, as time passed and feelings calmed, her mom began to develop a better understanding of what we were teaching and Madeline began to join in more.
Stories and Experiences
As the unit progressed, we built on the students’ initial understandings by inviting in a guest speaker named Hisham who had grown up in Syria and still had family living there. He was able to impart a sense of the oppressive regime and began by showing pictures of his family and the place he had called home.
But Hisham really captured their attention when he asked, “How many of you like to watch TV?”
Every single hand shot up.
“My favorite show is Lego Star Wars!” Nicholas yelled.
“Well, what would you think if I told you that the government in Syria doesn’t allow Lego Star Wars? In fact, they don’t allow any of the shows you watch. In Syria, it is illegal to watch anything other than the channels controlled by the government.”
The students were shocked. They looked around wide-eyed, each asking him about their own favorite show.
Hisham had the students enthralled.
During the unit, we lined the windowsills with picture books about refugees, culture in the Middle East, and Muslim students in America. We hung Arabic artwork on the walls and used it to create our own art. We shared photos of Syrian life before the war and of children living in refugee camps afterward. We listened to Syrian music and learned Syrian dances.
One day, Ruqayya brought in a special meal to share. We invited our occupational therapist, Emily, whose family was from Syria, to join us for our meal. As students each got their own small plate of food, Emily got their attention.
“I am noticing that for our meal, everyone has their own plate. Their own food,” she said.
“One of my favorite things about having a meal with my family is that it is very different from how we have a meal in America. In America, we each have our own food and our own plate. In Syrian culture, we share.”
She turned to the student sitting beside her.
“Hunter, you should try some of this falafel. You will love it. It’s Ruqayya’s special recipe.”
As Hunter accepted her offer, she continued.
“With my family, we never sit down to eat without offering to share. We all bring our special dishes and it turns into a big feast. It is one of my favorite things about my culture.” And although the children only had a few dishes to try, they each turned to a friend and offered to share.
“Try this hummus! It’s the best,” Leo said to Amir.
“The baklava is my favorite. So sweet,” Renat said to Elle. “Here, you should try some!”
Ruqayya and our visitor shared their favorite parts of their cultures, but also told students about their experience leaving their homes and of the Islamophobia they face in the United States. The children couldn’t believe it when Ruqayya shared with them about how people crossed to the other side of the street and looked at her with fear when they heard her speaking Arabic, or about her friend who was afraid to wear her hijab after she heard a Donald Trump campaign speech about Muslims.
The small seed that Ruqayya planted that one morning had blossomed into something beautiful. As our unit came to an end, the children asked what they could do to help. Now that they understood a little better, they wanted to give back and they wanted to make a positive impact on the world.
They wrote welcome letters to Syrian children who were coming to Oregon and, through class meetings, we decided to hold a “Love for Syria” fundraiser for the Syrian American Medical Society.
The students also proudly displayed their support by making tote bags, T-shirts, love rocks, heart crayons, and banners for the fundraiser. They even incorporated the Arabic designs and language they had learned during our unit to create artwork with affirmations of peace and love for the Syrian people.
During our end-of-the-year all-school picnic, as most of their friends played outside, ate popsicles, and soaked up the sun, our class ran our “Love for Syria” booth. When students weren’t running the booth, many of them chose to invite their friends to come see what they had done and share about what they had learned. Parents even brought their own friends to share our work.
By the end of year, my 1st and 2nd graders, who began knowing nothing of the crisis in Syria, had raised nearly $800 to help.
I was also surprised by the contrast I saw between the students who had been engaged with this curriculum and those who had not.
One day, as a small group of my students decorated tablecloths for the booth, the class of 1st and 2nd graders next door went rushing out for an extra recess. Oblivious, they trampled across my students’ work in the mad rush to get outside.
A few even exclaimed “Cereal?! You’re raising money for cereal?! That’s hilarious!”
My students were crushed.
“I don’t understand, Cami,” Sarat said. “It’s like they think it’s a joke.”
“They don’t even care that people are hurting and dying,” Riley cried as tears streamed down his face. “I wish they knew how important this is.”
“I think we should talk to them,” Harper contemplated. “Maybe if we taught them some of what we have learned, they would join and help us too. I bet they don’t even know anything about Syria.”
And with that, these three students went to get the kids who had trampled over their artwork. With a little love and compassion, they even convinced them to spread the word about our effort to help.
If that’s not a compelling reason to engage little children with big world issues, I’m not sure what is.