In his sadly timeless song “Masters of War,” Bob Dylan sang:
You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
Indeed, as we write this in mid-March, the heartbreaking death count in Ukraine is climbing higher and higher. But those who “fasten all the triggers” are not the ones to suffer. The great socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs, said the same thing back in 1918, in a speech opposing U.S. involvement in World War I: “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” This speech earned Debs a 10-year sentence for allegedly violating the U.S. Espionage Act.
Like you, we are angry and fearful about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and these are terrifying times for our students.
They have experienced so much death from the pandemic, from the police, from shootings in malls, parks, schools. It can seem like the world is on fire and there is no safe place. Add to this the profound threat of nuclear catastrophe that the Ukraine war could trigger, and the precariousness of this moment is hard to overstate.
Those of us who have been in the classroom during other times of invasion and war know how difficult it can be to try to help our students make sense of a conflict that we ourselves may not understand well. We are called on to be the instant experts that we are not.
During these events, we have relied especially on the reporting of Amy Goodman, Juan González, and colleagues at Democracy Now!, which remains the finest daily newscast we know of and is an essential classroom resource.
Through the decades, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies is another analyst we have relied on to help frame our teaching about global events. Writing on the invasion in Foreign Policy in Focus shortly after the violence began, Bennis wrote:
Our first concern must be for civilians across the country, now facing violence and displacement. And our first call must be for an immediate ceasefire, a pull-back of Russian troops from Ukraine, and international support for the humanitarian challenges already underway in the region.
As for resolving the conflict, that requires understanding its causes — which has everything to do with when we start the clock.
If we start the clock in February 2022, the main problem is Russia’s attack on Ukraine. If we start the clock in 1997, however, the main problem is Washington pushing NATO — the Cold War-era military alliance that includes the United States and most of Europe — to expand east, breaking an assurance the United States made to Russia after the Cold War.
Our teaching, too, should reflect on “when we start the clock.” We should remember, for example, that U.S. history is literally a history of invasion (and overthrow) — Indigenous lands in what became the United States, Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Vietnam, Iran, Cambodia, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq … — and so the U.S. denunciation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be viewed more clearly with some historical context.
And we always turn to Howard Zinn to help us think clearly and critically about the meaning of war. In an article he wrote for The Progressive in December 2001, Zinn wrote about the U.S. military response to Sept. 11 and the hypocrisy of a “just war”:
I have puzzled over this. How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs, when it may not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves?
I suggest that the history of bombing — and no one has bombed more than this nation — is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like “accident,” “military targets,” and “collateral damage.”
It can be hard to know what to teach in this moment, or how to talk with young people about violence. Linda Christensen, Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, said that she had been reading the picture book The Cat Man of Aleppo with her 5-year-old grandson. The book is about the bombing and destruction of Aleppo, Syria, but also about an ambulance driver who saved the abandoned cats of the city.
“I thought about how I might teach today in my high school classes as well as younger students using this book or persona poetry,” Christensen said. “Although this assignment doesn’t explain the roots of the invasion or the history of Russia and Ukraine, it does get at the idea that in the midst of war and devastation, there are moments of solidarity and beauty.”
There is also power in looking at photographs and writing persona poetry from someone in the photos, boarding trains, seeing the smoke from their windows. (You can read more about using persona poetry in the book Chirstensen edited with Dyan Watson, Rhythm and Resistance.)
Our book Teaching About the Wars does not explicitly include anything about Ukraine, but there are several pieces you might find helpful. For example, in “Learning from the Past, Talking About the Present,” 4th-grade teacher Kelley Dawson Salas writes about the silence about the Gulf War in her own schooling to reflect on what she wanted to teach her students. And in “Why Invade Iraq?” Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow describes step-by-step how he helped his high school students read critically President George W. Bush’s speech justifying the 2003 invasion. A similar strategy might be used to help students read President Vladimir Putin’s speech justifying the invasion of Ukraine. (The book is available for free download at our website, bit.ly/TeachingAboutTheWars.)
Many of you also sent us teaching resources that you are using to help students contextualize and better understand what’s happening.
A Bellingham, Washington, elementary teacher shared a slideshow she put together for her students on Globalism and Empathy (bit.ly/GlobalismAndEmpathy). Another teacher wrote in to recommend the book IraqiGirl: Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq, writing that “this is an excellent book with first-person accounts of a young person’s experiences at war during the U.S. invasion in early 2003. It is also just a good reference to encourage us to ask, ‘What are young people in Ukraine experiencing right now and how might they be sharing their experiences with the world?’”
When it comes to allowing teachers to teach the truth, Putin is working from the same playbook as the right wing in the United States — pressing a mandatory curriculum of disinformation. As described by Human Rights Watch, the Russian government provides teachers a script they must share with students telling them that Russia invaded Ukraine because “our policy is freedom, freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their own future and the future of their children.”
But some teachers refuse to go along. Irina Milyutina, a teacher of conscience in Pskov, Russia, joined with other teachers in signing a petition against the war and has publicly demonstrated against the war (bit.ly/IrinaMilyutina). That petition was signed by more than 5,000 Russian teachers before it was taken down. It said plainly: “We support anti-war protests and demand an immediate ceasefire.” See details at People and Nature (bit.ly/PeopleAndNature1), including an open letter from Ukrainian headmaster Igor Tsyvgintsev — an eloquent, searing denunciation of the Russian invasion and those “educated” Russians who support it.
At times like this we need to remind ourselves that teaching is a collective enterprise. We need each other’s stories of how we are bringing the world into our classrooms. We need to create conversations — in our schools, our school districts, our professional organizations, our unions — to articulate our pedagogical choices.
As social justice educators, we seek to nurture our students’ empathy; encourage them to surface questions and help them gain a broader historical context within which to locate this war; reflect on ways we can express solidarity with those resisting invasion and occupation, as well as those fleeing the war; and find ways to care for our students and for each other during this frightening time.
As Ukrainian educator Igor Tsyvgintsev reminds us, “The entire curriculum of school studies comes down to humaneness.”