Middle schoolers learn the complexities of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Abby Baughman

Attentive eighth graders listened to upper school AP history teacher Marc Salz on April 14 as he shed light on the complicated history between Russia and Ukraine. As conflict simmers between the two countries, ESD teachers and students are connecting the current events to their curriculum assignments.

Each year at the beginning of the second semester, the eighth grade students begin to read Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” an autobiography about a young Jewish boy being persecuted in the Holocaust.

“One of our assignments was to ask how is [‘Night’] connected to the world,” eighth-grade English teacher Jill Remaud said. “A lot of students used the war in Ukraine as their answer, [and] the mass graves that are being found. So they showed that they’re following the news on subsequent assignments.”

The various lessons and themes of “Night,” and the Holocaust, also provided insight for the eighth graders to understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. English teachers decided to introduce Salz in response to student questions relating to the issue; he lectured students on the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, and provided awareness of the conflict’s roots.

“But then [students] kept asking questions the whole time they [worked] with a partner,” eighth grade English teacher Adina Richman said. “I was like we need to get an expert to teach us about this. That’s where the idea for Mr. Salz came in. He did that presentation, and, in a nutshell, he answered [their questions].”

On April 14, Salz presented a slide show about Russia and Ukraine’s history to the eighth grade class. The students had opportunities to ask questions after. 

“It’s equally important for younger students and older students to know and understand the world,” Salz said. “You have to live with events that are stressful, like war. You have to be a little bit careful with your messaging, but other than that, it should be talked about. I think the students are largely sympathetic to Ukraine.”

With a developed perspective, the class progressed with their following unit on “Antigone,” a play written in 441 BC that follows a young girl rebelling against her country.

“We started reading ‘Antigone’ the same day Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24,” Remaud said. “We began to talk about [Russia and Ukraine] because [it] grew organically out of a discussion in Richman’s class. We were talking about the power of the state and the power of the individual. And we were talking about what [you] would do on behalf of the state. What is the right thing to do to have a state? Should you be more nationalist or should you look at it in a more global aspect?”

In response to the discussion, Remaud assigned a reading of a newspaper article about the Russia-Ukraine conflict to her class, and expected the students to connect the reading to “Antigone.”

“We have this really big push to ensure that everything that we teach has relevance, if we can’t figure out why it’s relevant then why are we teaching it?” Remaud said. “But of course, going back to ‘Antigone’ which is [around] 2,500 years old again. All the time it’s like, what’s the relevance of something that’s over 2,000 years old? Everybody can see that Creon [Greek mythological character, Antigone’s uncle] and Russia have some similarities with their hubris and that Ukraine is kind of like Antigone in a way.”

But not only eighth graders have been learning about the world’s current affairs. Due to the importance of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the seventh grade felt the need to alter their curriculum to learn about the happenings of the region.   

Originally, seventh graders were set to learn about the Cold War during spring with a focus on the Vietnam War. Instead, the seventh-grade teachers decided to teach about the history between Russia and Ukraine.

“Ms. Thomas and I started thinking about pivoting and teaching [about Russia and Ukraine] because it is. . . very much related to the Cold War,” seventh grade history teacher Sarah Havins said.

The seventh graders listened and annotated a National Public Radio podcast and discussed it in class; Havins also gave a presentation on the issue.    

“Before learning the real facts about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I had the idea that there must have been many issues in the past between the two countries that caused them to have these negative feelings toward each other,” seventh grade student Emory Turner said.         

“I figured that they must have always been enemies, one always trying to destroy the other. But after learning more about this war, I have realized how awful this conflict is. Putin is committing serious war crimes that are destroying the country neighboring them, physically and culturally.” 

With the change of the curriculum, students are beginning to have a deeper understanding of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, his actions, and the true repercussions of war.

For their final project, middle schoolers are learning about the United Nations. They will model a U.N. conference and discuss solutions of the conflict itself or the problems such as the refugees or humanitarian crisis.

“I think that it is absolutely necessary for my age group to be learning about this,” Turner said. “Like it or not we are the next generation and the next leaders. We need to be educated on these events so that they never repeat themselves. Also, it may be hard to learn about these events, but we need to be educated so that we know how we can help out.”

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