Shining a Light on the Unknown: Helping Students Understand ISIS and the Syrian Civil War

As a fifth grader during the Gulf War, I distinctly remember Mrs. Spina helping to calm our fears about the war. After giving us a background on the war, Mrs. Spina brought us to a large world map to show us how far away the fighting was from our small town in Massachusetts. I remember going home and feeling more confidant talking about the war with my parents. While I did not fully understand the entire situation, I understood the war a bit better. When I started to watch the news on my own that background proved invaluable as I could follow along with the news anchor.

While we all have metrics and curricula to get through, as teachers we must help our students understand the world around them. The unknown is scary. As teachers, we help shine a flashlight on the unknown. We empower students through knowledge.

When ISIS attacked Paris on Friday evening, I knew that whatever lesson I had originally planned for Monday was out the window. I spent much of the weekend reading about the attacks, about ISIS, about the Syrian Civil War, and about the refugee crisis. I thought about the lesson from Mrs. Spina and while I could not show them a map about fighting far away to assuage their fears, I could help them understand more about what is going on in Syria.

When class began on Monday, my students were very concerned. We began just talking about the bombing in general – both in Paris and Beirut. Listening to them and their concerns helped guide the next few days as I sought out resources to use with them.

With this post, I am going to share resources that I have gathered and my final activity for discussing American involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Resources for the Attacks in Paris and ISIS

  • Video: Global Wrap Nov. 18, 2015 from NewsHour.
    • This episode of Global Wrap provides a great overview of the attacks and the response and is available on Discovery Streaming. For a blog post on using Global Wrap in your classroom, visit Theresa Henkel’s post.
  • Article: The Attacks in Paris from The New York Times Upfront Magazine
    • While I did not have this at the time, this article gives a great overview of the attacks on Paris and information about ISIS.
  • Article: What ISIS Wants from the Atlantic
    • This article provided good background information on ISIS. Because of its length, we read it together in some classes and only read up to the Devotion in others.

Resources for the Syrian Civil War

After going through some of these readings and videos, I built an activity very similar to one I had just seen presented by Discovery Education at the NCSS Annual Conference in New Orleans, the Key Decisions: Defeating Japan activity. In this Key Decisions model, students are introduced to the topic and presented with material to better understand the problem, analyze alternatives, and propose a solution.

Key Decisions: Defeating Japan Introduction

In the Key Decisions model, students look at the advantages and disadvantages to the proposed solutions.

Key Decisions: Defeating Japan Strengths and Weaknesses

The lesson culminates with students ranking their decisions from most to least important while explaining their reasoning.

Key Decisions: Defeating Japan Ranking Options

For this activity, the question was, “What should the United States involvement be in the Syrian Civil War?” I gave my students some potential solutions that I gathered from the media and presidential candidates. In pairs, like the above model, students discussed the strengths and weaknesses of all of the potential solutions to the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis.

  • Work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to combat ISIS.
  • Unite and work alongside all of the enemies of ISIS.
  • Send US soldiers to Syria to combat ISIS.
  • Create no-fly zones to protect Syrian citizens from bombings.

We spent about 10 minutes generating a list of strengths and weakness for each. In the end, my class did not find a solution to ending the Syrian Civil War. That was never the intent. My students realized that a solution for this cannot simply be a talking point at a political rally, but will be complex.

My students do not fully understand the extent of the Syrian Crisis, ISIS, or their methods. As the Syrian Civil War seems to be a constantly shifting event, it would be difficult to completely understand it. But my students walked away with a better understanding of the events in Paris and Syria and knowing that our class was a space to discuss what was happening in the world.

How are you dealing with current events in your classroom? What other resources do you have to share?



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  1. Pingback: Shining a Light on the Unknown: Helping Students Understand ISIS and the Syrian Civil War | Discovery Education | Michael K. Milton ~ @42ThinkDeep

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