Teaching Tough Topics - War

Teaching Tough Topics - War

At Newsela, we're committed to making current events accessible to everyone. On occasion, though, the news can be difficult to process — and even more challenging to address in school. In our new Teaching Tough Topics series, we're curating resources from experts to help you decide how to approach thorny topics in your classroom. 

War is a disturbing, controversial topic that any teacher might want to approach only at a safe distance for fear of upsetting students or parents. Most experts recommend a careful, take-it-slow approach. Here’s a roundup of advice from educators and other experts about how to teach a view of wars that isn’t one-sided, upsetting or sanitized.

Keep it age-appropriate

Reassure younger students that they aren’t in danger. Introduce visuals carefully with them, curate the images and be present when they are viewed. The students may have many questions, so try to think of answers in advance.

Educators find ways to explain the Paris attacks 

It's also important know your mix of students. Do you have children with deployed military parents, kids with a personal experience of war, or students who have suffered a trauma of some other kind? Consider the debate over “trigger warnings” in higher education. 

Get visual, but not too visual

Wars inevitably involve bewildering geography, ethnic and religious and militant groups with names that many students have never heard of. Use maps, charts, and timelines to situate the major players and events in time. Rethinking Schools has an engaging drag and drop map game for guessing all of the countries in the Middle East. 

Primary sources are powerful tools, but use them judiciously. Showing primary sources could upset students with their disturbing imagery or language. Take a look at this blog from the Library of Congress about how to introduce primary sources into class discussion. 

Make connections

When students get older they may want to understand more of the concepts and links between wars, politics, economics, and history. As awful as wars are, they offer a chance to make these connections and understand more about the world. Connect wars to history, politics, geography, culture, archaeology, religion, language, ethnicity and technology.Destruction of artifacts in Syria can be a more approachable way of talking about the war than just a story about a missile strike. It can give the opportunity to discuss the preservation of culture, and why there are Roman ruins in Syria in the first place.

Search out articles that connect students to children living in war zones:

When to tread lightly

Old wars like the U.S. Civil War or Vietnam War can be just as politically charged as current wars. Some students or parents may bristle at the notion that the U.S. ever engages in wars for the wrong reason. Still, you’ll want to maintain a balanced approach and avoid falling into a good versus evil, Us versus Them perspective that further spreads stereotypes about groups of people, religions or entire countries or areas of the world. Find articles that engender sympathy for all sides.

Teaching Channel on how the Vietnam War is taught in Vietnam

As many experts point out, to not talk about war is to shortchange students. Some younger kids may be spending disproportionate amounts of time playing violent war video games. Older students may face recruiters in high school and consider military careers. And all students, as part of the democratic process, will eventually vote for or against candidates based on their military stances on current or future conflicts. 

In light of all this, try asking open-ended questions: How and why do we get into wars? Is war the right way to resolve our conflicts? What are the alternatives? Linking current wars to past ones can help show the lessons learned — or more often not learned — through war.

We want to hear from you. What advice do you have on teaching difficult issues? Tweet us @Newsela and let us know.

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