Recently, I taught my seventh-graders in West Virginia about the Syrian refugee crisis. I also asked them to write argumentative essays in response to President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. By the end of the unit, many students surprised me with their comprehension of the issues and their ability to empathize with and argue for people who live half a world away, and who are culturally different from themselves.
Before we started the essays, I needed my students to understand the true consequences of the ban. Students arguing for both sides were passionate, so I had their attention. But the students needed to see things from alternate perspectives. Students for the ban initially did not see its impact on Syrian families fleeing violence, and students against the ban did little to understand President Trump’s reasoning for it. I knew I had to get these teenagers in the heart of Appalachia to understand the arguments underpinning both sides of the issue before they could thoughtfully write about it.
Because of the subject’s timeliness, I found many relevant resources to guide my students. Newsela presented plenty of nonfiction articles, which I drew from to offer my students a variety of texts at different reading levels. I also found a number of online videos. The YouTube channel of the Canadian news program The National was particularly useful, supplying informative and age-appropriate videos about the refugee crisis.
I also used resources that fostered interaction among students in small-group discussions. The groups explored true stories about refugees’ lived experiences and deepened that learning by creating montages using the Shadow Puppet Edu app on iPads. These activities opened their eyes to the horrors of the refugee crisis. And because the activities were done in small groups, students discussed what they learned as they learned it, helping them articulate their feelings about the issue in a low-stakes way.
To challenge some of my higher-level students, I presented two poems, Emily Dickinson’s “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” and Bai Juyi’s “Bitter Cold in the Villages.” In small groups, students discussed the poems’ focus on compassion, and as they had already been learning about Syrian refugees, many students clearly saw the connection.
As my students pored through all of these resources, I made a conscious decision to not require certain things. Let me first explain why.
I remember being a student myself, the teacher giving the class a text and telling us to take notes as we read. We filled out graphic organizers, K-W-L charts and reading journals. Sometimes it was a list of questions, and as we read a text or watched a video, we had to find answers to those questions.
I also remember finding myself only paying attention to the questions or only worrying about filling up the graphic organizer. Once the questions or the organizer were complete, I tuned out. I stopped paying attention, and I didn’t care about what came next.
Note-taking while reading or watching can be an effective strategy, but teachers also run the risk that students will tune out once they reach the required amount of notes. Or students may find themselves only listening for certain facts and ignoring other vital information. Students can get overwhelmed and apathetic because many teachers use these often-useful activities as busy work. I have made that very misstep in the past.
As my students learned about the refugee crisis, I did not want them to grow apathetic. I did not want them to feel like the research was a chore. I wanted them to immerse themselves in information so that, when it came time to put pencil to paper, they could draw upon their knowledge of the issue and truly argue their side. I wanted them to present their claims with passion, thoughtfulness and intelligence—but also with respect and empathy for the other side.
So, I just let my students read. When it came to videos, I just let them watch. They didn’t take notes. They didn’t fill out graphic organizers.
This is, after all, how I educate myself as an adult. I find a subject and fall down an internet rabbit hole exploring the subject, reading all I can about the given issue until I have a thorough understanding. I figured that seventh-graders could learn in much the same way.
Near the end of the unit, I overheard two students debating the ban. Both students supported the ban, though one student took a hardline approach, arguing that refugees should be banned forever. The other student argued that banning refugees forever would be un-American and inhumane. This second student cited the words on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor”—as evidence that the United States doesn’t turn people away. Though this student argued for a temporary ban in his final essay, he empathized with refugees in that moment and drew on what he had read as a basis for his empathy.
I knew then that I had gotten at least one student to see things differently. I was probably doing something right.
Webb is a seventh-grade English teacher at DuPont Middle School in West Virginia.