Teaching the Headlines: 3 Guiding Questions when Exploring the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The images haunt you.





The numbers confront you.

                    The headlines provoke you.


As teachers, we grapple with how to start a conversation about these news stories and whether the information is appropriate for our students. And we make a choice: do I ignore, or do I engage? I hope to encourage and support you as you bring the world into your classroom. I’ve found that in my practice, embedding current events and facing tough issues has the potential to move students.  They feel like they are part of something bigger than our class. And it accelerates thinking and conversation.  Here are 3 questions to guide your thinking as you explore this issue to raise awareness, understanding and empathy around the current Syrian refugee crisis.

#1 What background knowledge do I need to build … for my students AND for myself … before investigating the Syrian refugee crisis in class?

Fill your bucket. Before embarking on a conversation about the harsh reality facing Syrian refugees, you will want to devote a bit of time to reading the news. Here’s a great introduction to the issue from Free the Children founder, Craig Kielburger: http://cdn.weday.com/files/2015/09/GV-Sept.12-Elementary.pdf It frames the Syrian refugee crisis in terms of the global refugee crisis and explores the differences between refugees and migrants. Included you will find background information for yourself as well as ideas for the classroom. You’ll be filling your own toolkit while considering strategies to get your students thinking and talking. Consider subscribing to this newsletter from Free the Children and it will arrive in your email regularly! You may also want to follow some folks on twitter who weigh in on different perspectives and collect links that will provide some background to build your confidence around the topic. Just search keywords to find sources.

Know your students. You’ll be considering their age and grade, their sensitivity, their awareness of global issues. If you’re a Me to We school, your students may already bring a solid understanding of social justice issues and are clamouring to talk about the headlines. In other school communities, students may be less tuned in to global issues. Regardless of your setting, meet them where they’re at.  It’s still early in the year and you may wish to invest a little more time into getting to know your students and their reading interests and abilities prior to launching into a complex topic like this. In that case, you can save this information for down the road.

#2 How do I provide appropriate but accessible, informative but meaningful texts for students to read?

It’s early in the year so you haven’t had an opportunity yet to delve deeply into some rich texts that will be pivotal to your students’ comprehension. You haven’t yet built a bank of themes, the universal truths to these stories that support students’ ability to make connections between their lives and the story, and between texts. So…let’s get started.

Gather a text set. I love Stephanie Harvey’s idea about flooding the room with resources. Combine non-fiction, such as newspapers, biographies, images and videos, with fiction, such as picture books, novels, digital texts, poetry. Gather texts at different reading levels … whatever texts that resemble the issue, get at the common themes, and speak to the heart too! Here are some ideas to get you started.

imagePicture books:  In your school’s Character Ed. Kit, you will find Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed. In your school’s Race and Ethnicity kit, you will find: When I Get Older (an autobiography of K’Naan’s family fleeing Somalia), Migrant (by Maxine Trottier), and One Green Apple (by Eve Bunting). Gleam and Glow is a touching story also written by Eve Bunting that follows a family forced from their home during the Bosnia conflict. With powerful narratives like these, students are more likely to bond and empathize with the characters’ experiences than perhaps a news article. Themes revolve around searching for a better life, finding a sense of belonging, determining identity, overcoming fears, the harsh reality of making difficult choices. Some stories are about the experiences facing refugees, some are about migrants. THAT discussion alone would be worthwhile. By choosing to couple fiction and non-fiction across a variety of texts, we are more likely to touch the hearts and minds of our students.

imageNovels: Not surprisingly, you may not have a novel on the current Syrian refugee crisis, but you might consider these ideas since the challenges the characters face and the themes may be similar: The Red Pencil (by Andrea Davis Pinkney, a novel written in verse), Esperanza Rising (by Pam Munoz Ryan), Home of the Brave (by Katherine Applegate and also in every elementary school’s Race and Ethnicity kit), a Long Walk to Water (by Linda Sue Park), Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees,  and No Safe Place (both by Deborah Ellis).

News: Teaching Kids News offers up-to-date lower reading levels of current events. This week you will find an article on Canada’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: http://teachingkidsnews.com/2015/09/13/countries-sending-aid-to-syrian-refugees/ This site offers supporting questions and curriculum connections. Another news site, Newsela, also offers ongoing lower reading level articles: https://newsela.com/articles/germanschools-refugees/id/11970/ , but you’ll need to sign up for a free account.


Poetry: Voice from Afar: Poems of Peace, by Tony Johnston, has heartfelt, richly crafted poems about children affected by conflict.

If you have other ideas for poetry, please let me know.

#3 How do I fit this topic in my literacy block?

Start with images. Images level the playing field in reading and are accessible to all. Use the observe/infer/wonder strategy to honour student thinking and give them an opportunity to make sense of what they’re seeing.   If they’re new to the strategy, model your own thinking first.  For some initial images that are safe for younger grades, yet will grab your students’ attention and promote questions, please check out this project from the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan:  Syria’s refugees: Girls use photography to document life You’ll want to share the project’s genesis and purpose as you uncover the stories behind the images.


Deconstruct video clips too. Many NGO’s have short clips that could support your exploration. Here’s a stunning example: http://syria.dearworld.me/ If you have an intermediate class, you might consider the different ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ lens this video offers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBQ-IoHfimQ   This Amnesty International clip also addresses the refugee/migrant experience uniquely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OUpsWCvE38

Read aloud: choose a picture book from the suggestions that speak to you. Don’t feel pressured to read it at one sitting. In fact, you may wish to make it last over a couple of days to allow for think alouds, turn and talk and student questions. And you’ll ignite grand conversations as you move from questions such as ‘Why do people migrate?’… to ‘How do we all benefit from hearing stories of refugees and migrants?’


Shared Reading: Choose a news article, or one of the suggestions above that would provide a springboard for investigating new vocabulary, analysis of message, and is engaging enough to return to over 5 days. Perhaps you’d combine deconstructing a selection of images on Monday that would activate some background knowledge for a shared reading text to explore the rest of the week.

Independent reading: When you spark interest for an issue through your read aloud, image analysis, or shared reading, students will want to know more! Consider making available a range of texts they can access independently, such as the novels suggested above. Perhaps you will imagewant to maintain a subscription to Scholastic Scope magazine as it brings new relevant issues to your classroom monthly. You may want to order this archive issue of Scope magazine from January 2015 entitled We were Just Like You: Now We are Refugees: http://scope.scholastic.com/

Not only will you be modelling reading comprehension strategies, you will be attending to the revised Social Studies/History/Geography document. The citizenship framework focuses on how students learn to:

  • participate in their community,
  • identify and develop their sense of connectedness to global communities,
  • respect others’ perspectives,
  • investigate moral and ethical dimensions of developments, events, and issues , and also,
  • demonstrate empathy.

And further, “Teachers need to integrate current events and issues within the curriculum expectations and not treat them as separate topics … to help students analyse controversial issues and global events and stimulate interest in the world around them.”

More importantly, it matters. You will be modelling compassion.

In my next post, I hope to share some ideas around how students might explore further inquiries as a result of these conversations, and how they might express their feelings, their opinions and their understanding in writing, and be compelled to take action.

Further resources:

classroombookshelf.blogspot.ca: This week’s blog is a treasure of books and online resources to support teachers, entitled Children as Refugees: The Syrian Crisis.

For a brave blogger’s perspective on this issue that made me think today, please visit: http://onnetwork.facinghistory.org/questions/


2 thoughts on “Teaching the Headlines: 3 Guiding Questions when Exploring the Syrian Refugee Crisis

  1. Pingback: Leading by Example: Take Action and Model It for Students | annette.gilbert

  2. Pingback: 5 More Books to Help Your Students Empathize with a Newcomer’s Journey | annette.gilbert

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