Students need help processing a war that is unfolding on television and in their social media feeds on a daily basis

Recently, I asked students in my Global Politics classes to respond to a new Freedom House study that found just one in five people now live in countries designated as “free,” down from nearly one in two in 2005. The context of their responses were firmly embedded in their concerns around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“Putin’s maneuvers show how a regime has been able to oppress democratic states,” suggested Alejandro. “But another reason for democratic decline is countries veer away from democracy when it doesn’t offer a solution for their long-term needs. I think the quote is trying to say that if powerful democratic countries don’t aid oppressed democratic states, democracy will further decline, and the oppressors will gain ground.” 

A critical moment

We are in a critical moment where students are eager to discuss the role of democracy, militarism and the post-Cold War world in the wake of Russia’s gut-wrenching, unjustifiable occupation of Ukraine. However, it is also easy to fall into convenient narratives and not provide students with opportunities to explore all the complicated issues in the lead-up to war.  

“Even though Russia is doing a bad thing, the U.S. isn’t entirely free of crime either,” suggested Diana when reviewing a Bernie Sanders critique that called for solidarity with Ukraine against Russian aggression. “There are many examples of the U.S. doing similar things like Russia by establishing the Monroe Doctrine where the U.S. can deploy its troops whenever it wants under the excuse of intervening in a country that will act against U.S. interests. Perhaps those U.S. interests are human rights, but it sounds more like a self-beneficial gain, much like Russia is currently doing with Ukraine.”

Helping students process human rights abuses that unfold before their eyes on national television and erupt onto their social media feeds is a hugely important contribution to enhancing their media literacy, historical knowledge and strength of their interpretations. It’s also a critical way to help them process traumatic and disturbing news and images. Students were even more willing to talk about the geopolitical implications of the Ukraine conflict after analyzing Instagram posts with people their age asking “Vlad Daddy” not to initiate World War III or lamenting the future draft. While that activity elicited plenty of laughs, students appreciated the seriousness of the topic. 

As Juan stated, “Students, parents, and everyone should learn about what is going on with Ukraine vs. Russia. I think that we, people in the U.S and other countries not involved in the direct violence between Russia and Ukraine, tend to lack attention towards the issue because we aren’t being directly affected by the violence. But I still hear people asking, ‘what’s going on with the inflation on gasoline?’ It’s things like this when you have to realize that even if you aren’t in the middle of the warzone, you are still getting impacted without noticing.” 

Finally, I know I’m teaching in the strongest and most relevant ways when students are empowered to bring their own lives and experiences into the classroom.

Making connections

The violence in Chicago, neighborhood displacement and the absence of basic rights for undocumented people in the U.S. all point to relevant connections that can be made to a seemingly remote and abstract war on the other side of the planet. 

Students like Lily naturally make those connections. “I think it is kind of upsetting that the U.S. has always promoted the idea of democracy and being free, yet many people feel like they do not have those types of standards in their daily lives,” she said. “The U.S. being a very powerful country, we should influence other countries and put them in their place if they are doing something wrong, such as humanitarian crisis, human rights violations, injustices, etc.”

Our job as educators is to help students make those connections and illustrate how historical lessons have meaning today. Hopefully, by learning about the past, we can help our students shape a better future.  

Editor’s note: student names have been changed to protect their privacy. 

Jackson Potter teaches social studies at Back of the Yards College Prep High School.