The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

The Kurdish Referendum

About thirty million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. These thirty million Kurds are the largest national group in the world without its own country.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was supposed to include Kurdistan on a list of proposed mandates. When someone pointed out to him that he had forgotten to include it, he quickly added it to the list and blithely noted that geography had not been his strongest suit.  Mandate status for Kurdistan might have led eventually to statehood as it did for Iraq and Syria, for example. But neither the French nor the Americans supported a mandate for Kurdistan. One American delegate who had little knowledge of the region characterized Kurds by using a racist comparison to the native peoples of his own country. “In some respects the Kurds remind one of the North American Indians….. Their temper is passionate, resentful, revengeful, intriguing and treacherous. The make good soldiers , but poor leaders. They are avaricious, utterly selfish, shameless beggars, and a great propensity to steal.” (Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Random House, 2002, 444)

Ultimately, the British favored including a part of the region where Kurds lived to be in the new mandate of Iraq. The status of Kurdistan was left up in the air. When Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey and began pushing back against efforts to shrink Turkish territory, the allied powers lost all interest creating a Kurdish state.

Fast forward to today.

Since the Paris Peace Conference, many Kurds have demanded greater rights and autonomy, and in some places, independence. But the experiences of Kurds vary from country to country. For example, in Turkey, Kurdish efforts to form an independent state met a harsh crackdown from the Turkish government, sparking a civil war that has claimed over forty thousand lives since the 1980s. Today, many Kurds in Turkey no longer seek independence, but want greater rights and political control within the borders of Turkey.

Kurds in Iraq, after suffering a genocide, ethnic cleansing, and repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s government, gained a greater role in the new Iraqi government that formed after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls a region of northern Iraq commonly known as Iraqi Kurdistan. It has its own military and largely governs itself separate from the federal government in Baghdad. In recent years, Iraqi Kurds have expanded oil production and built a pipeline to Turkey to export oil without the approval of the federal Iraqi government. This has increased tension between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government.

Kurds have also gained international attention for their involvement in the fight against ISIS. The United States has supported Iraqi Kurdish military forces, called the peshmerga, in the conflict. As ISIS swept through regions of Iraq, federal Iraqi officials left their posts in some places. This presented Kurds with an opportunity to expand their control over new territory.

On Monday, September 25, 2017, 92 percent of the Kurds in Iraq voted for independence in a vote that has been condemned by Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Each of these countries, with their significant populations of Kurds, is reluctant to allow Kurds to establish an independent state. All are exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government. The idea of self-determination, touted by Woodrow Wilson one hundred years ago, faces a test in 2017.  Like then, the idea of a Kurdish state faces scrutiny and skepticism.

The video features Steven Kinzer answering the question, “How did Kurds respond to Atatürk’s vision for Turkish identity?”  and is associated with our curriculum Empire, Republic, Democracy: 
Turkey’s Past and Future.

The Death of Liu Xiaobo

Human right activist and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died on July 13, 2017. I’ve reposted something I wrote in 2010 for the Watson Institute’s Global Conversation blog.


Dr. Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize: China, Democracy, and Human Rights

April 24, 1995 - Dr. Liu Xiaobo and Xu Wenli at Xu's home in Beijing

The photo shows Dr. Liu Xiaobo (left) and Xu Wenli at Xu’s home in Beijing (April 24, 1995).

In January 2010, Brown University’s Xu Wenli wrote to the Nobel Committee, nominating Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the video, Xu Wenli speaks of his belief in universal values of equality, freedom, and democracy. The video is one of a series designed for use in high school classrooms with an activity produced by the Choices Education Program called Xu Wenli and the China Democracy Party.

Xu Wenli came to Brown’s Watson Institute in the spring of 2003. His story before he arrived at Brown is both harrowing and inspiring. One of China’s most recognized pro-democracy advocates, Mr. Xu spent 16 years in prison in China for his activities as a dissident. He was a leader in the Democracy Wall movement from 1979 to 1981, edited the samizdat-style journal April Fifth Forum, and played a major role in establishing the Beijing-Tianjin branch of the China Democracy Party. Mr. Xu’s health suffered while in prison. In reaction to his declining condition, international human rights groups, the U.S. ambassador to China, and Western officials called for his release. The Chinese government relented and released him on medical grounds in December 2002.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo has focused attention once again on China’s human rights record.

But how long is our attention span? Will the prize make a difference on the ground in China? What are the prospects for the advancement of human rights in China?

Xu Wenli’s videos complement additional curriculum work that Choices has done on China.

Podcast: Histories that Inspire

In this “Inside the Writers’ Room” podcast, Lindsay Turchan and I talk with James N. Green, the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Latin American History at Brown University and the director of Brown’s Brazil Initiative. In this episode, we discuss the use of individual stories to illuminate the teaching of history. Green says:

“Individual stories help people understand larger social processes…it humanizes them.”

The podcast examines the value of using these stories to deepen student engagement while strengthening  the skills necessary for good historical inquiry. Green also talks about how this approach inspired one of his students, Marga Kempner, to make a movie about the experiences of Marcos Arruda and his family during the Brazilian military dictatorship. The movie is featured in  “Repression and Resistance During Military Rule,” a lesson in the Choices curriculum, Brazil: A History of Change.  This powerful film is available online and can be viewed here as well.

Green is also one of the featured presenters at a Choices professional development conference, “Brazil, Cuba, Mexico: Bringing Latin America Into the Classroom” from June 29-20 at Brown.

A Vote on Turkey’s Future

On April 16, Turkish citizens will go to the polls to vote on a package of constitutional amendments. The package proposes fundamental changes to Turkey’s parliamentary system of government—it would expand the powers of the presidency and dissolve the position of prime minister, among other changes. Public opinion is split on the referendum, and many pollsters hesitate to predict the outcome. Much of the debate surrounding the referendum draws on the country’s divisive leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many see the referendum as not simply a vote on Turkey’s system of government, but on the future of Erdoğan’s position as Turkey’s leader.

Erdoğan has been a central figure in Turkish politics for the past two decades. He was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 and a founder of the current ruling party, the AKP.  Erdoğan served three terms as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014. After reaching his term limit, he won the presidency in 2014. Many believe that he is the most influential Turkish politician in since Atatürk.

While Erdoğan is currently eligible for one more term as president, a “yes” vote at the polls on the April 19 referendum could pave the way for Erdogan to remain the country’s president for an additional term, through 2029.

The vote comes during a period of great change and uncertainty in Turkey. A recent string of terrorist attacks has claimed the lives of hundreds of Turkish citizens. The Syrian Civil War continues to unfold on Turkey’s doorstep. In the midst of the global refugee crisis, Turkey has accepted roughly half of the five million Syrians who have fled their home country. The decades-long conflict between government officials and Turkey’s Kurdish population continues.

Though Erdoğan has a loyal base of supporters, in recent years many Turkish citizens have challenged his government in a range of ways, from political organizing to widespread protests. Concerns about government corruption and growing authoritarianism sparked massive protests in Gezi Park in 2013. Last summer, an attempted military coup failed to oust Erdoğan. In its wake, while some citizens have rallied around the government and rejected the military’s attempt to intervene in politics, others have expressed concern that Erdoğan and his ruling party are seizing the opportunity to crush dissent and further consolidate their power. Individual’s views on these recent development may shape decisions at the ballot box on the 16th. In the video below, Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer describes how the Turkish government responded to the 2016 coup attempt.


Turkish Students Weigh In

In a recent interview in Taksim Square, Istanbul, New York Times correspondent Patrick Kingsley discussed the upcoming referendum with two students at Bagazici University—Mert Nacakgedigi and Dilara Arslan. Though they are good friends, the two students have starkly different interpretations about what the proposed constitutional changes would mean for their country’s future. While Dilara plans to vote in favor of the amendments, Mert will vote against them.

Interview by Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times.


Dilara is double major in political science and sociology. She believes that the current parliamentary system has failed Turkey and hopes that a shift to a presidential system will bring stability to a country that has experienced political upheaval and tenuous parliamentary coalitions for decades. Dilara reminds viewers that, since the country’s founding less that one hundred years ago, Turkey has had more than sixty governments. She’s confident that the constitutional amendments will not only bring stability, but will also facilitate the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.

“I see it as a step towards democracy. Considering what the current government has done in favor of democracy in my opinion from the 2004 package of women’s rights to the economic liberalism over the past ten, fifteen years, I see this as just another step towards democracy.”

Dilara Arslan, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara applauds the ruling party’s efforts to expand freedoms for women that wear headscarves by lifting restrictions that had long kept kept veiled women out of public institutions like universities and government offices. She believes the constitutional changes will bring Turkey’s government more in line with many Western governments. She is concerned that foreign governments and international media sources have been encouraging people in Turkey to vote “no.”


Mert Nacakgedigi is a double major in political science and history. He expresses concern about the future of Turkey’s democracy and he warns that the amendments will demolish Turkey’s system of checks and balances. Mert says that people don’t feel free to openly oppose the proposed constitutional change, particularly those who work for or interact closely with the government. He’s unconvinced that the proposed changes will help address the challenges facing his country or offer any improvements to Turkey’s government.

“When I see the referendum…I only have one question. Do we need this referendum? Do we have a constitutional problem? [Is] our first problem a constitutional problem? I don’t think so.”

—Mert Nacakgedigi, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara and Mert emphasize that despite a climate of political polarization in their country, they’re able to respectfully disagree and remain friends. In many ways, they share a similar vision for their country—a desire for expanded rights and opportunities, a commitment to strengthening their democracy, and a hope that that Turkey will successfully address security concerns and the problem of terrorism. How a “yes” or ”no” vote on the referendum will shape the country’s future remains to be seen.

Interested in Teaching about Turkey?

Empire, Republic, Democracy: Turkey’s Past and Future traces the final years of the Ottoman Empire, the struggle for independence, and Turkish resistance against European imperialism. Students explore recent developments, such as the Syrian Civil War, the emergence of ISIS, the global refugee crisis, and the attempted military coup of 2016. In a culminating simulation, students grapple with the questions and challenges facing people in Turkey today.

  • What should Turkey’s democracy look like?
  • What role should religion play in Turkey’s government and society?
  • Should Turkey expand human rights and freedoms?
  • What role should Turkey play in the region and the world?

Banner image: Kristine Riskaer (CC BY 2.0).

Fake News? Teaching Media Literacy through Choices Curriculum

By Ryan Sprott, International School of the Americas

More students are arriving to our classroom with uncertainties about what constitutes “fake” and “real” news. To address these questions, my co-teacher Laurie Smith and I used a recent Choices Teaching with the News lesson to strengthen students’ media evaluation skills. The following passages outline specific pedagogical strategies we implemented during this unit.

Syrian Refugees and the Executive Order

We began with an overview of the Syrian Civil War. Our hook was a virtual reality video titled For My Son. The short film follows one man’s story as he travels from Aleppo to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Students reported that the virtual reality experience made the refugee crisis more personal to them and increased their curiosity on the topic.

Next, students annotated the executive order introduction with a partner in preparation for a collaborative timeline. This timeline drew on students’ collective knowledge of history to investigate the range of historical factors that may have led to Trump’s executive order. This helped students connect the executive order to recent news as well as to content we have studied this year in world history.

Media Literacy

Once students increased their background knowledge on the Syrian refugee crisis and the executive order, we moved into a whole class brainstorm and discussion on how to evaluate media for credibility. This prepared students for the Choices’ Evaluating Media Sources document. Since we had a limited amount of time, students, with a partner, analyzed two media sources supportive of the executive order and two opposed to it. They then added their findings to our collaborative media evaluation chart. For this, we transferred the questions on the Evaluating Media Sources activity onto a large board in our classroom as shown in the video below. Students used this as an opportunity to reflect upon one another’s contributions.

Afterwards, students engaged in a discussion protocol where they shared their learnings with their peers in order to brainstorm ideas for their projects. They then presented their finished projects via a gallery walk where they explained how their work reflected their stances on the executive order. As evidenced in the following student reflections, this project encouraged students to be more intentional about consuming news, and they gained specific skills to determine credibility within news sources.

Student Reflections


The Task

In the 21st Century, information can be passed across the globe in an instant. Factors such as the internet and mass media outlets make this possible. But what happens when they begin to spread false information? In the aftermath of an event such as a controversial executive order, it may be challenging for consumers to separate facts from opinions, that is why the ISA Sophomores engaged in a study of fake news, and how it should be interpreted.

After sifting through a handful of articles, we expressed our personal stance on the situation in a creative work of our choosing.

The Work

The Reflection

Before this unit of study, I didn’t know enough about the situation to formulate a valid enough opinion on the matter. Being raised with liberal values, my initial response to the executive order was “That’s not good.”, with nothing more complex to complement that thought. I was well familiar with the term ‘fake news’ and had heard it flying about the media, but never before had I troubled to dig beyond the topic’s surface level. I suppose I had placed more trust in news sources before, as I mostly assumed ‘fake news’ to be another cheap excuse to be used by politicians. Now, I realize that the media is just as vulnerable to lies, bias and misconception as anything else.

During the span of this unit, I discovered to what extent news sources can get away with spreading false or synthetic information. More so, I realized how much this is made possible due to consumers’ lack of skepticism when being fed information. Consumers have allowed this problem to grow out of control by persisting in gullibility and carelessness for verifying facts. Not only this, but factors such as the internet have allowed the issue to even exist on such a large and dangerous scale.

Now, I am of the belief that measures should and must be taken in order to repair and redefine a corrupted system. This phenomena of bending truth has not only highlighted the power of information, but also its fragile nature. Should the responsibility of maintaining an honest society fall into the wrong hands, we may very well end up like a dystopia.

My final product, ‘One Bad Apple…’ , acts as a reflection of my current stance on the immigration dilemma and the ‘fake news’ issue by summarizing my opinion into an idiom that is simple and easy to understand. President Trump’s Administration claims that the travel ban will protect the United States from radical Islamic terrorists, however, this targeted demographic only makes up a small minority of a much larger range of people who are also being affected by the executive order. Refugees who seek safety in the US are being denied access because of the ban, along with individuals simply attempting to have a better life. The executive office is associating all Muslims with the few who are extremists, hence the “one bad apple” idiom being used. By discriminating against an entire ethnic group, we are departing from the very virtues that founded this nation.


The Task

We learned how to evaluate media sources critically that way we could make educated and informed decisions, especially regarding complex issues. We learned this skill in relation to Trump’s immigration executive order which happens to be a current event that has been heavily debated and discussed with “fake news.” We looked at 14 media sources with both pro and con stances on the executive order, and at the end of the unit we had to create a final, creative model that showed our opinion and what we had learned from this unit.

The Work

The Reflection

Before this unit of study, I used to think that there could only be one side to this executive order. I hadn’t actually read through the executive order nor had I really thought about all the events that led up to this executive order. I wasn’t really taking in all the information and evaluating it critically and thinking of the complexity of things. Then I learned these things about fake news and real news, and all of the bias in media. I read through analysis of the executive order and really immersed myself in lots of information. Now I think that you can have many different opinions because it is such a complex issue that doesn’t have a real black and white answer. The catch to that is your opinion should be supported by accurate and relevant information that way you have an educated opinion. This is such an important global issue that requires a lot of thought and information before you can just set on one side. My final product reflects my current thinking about this topic because this zine tells the story of fear taking over the globe that is now preventing people to take in credible, accurate information. This coincides with the recent executive order and my opinion on being informed in order to make a decision. I am hoping that people will look at this zine and try to make an educated, informed decision.


The Task

We’ve been bombarded with notions of “fake news” thanks to the manipulative rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election. Most of American youth choose to swallow whatever media is within hands reach, giving journalists an unimaginable power over the perception of the world. Students at ISA, however, do not buy into it. A unit over evaluating media taught students how to identify credible sources. We did this by researching President Trump’s executive order on Middle Eastern immigration and creating a final product to reflect our educated position.

The Work

Poem on the executive order

The Reflection

Fear of the other has transcended the ages and managed to poison even the most intelligent. In the United States, fear of Islam penetrates politics. President Trump issued an immigration ban on seven predominantly Islamic countries. Before this unit of study, I was fiercely against the ban; I thought nothing could defend the violation of human rights, but then I learned about the justified fear citizens experience. Despite my newfound understanding, I still believe that the executive order is a violation of human rights and further distances the US from philanthropic goals.

I learned that the basis for the ban was mostly religious. If the president truly wanted to shield the US from “terrorists,” he would’ve banned Saudi Arabia, a country that has high amounts of terrorist activity. He didn’t because of our economic ties– greed over protection, racism over unity. I also learned that the United States has issued a lot of immigration bans in the past. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 (anti-Japanese), and the cancellation of Iranian visas in 1980 are just a few of many examples.

After learning all of this, I realized that immigration bans are based on genuine concerns. The concerns, nevertheless, are rooted in irrational fear that can be resolved through education. My biggest take on the unit was on the demonization of Muslims. Willingness to learn can resolve much of the stigma. My final product, a poem, is a touching attempt to encourage the humanization of Islam.

English Language Arts Performance Outcomes: Investigate the World

  • Develops a clear position based on evidence from sources that considers multiple perspectives, and draws well-supported conclusions on a globally significant issue/topic.

When researching the executive order, I had to develop a concise position that reflected upon credible evidence. The executive order is a complex topic that requires careful consideration. By looking two sources, I drew upon multiple perspectives to gain broader insight on the global issue. I looked at the authors of both articles and dove into the rhetoric the publisher tended to use. I absorbed information with a grain of salt in order to create a final product that reflected accurate understanding of the topic.

Intersectionality in the Women’s March and the Classroom

Gender inequality often goes unaddressed in the classroom due in part to the complex, varied experiences of historical and current events through the lens of identity politics.

This can be unfamiliar or intimidating territory for teachers. Fortunately, experienced researchers and educators have shared strategies and tools for discussing these issues with students. We hope that the resources provided in this article further students’ understandings of how our unique identities influence our experiences—that may differ from our peers—and are connected to legacies of U.S. history, world history, and today.

Is feminism for everyone? The question remains open for discussion, building off of current developments, recent scholarship, and greater insight into our shared histories.

Millions of people contributed to the historic crowd-sizes of the worldwide Women’s March on January 21, 2017. Individuals organized across all seven continents, including Antarctica.  The women’s march is one example of recent gains, and increased visibility, for women’s rights as human rights—but also an example of how progress made has not been distributed evenly.

Many saw the march as an enormous statement of solidarity, seeking justice on a variety of topics such as women’s access to equal opportunity, other human rights issues like immigrant’s rights, and environmental issues. The video #WhyIMarch highlights some of the participants voices. Critics and contributors have pointed out that the march also created some division and exclusion amongst social groups. They say that the name, messages, and primary focus on the voices of white, middle-class women left little room for more marginalized groups: women of color, indigenous peoples, the LGBTQIA community, etc.

As reiterated in the Mission and Vision of the march, the goal is not to shift away from discussing women’s issues, but to continually open the conversation to everyone, and all individuals affected by oppression, and to consider the the varying challenges and privileges determined by our unique identities.


“The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another,  the less likely our movements for change are to fracture.” — Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality in 1989, “Why intersectionality can’t wait,” Washington Post, September 2015.


This echoes a struggle of the feminist movement that has existed throughout history from the very start—the challenge to unite and represent all women and oppressed genders, and to unite with other oppressed peoples to create change.

For example, a lesser known fact about the iconic Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 is that African American women were asked to march separately, behind white women—although some refused this compromise and marched where they wanted, such as activist Ida B. Wells. The second wave of the feminist movement began, in the 1960s, to include more perspectives and demonstrate the link between race, class, and gender oppression. This trajectory continued with the third wave, in the 1990s, by embracing more multicultural diversity and greater forms of gender roles and identity.

Today, women’s rights are often taught in the wider context of gender equality which includes LGBTQ rights and considers the gender spectrum as opposed to a male/female binary. The interconnected nature of today’s social media culture also highlights our ties to global current issues and considers gender inequalities through a comparative approach. For example, this two-minute video on The Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum received over twenty thousand views.

As classrooms and communities become increasingly diverse, it is often up to teachers to facilitate inclusive discussions and opportunities for greater understanding of our personal identities and their trajectories from history to today. The following resources look at the importance of talking about intersectionality and approaches for teaching it.

By Mackenzie Abernethy


Teaching the Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender:

What is intersectionality?

The idea of intersectionality acknowledges that we all have multiple identities that affect the way we experience the world.

Definition: Intersectionality refers to the social, economic, and political ways in which identity-based systems of oppression and privilege overlap and influence one another. Each person’s identity is made up of the intersections or overlappings of multiple identities—such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, (dis)ability, etc.

“It means understanding that different kinds of oppression are interlinked, and that one can’t liberate only one group without the others. It means acknowledging… intersectionality—the fact that along different axes, we’re all both oppressed and oppressors, privileged and disprivileged.” ― Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, 2013


Why teach intersectionality?

  • Our backgrounds, identities, and the issues affecting us are diverse and can foster learning about how our the intersections of our identities shape our perspectives and the way we experience the world.
  • To assist students in recognizing which parts of their identity account for bias or might make them feel discriminated against, and to practice constructive communication skills for discussing these issues with peers and in the community.
  • “In the classroom, educators can use an intersectional lens to better relate to and affirm all students—like Nicole—and to help young people understand the relationship between power and privilege….” —Teaching at the Intersections article and case study from Teaching Tolerance.
  • The TED talk, “The urgency of intersectionality,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw highlights the “injustice squared” experienced by African American women. She highlights the importance of giving students the language and terminology to discuss issues that affect them and their peers.

 “Where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you… can’t solve it…. Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term.” — Kimberlé Crenshaw




The Choices Program assesses our curriculum units that cover Current Issues, U.S. History, World History for a balance of social, political, and economic perspectives, including underrepresented and non-elite actors such as social groups and individuals from diverse background, social activists, NGO workers, and more.

Header photo by Lynn D. Rosentrater (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement

On August 28, 1963, before a crowd of over 200,000 people in Washington D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most famous speech of the U.S. civil rights movement. “I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

The March on Washington has become one of the most celebrated moments of the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the movement’s most famous leader. But the story of the fight for civil rights has more to it than large marches and speeches on national television.

Often out of sight of the national media, most civil rights activity occurred in local communities, in states like Mississippi, where thousands of everyday people organized themselves to fight against racial injustice. Instead of one national civil rights movement led by a few, we can think of the struggle of the 1950s and 1960s as a series of local movements for racial justice with many participants and leaders.

Judy Richardson was an 18-year-old when she join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and went to Mississippi to struggle for racial justice. You can get a sense of her experience in the video below.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was just one chapter in the black freedom struggle. As many historians have noted, African Americans have been fighting for their freedom since the first slave ships arrived in the Americas. The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, but emancipation did not bring equal rights or economic opportunities to black people. While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s spurred the federal government into action and won many legal rights for African Americans, challenges remain today.

The Choices Program has a free online lesson “Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement” that includes videos and stories of students who went to Mississippi, including those of Judy Richardson, John Lewis, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, and Charlie Cobb. The lesson offers insight into the broad-based nature of the civil rights movement and its role in local communities.

The activists in the videos were not much older than high school students when they joined SNCC. The videos and lessons challenge students to consider important questions:

Did they relate to the SNCC veterans’ stories about joining the movement. Can students imagine themselves participating in the civil rights movement if they had been alive?  Do any students consider themselves activists now? What current civil rights issues or other political issues inspire students in the class? Is there a cause that students can imagine themselves dedicating their lives to? What lessons can students learn from these student civil rights activists?

A Digital Tool for Connecting with Stories of Immigrants

At a time when the refugee crisis and issues of immigration permeate social media and political debates, I wanted to put forth another resource that may provide teachers with an entry point for leading a one-day spotlight on the diversity of immigrant experiences or for continuing a longer discussion on this complex topic. This is applicable to all-ages and may be relevant to Social Studies, History, Language Arts, English as a Foreign Language, and Technology classes:

Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories: Your Story, Our Stories invites teachers to “turn students into historians” using object and first-person accounts (often written by other students) to explore the still-unfolding history of immigration. The site welcomes people to post photographs of an object that illustrates a their family’s story of moving to a new country and experiencing different cultures.

For example, sixteen year-old Blaake-Kirstyn posted a story about her family recipes passed down from her great-great-great-grandmother who was a house slave on a Georgian plantation. Syrian refugee Zeina Joud tells a story about the fur coat that she had to leave behind when she fled her homeland. Fatemeh Jahanshahi shares the experience of a Taxi driver that she met in Iran.

You may wish to have your students interview a family member and share their own connections to immigration here to contribute and to see their work preserved in a digital museum exhibit that connects our shared history to today.

If you enjoy this resource, you may be interested in “Define American” videos of student immigrants sharing their stories and the Understanding Immigrant Experiences lesson plan in which students assess primary resource in our U.S. History unit Immigration and the U.S. Policy Debate.

The Tenement Museum also offers lesson plans for teaching with objects, primary sources, and oral history. The following questions can help spark constructive student dialogue:

What historical trends are revealed by the stories?

What is cultural identity and how does it shift over time?

What does it mean to be American?

How does personal history relate to American history?

Do you have any objects in your home that tell an immigrant’s story? Share your thoughts and classroom success stories on our Facebook or Twitter page.


Syria: Starting (and Continuing) the Conversation in the Classroom


The other night, my younger brother, who is a sophomore in college, texted me. Normally, at this point in the semester, all the kid wants is help brainstorming ideas for his papers or someone to complain to about the absurdity and injustice of final exams. But this time, he said something different. He said that he had “just seen this thing about the White Helmets” and “they seem cool.”

The “White Helmets” to whom he was referring are the volunteer Syrian rescue workers who aid civilians caught in the destruction left in the wake of frequent bombings. We continued to text about it, which prompted him to mention that he wanted to “read some more stuff.”

Being the annoying, nerdy, older sister that I am, I proceeded to ask him what else he knew about the Syrian Civil War. His response—that he didn’t know anything else except for what he had gleaned from some photos on social media and a few articles online—didn’t surprise me.

Don’t get me wrong. My brother is, in my opinion, a smart, kind person. He is well-rounded, curious, and excelling at a competitive four-year university. But at the same time, he is also a busy, American student who lives far away from Syria’s everyday violence. In these ways and others, he is highly privileged. He, like many people throughout the world, has the ability to choose ignorance. But, in addition to his geographical and intellectual distance from the conflict, what was ultimately blocking his engagement with Syria’s war was simply not knowing where to begin. He was overwhelmed. He wanted to learn, but he felt like he was years behind—and he was right. The topic had not come up in any of his courses in college, nor had the earlier years of the war been covered in his high school social studies classes. His friends are not particularly interested in international affairs, so it only came up occasionally in conversation. He was unfamiliar with the long, complex history leading up to what is taking place in Syria today, and that made really digging into the conflict daunting for him. But, he finally realized that that was not a good enough excuse.

I suspect that, in this way, my brother is not unlike many of the high school students with whom educators work: students who are well-meaning and want to learn, but who just do not know where to begin. All students are different and have different experiences, but what they do have in common is the need for an entry point that is accessible to them. In my brother’s case, the catalyst for his learning was the White Helmets—seeing people risk their lives to help others escape a conflict about which he had the privilege of knowing next to nothing. For other people, it may be a photo in the news, the story of a family member or a classmate affected by the conflict, a personal experience with war and violence, a post on social media, a statement from a politician or activist, or a lesson in the classroom. Whatever it is, these entry points—and meeting students where they are in terms of their knowledge and the gaps in their knowledge in a non-judgmental way—is an important step in the process of nurturing students as they grow into both informed and empathetic global citizens.

The Choices Program provides a number of resources that offer an accessible entry point, and beyond, for students of all levels and backgrounds to engage with the war in Syria. Specifically, in addition to directing my brother to some reputable and diverse media sources and scholarly articles, I pointed him to a few free, online Choices resources, including videos by political scientist Bessma Momani and Teaching with the News Lessons “Debating the U.S. Response to Syria” and “Refugee Stories: Mapping a Crisis.”

Teachers may also find the Choices curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy useful as it introduces students to the conflict in Syria as well as many other regional histories and issues. We hope that these resources might help educators who are looking to prompt students to engage with the many dimensions of Syria’s war.



Photo: Public Domain, United States Agency for International Development. 

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