History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: lesson plan

Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis

“I was just a mother taking care of her children and living in Homs…. I enjoyed life. One day I’d spend an evening with my friends, another day I’d go to a birthday party. That was our life…. Now it’s all gone.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

What does a ten-year-old boy, working alongside his father in a busy restaurant kitchen, think of the friends he left behind in Syria? How does a young man, who took up arms against the Assad regime at age seventeen, adjust to life with his injuries? How does a medical resident, facing repeated arrests for protesting, finally decide to flee? How does a mother and widow, caring for her children, volunteer to help others in her new community in Lebanon?

Choices’ free online lesson, Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis, gives students the opportunity to explore the human face of the global refugee crisis. Why do refugees leave their homes? What do they leave behind? What obstacles do they confront on their journey abroad? What is it like to build a life in a new country?

“I can’t describe what I felt. No one can…. We are people, not numbers. These 5,000 people waiting at the border wanting to cross, they didn’t come of their own free will. No one chooses to leave their home. Everyone has a reason.”
—Haifa, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

There are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II. As of 2014, nearly sixty million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes, about twenty million of them refugees. To introduce students to this topic, the lesson begins with foundational information—defining key terms and exploring data on the global crisis.


Excerpt from the lesson handout, “Refugee and IDP Data Sheet.” See lesson for full data sheet.

The main activity allows students to read or watch individuals’ stories and creatively map their experiences. We’ve recently updated the lesson and incorporated a collection of video interviews by Al Jazeera—Life on Hold—featuring Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Syrians now make up a quarter of the population in Lebanon. These interviews are a powerful way to introduce students to the human dimension of the refugee crisis. We hope the lesson plan will help you address this topic in your classroom and help prepare your students to participate in the global discussion about responses to the crisis.

“I want my children to get an education…. I imagine Mashael and Mariam will achieve great things. Of course I have dreams. If you don’t have hope then life isn’t worth living.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

A sample of the student mapping activity.

A sample of the student mapping activity.

Can We Trust Iran?

“If the nuclear crisis is ever to get resolved, now is the time for it to get resolved.”

—Payam Mohseni, Director of Iran Project, Harvard University

With the deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program drawing near, The New York Times put out a video today outlining what is at stake in the Iran negotiations.


What's at Stake in the Iran Negotiations


As the video makes clear, reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a challenge, and violence is a real possibility if the negotiations fail. Domestic politics in both the United States and Iran presents huge obstacles, as do conflicts and instability in numerous other parts of the Middle East. But the video seems to claim that the core issue facing U.S. negotiators is whether the United States can trust Iran (and vice versa—whether Iran can trust the United States).

Lesley University Professor Jo-Anne Hart, an expert in U.S. and Iranian security issues, takes issue with this claim. In this video interview with the Choices Program, she argues that international agreements are never based on trust.



So which is it? Is trust the key ingredient to international relations or is it just an easy framework to latch onto when trying to understand exceedingly complex issues? What are the implications if we understand negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as based on legally enforceable agreements instead of just on trust?

Choices has multiple curriculum resources to help students grapple with these questions. Our free online lesson Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue pushes students to explore, debate, and evaluate multiple perspectives on U.S. policy toward Iran and its nuclear program. In addition, we have just released a new edition of our full-length curriculum unit The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy, in which students analyze the history of Iran’s nuclear program as well as other pressing issues in the region, including the significance of oil, the rise of ISIS, the U.S. relationship with Israel, and instability in Yemen.


Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris


On January 7, 2015, two gunmen attacked the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people. The attacks are presumed to be in response to several controversial cartoons that the magazine published depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The events have ignited a global debate on the topic of freedom of speech, explored in Choices’ free online lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Days after the attack, millions of people marched in rallies across France. Many carried posters and banners inscribed with the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) to show solidarity with the magazine. Sales of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance have skyrocketed in recent weeks in France, and much of the nation’s population has rallied around his, and their own, staunch belief in freedom of thought and condemnation of censorship.flag copy

Yet the magazine has also drawn criticism from individuals and leaders around the world who contend that the cartoons went too far. Critics point to the magazine’s long history of publishing content that, in their opinion, stokes Islamophobia and racism. They question why cartoonists have used their pens to further fracture a country and world already fraught with tension and intolerance.

Turkey, Morocco, and other countries have banned the distribution of Charlie Hebdo. Violent demonstrations have broken out in several places, including Pakistan, where parliament has even passed resolutions condemning the publication, stating that, “This is an attempt to divide peoples and civilisations. There is a need to promote harmony among people and communities instead of reinforcing stereotypes and making people alienated in their own countries.” Pope Francis has chimed in, declaring that insults against the faith of others are beyond the limits of acceptable free speech.

Still others, including many who disapprove of the content of the cartoons, caution against government interference in the free flow of ideas. They stand by the belief that the irreverence of cartoonists, journalists, and artists is a transformative and essential force in a healthy society. Teju Cole writes, “[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky,” states a recent New York Times editorial. France has been quick to arrest and prosecute those who have uttered words of support for the attacks, even when defendants have not threatened violence. Some have criticized French authorities for having a double standard when it comes to expression.

Despite many important distinctions, much of the current discourse on France echoes a debate that shook the United States almost forty years ago—In 1977, a Neo-Nazi group proposed marching through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a small city that was home to many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. The ACLU defended the Nazi’s right to march, the Anti-Defamation League sued in an attempt to prevent it, and people throughout the United States wrestled with the question of how to interpret the First Amendment.

Are there limits to freedom of expression? What should they be? And what can we gather from the cases of Skokie and Paris to help us decide? Challenge your students to explore these questions with the Teaching with the News lesson, The Struggle to Define Free Speech: From Skokie to Paris.

Photos by photograpix (CC BY 2.0) and Tim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of the interesting things about the protests of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York is how they are understood and interpreted.  TV news or the headlines tend to focus and report on them as responses to the grand jury decisions themselves, which they certainly are. But a long history is also at play here that can get missed or overlooked. Reading the signs or listening to protesters, one can hear calls for the end to systemic injustice and impunity—impunity that has affected African American victims of white violence for centuries. Underlying the protests is the belief that the justice system has never worked the same way for all of us.

December 3, 2014.
Photo by Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy
(CC BY-SA 2.0).

This short clip of Dave Dennis giving the eulogy at the funeral of the murdered civil rights worker James Chaney in the summer of 1964 is a painfully apt illustration of this doubt about the justice system.

The clip omits his conclusion to “You see, I know what is going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart – when they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County….” What didn’t make into the clip was what Dave Dennis said next… “they [will] come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of all their cousins and aunts and uncles. And I know what they are going to say: Not guilty.”

As protests continue, there is an opportunity to add historical perspective to the debates that are playing out around all of us.  Race and the history of relations between white and black people in the United States remains a charged and challenging topic. Tackling this challenge can bring the reward of new understanding of the past as well the present for students. The Choices Program has curriculum resources that engage students with this historical context and provide a foundation to consider what’s happening right now.

Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi can be used as a springboard for explorations of current race relations in the United States. It gives students a good understanding of the historical underpinnings of racial inequality, drawing clear connections between inequalities of the past and inequalities that exist today.

There are free videos of scholars answering fundamental questions about this history as well as free activities and resources.

 A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England seeks to inform students of the economic and social impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North. Historians comment that New England has “forgotten” its slave-owning past, and that such a narrative—one that remembers abolition but not enslavement—has had far-reaching consequences for black-white relations and the nature of race in the United States.

There are free videos of scholars answering questions as well as activities and resources.

The United States, Iran, and Flipping the Coin on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

For many this November, anticipating the outcomes of soon-concluding nuclear negotiations with Iran seems impossible. The idea that we could only predict the resolution (or lack thereof) with a “coin toss” is complicated by this video by Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares fund.

This concept of the interdependence of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament brings new questions about the role of nuclear countries in ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons. The questions we have been asking so far of the U.S. government and other countries at the table have been about how to deal with the talks themselves (how to create a mutually beneficial and binding agreement, how to ensure that Iran keeps its commitments as a signatory of the NPT, what to insist upon or where to compromise). What has perhaps been lacking from the conversation are questions about how the United States and other countries with nuclear weapons can create a global atmosphere where nuclear non-proliferation makes nuke-less countries feel more (rather than less) safe. According to Cirincione’s portrayal of nuclear politics, this safety comes from the other side of the coin—disarmament.

Despite President Obama’s rhetorical commitment to nuclear reduction (his Nobel Prize award was marked for his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”), the White House has not effectively signaled to the rest of the world that the United States is taking any serious steps towards reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. In fact, the Pentagon recently announced it intentions of vast increases in nuclear spending. Most of this spending will be on improving the safety of nuclear equipment and training the security forces in charge of them, but the failure to attach reductions in nuclear arms to the expensive nuclear development plan means the measures signal something very different to the rest of the world.

In an article in People’s Daily (the official daily newspaper of the Chinese government), Wen Xian Wang Hongjie calls the program a “new policy on revitalizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and implies that it is linked to disappointments in the outcomes of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article ends cynically– “It is ironic that on the one hand the American government is taking vigorous action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while on the other hand it is preparing for a complete overhaul of its own nuclear arsenal.”

The implications of these type of viewpoints are considerable. If the United States is not showing adequate commitments to nuclear reductions but is rather (in the eyes of many other countries) increasing its own nuclear armament, the prospects for wider disarmament and non-proliferation may be severely reduced. Regardless of the true intentions of the nuclear re-vamp, the fact that it was not linked to reductions in nuclear arsenals has led to many parts of the world perceiving the actions as projected increases in U.S. nuclear power. Cirincione’s coin flip, from non-proliferation to disarmament to non-proliferation and so on, can work in reverse. As nuclear powers like the United States are seen to be increasing their arsenals, their nuclear neighbors may do the same to maintain the balance of power, and non-nuclear countries in an increasingly nuclear world may face greater security pressure to develop nuclear weaponry.

As well as asking how the United States and other nuclear countries are using negotiations to keep Iran committed to non-proliferation, should we be asking what they have done outside of the negotiation room to make an agreement possible? Is it time to flip the coin?


Bring some of these questions into your classroom with Choices’ FREE Teaching with the News lesson, Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue . The lesson features videos from outstanding scholars, Jo-Ann Hart, Trita Parsi, and Joe Cirincione and includes one of Choices’ hallmark Options Role Plays. View this and other Teaching with the News lesson plans here.


The TWTN lesson is a great supplement to these full-length units:

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons


Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution


The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy  (new edition coming soon!)


Teaching Critical Reading and Persuasive Writing Skills with Choices’ French Revolution and Haitian Revolution units

By guest blogger Amy Howland, Academy of the Pacific Rim teacher and Choices Teaching Fellow

I work at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Hyde Park, MA.  Our school is small, with just around 200 students in grades 9-12.  Most of our students will become the first to attend college in their families.  Over 70% of our students receive free or reduced lunch and for many, English is not their first language.  One of the many challenges that our students face is learning how to read and write at the college level.  As a result, our History department focuses much of its instructional time on teaching students how to read and write.  However, spending time teaching writing does not mean that I have to sacrifice important content or engaging activities; I still do all of that.  I find that Choices lends itself perfectly as the foundation for many reading and writing activities.  I love the Choices units because they help me to engage my students in civic dialogue and debate.   I also love the Choices units because they facilitate my ability to teach students how to read critically and write persuasively.

The 9th grade World History class recently finished a unit that combined the Choices units The French Revolution and The Haitian Revolution.  I used the text, many of the lessons, and the role plays as preparation for two major essays.  I will briefly highlight several ways in which I use these particular Choices units to teach reading and writing.

The unit plan. This is a 5-½ -week unit on Revolutions.  It asks students to construct a definition for revolution, and evaluate how each revolution impacted the lives of different people in each society.  The first essay had the students evaluate the impact of the French Revolution on the lives of the people in the different estates, while the second essay asked them to compare the two revolutions to evaluate which revolution had the greatest impact.  I treat the essay on the French Revolution as a “draft.”  In the second comparative essay, students must revise parts of their first essay on France and synthesize it with evidence from the Haitian Revolution.  For both essays I require that students only use the Choices texts to find their evidence.  The unit calendar below illustrates how I combine both units and their respective essay assessments.


Week of 9/10

Monday – What is a Revolution – How to read text – HW: rd. 1-6

Tuesday – Movie – HW: rd. pgs 7-11

Wednesday – Classes of French Society – HW: rd. pgs. 12-22

Thursday – Frances Financial Crisis – HW: rd. pgs. 23-25

Friday – Movie: French Revolution – The Fall of the Bastille- HW: Rd. Declaration of the Rights of Man

Week of 9/17

Monday – Declaration of the Rights of Man seminar – HW: Considering the options

Tuesday – Prep for Debate – HW: Finish debate prep

Wednesday – French Revolution Choices Debate – HW: Rd. pgs. 36-43

Thursday – Movie – HW: Rd. 44-50

Friday – French government graph – HW: study vocab quiz

Week of 9/24

Monday – Vocab quiz – systems map – HW: finish map

Tuesday – Essay Planning

Wednesday – Essay Writing – HW: Finish Essay

Thursday – Haiti in the News – HW: rd. 1-5 (Haitian Rev)

Friday – Map of European colonization – HW: rd. pgs. 6-10

Week of 10/1

Monday – Life in St. Domingue graph – HW: rd 11-18

Tuesday – Parties in Conflict – HW: pgs. 19-21 – Considering the options

Wednesday – Debate Prep – HW: Debate prep

Thursday – Haitian Revolution Choices Debate – HW: rd. 34-38

Friday – Mapping Independence – HW: rd. 39-43

Week of 10/8

Monday – Columbus Day – No School

Tuesday – Haiti independence – HW: Create a systems map

Wednesday – Discuss Systems Map – HW: Study Vocab

Thursday – Vocab Quiz – Organizing – HW: organizing

Friday – Organizing

Week of 10/15

Monday – Writing

Tuesday – Writing – HW: Essay Due Thursday

Reading Choices: I love that Choices provides clear, rigorous and dynamic texts full of quotes, images, and maps.  But in the beginning of the year many of the freshmen struggle with the reading level.  As a result, we spend the first several weeks learning how to decode the text.  First, I break each part of the reading in half and I give clear directions on how I expect them to actively read.   The active reading will not only allow them to follow along and access the text but it will facilitate their ability to find evidence for their essay.  As they actively read they must identify words they do not know, summarize the main points and ask questions, or comment on the text.  Additionally, I teach them how to use the headings to determine the main point of the text.

Activities:  I love the lessons and optional lessons that Choices provides, especially the particular graphic organizers that accompany some lessons.  Struggling readers and writers need to learn how to categorize information that allows them to break down the text to understand key concepts.  I connect these graphic organizers to the essay prompt.  For example, the prompt asks students to explain how the French Revolution changed the lives of the different social classes in France.  There is an excellent graphic organizer that breaks down each social class in pre-revolutionary France and has students consider what their role in France was at the time.  Students are then able to go back and use this information on their essay.

The Role Play:  The role play is the corner stone of a Choices unit.  It never fails to engage every single student in a lively dialogue about the future of France or the Colony of St. Domigue.  In fact, after each role play there is always one other 9th grade teacher who tells me that the students were so excited about the role play that they continued debating as they walked into their next class.  They are the perfect launching pad for teaching civic dialogue, but the role play can also become a tool to teach students about persuasive writing.  To prepare for the role play, I create worksheets that have students identify the claim or main argument of their option. They must also identify and record supporting evidence from both the options as well as the background readings.  I am explicit that this is exactly what they will do for their essay.  As the students debate they must record the other option groups’ arguments and supporting evidence.  This activity can stand alone as a lesson about building a persuasive argument but it could also be used with the Choices’ “Option 5” lesson to expand it into an essay.

Additional Activities:  In addition to the materials provided by Choices, I also use the French Revolution DVD by the History Channel, which follows the events of the revolution and the rise and fall of Robespierre.  I show clips of the movie every other day, which helps students to visualize the material they have just read about.  I also conduct Socratic seminars using the primary sources provided in the Choices curriculum.  This allows students, especially those who struggle with the challenging text in a primary source, to understand it.  Part of the seminar discussion is devoted to talking about how students might use the source in their essay.

Conclusion: As pressure to teach writing in the History classroom increases, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or worry that important content will have to be sacrificed.   The solution is not hard to find.  Choices units fit neatly into units focused on delivering rigorous content, engaging students in active debate, and teaching important literacy skills.

Thirteen Days: More than One Option

There’s a scene in the movie Thirteen Days when the actor playing Bobby Kennedy shouts, “No! No! No! There’s more than one option here.”

The film isn’t perfect, but it really does capture a sense of the tension and drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Arguably it’s a great way to introduce high school students to this critical moment in history.

The noted historian Ernest R. May agreed: “Thirteen Days is not a substitute for history. No one should see the movie expecting to learn exactly what happened. But the film comes close enough to truth that I will not be unhappy if it is both a big success now and a video store staple for years to come, with youths in America and around the world getting from it their first impressions of what was probably the greatest international crisis in all of human experience.”

I would hope that the drama of the film would raise some key questions. How did it come to that point? And how did we avoid destroying ourselves? How can we avoid nuclear war?

Choices has produced curriculum resources for high school classrooms on The Cuban Missile Crisis that allow them to explore those questions in depth. The resources include printed materials that reflect the best scholarship and culminate in students reviewing primary sources and then recreating the debate in the ExComm about the U.S. response. They’ll see and advocate for the options Bobby Kennedy was shouting for in the movies. The resources also include a series of videos with Sergei Khrushchev, as well as Jim Blight and janet Lang, whose groundbreaking work on the crisis have made important contributions to what we know about how dangerous the crisis really was.

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