One of the challenges of teaching about important current events is making it relevant for young students. Here at Schutz American school, our middle school Connect class focuses on global citizenship and service learning. In our recent unit on Syrian refugees, we relied on live testimony from development professionals, journalists and refugees to help humanize the story for our students. We began the unit with a multimedia overview of the crisis, using news footage, infographics, drone footage of Homs, as well as a great online comic from Symbolia magazine.
We then conducted a live Skype call with the Syrian Director of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who happened to be from Alexandria as well. Before the call, students had completed an assignment based on the work of UNDP in Syria and had prepared questions to ask him; they were fascinated to hear his eyewitness accounts and look out the window of his office in Damascus.
We then focused our attention on the plight of those Syrians that are fleeing their country. Our next guest was an American photo-journalist whose photos and videos have appeared on Quartz.com and National Geographic. Known for his immersive reporting, he has followed Syrian refugees on their journeys to Europe. Hearing his dramatic stories of crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a raft with fifty refugees and learning of the hardships - and joys - they experience along the way was indeed eye-opening!
Next ,we studied the important work of United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and welcomed a local refugee worker from UNHCR office to come speak to us. She explained the harsh realities Syrian refugees face and how UNHCR deals with these challenges, but it wasn’t until our two Syrian refugee guests stepped forward to speak that the reality hit home. Listening to these women’s painful stories about losing family members and fleeing for their life personalized the crisis for our students; hearing about the support group these courageous women have started for other refugees inspired them.
Students completed a refugee diary assignment, which helped them internalize their learning as they imagined what their lives would be like if they too were forced to feel warfare. To complement our learning, we also wanted to improve the living conditions for the Syrian refugees in our city. When our students learned how many of the local refugees are children, they proposed launching a school-wide toy drive. We divided our students into small teams that created public awareness posters and then visited different classrooms (grades 1 - 12) in order to explain why Syrian refugees have settled in our city and how to help. This allowed our middle schoolers to shift from being merely “students” to “reporter-activists.” In the next month, we collected hundreds of toys which we then delivered to the child outreach project at our local UNHCR office.
The format of our Syrian refugee unit aligns with the objectives of our Connect class: 1) learn the background information about the issue; 2) seek other viewpoints to gain empathy; 3) research effective organizations that are effectively addressing the situation and 4) work together to provide assistance. Beyond that, by speaking with professional development workers and journalists, students learned about the exciting realm of international development and got a glimpse into the lifestyle of exciting new professions. It’s wonderful when a learning unit not only increases students’ learning, but also helps the community. Learn, collaborate, empathize and make a difference: the four components of a successful service learning project.