'Teachable moments': How history teachers are bringing war in Ukraine into suburban classrooms

As live history unfolds in Ukraine, high school social studies teachers in the suburbs are adjusting lesson plans on the fly to help their students make sense of it all.

And when the name of your class is Modern Conflict, Insurgency and Terrorism - a senior elective at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora - a war taking place half a world away provides the lesson that an old history book can't.

Class instructor Lee Eysturlid, who holds a doctorate in military history, pulled his slideshow from 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, just as Russian troops were again invading Ukraine three weeks ago.

“It was funny, some of the stuff was almost an exact repeat,” Eysturlid said.

Lee Eysturlid

Many of his students at the residential program for gifted students grades 10-12 tend not to know much about the complexities of international affairs and warfare coming in, often getting information of varying credibility from social media.

“They don't know anything about it,” Eysturlid said of the Ukraine crisis. “Nobody does. But they do now. ... People forget, 17- or 18-year-olds don't know as much as they need to know, but when you were 17, you wouldn't have known this, either.”

By way of class lectures, discussions, activities, readings, papers and projects, social studies instructors like Eysturlid are trying to inform and educate their students, all of whom were born after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For instance, Eysturlid had his students do a reading of historian Geoffrey Blainey's seven causes of war, then posed the question: Assuming you know what Vladimir Putin is thinking, what would be his decision process about going to war?

“Even if we're reading this as a general reading, I was using the immediate event to make use of it,” said Eysturlid, who sits on the board of the Illinois Council for History Education.

That panel of educational professionals has a similar mission as the Illinois Council for the Social Studies. Both organizations aim to enhance their subjects and support their inclusion in school curricula.

Jerome Hoynes

The latter group's president-elect, Jerome Hoynes, a social studies teacher at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, has been hosting U.N. Security Council simulations in his classes that require students to research and role-play. Now taking on the war in Ukraine, Hoynes' model U.N. also addressed the pandemic in real time and how countries should respond to it.

“It's been very helpful for them to engage in investigation into the issues and problems and to simulate the roles of various participants,” said Hoynes, the former elected clerk of New Trier Township. “While it's tragic, these are the kind of teachable moments where social studies teachers can really step in and help students process and understand, and we give them an opportunity to ask questions and learn about the background.”

Helping kids understand the current situation, giving them the historical background and context, and providing the forum for asking questions are recommendations Aaron Phillips, the social studies department chairman at Schaumburg High School, gives to his fellow faculty members.

Aaron Phillips

Depending on the class, some teachers put more or less emphasis on current events, though there's nothing in the curriculum that requires it, Phillips said. Still, he said, it's important to answer students' questions about the unfolding events in Ukraine.

Some of their concerns of late have had to do with an escalation of war and how it would affect them.

“For the most part, we try to stay within the context of the curriculum,” Phillips said. “This type of event works well for government and world affairs (classes). But I encourage teachers, if students have questions, to take time in a moment. To pass it up and say it doesn't fit in my curriculum at this point I don't think is a good approach.”

“If students are asking questions about a current event and it takes the whole 50 minutes, it may be more important than something that took place 200 years ago,” he said.

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