Former Duluth teacher shares tips on talking to students about Israel-Hamas War

a woman poses for a photo
Duluth-based Sharon McMahon is known as "America's history teacher" due to her viral Instagram account, @SharonSaysSo, where she debunks myths and shares facts about how government works. Fellow teachers have been reaching out to her lately for advice on how to talk to their students about the Israel-Hamas War. 
Courtesy Sharon McMahon

As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens, high school students are showing support for Palestinians by walking out of their classrooms. Students at Washburn High School in Minneapolis carried out a walk out yesterday, and last week Edina High School students protested in the same way. 

“Students really tend to care deeply about social justice issues,” said Sharon McMahon, a former high school teacher in Duluth who now uses social media to combat misinformation. “And this is one that is causing a lot of polarization and a lot of division.”

McMahon is known as America’s government teacher, and fellow teachers have been reaching out to her lately for advice on how to talk to their students about the Israel-Hamas War.   

“I'm hearing a lot of how challenging this topic is to navigate with our students, because they are very, very concerned with number one, acknowledging the absolutely real loss of life,” she said. “Teachers are wanting to acknowledge that and acknowledge that this is weighing heavily on students. But one of the most challenging aspects of this is how divisive this issue is. This is not segmented just to students. This is happening in the public at large.”

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She offers this advice for how to handle conversations in the classroom: 

“I always like to say that people are not their governments. We can criticize a government,” she said. “That's all legitimate free-speech critique. But it's an important thing to remember that we cannot just blanket make assumptions about all Palestinians, or all Israelis, or all Jews or all Muslims. That is a slippery slope into dehumanization. And that is a path that has never led anybody to a place they want to end up.”

One of the challenges is the lack of curriculum. “The current curriculum nationwide does not focus on Middle East history,” McMahon said. “Do students have a background in what the conflict is in this area? No, no, they do not.” 

And, McMahon acknowledged, it’s nearly impossible to distill thousands of years of history into understandable short lessons in real-time. But, she added, you don’t necessarily need to understand the whole history of a region to have a nuanced perspective.

“To me, it always goes back to a couple of things,” she said. “One is refusing to dehumanize another group, because that is what anti-Semitism or Islamophobia or any form of racism – that's what it is. It's dehumanizing a group, making them ‘less than’ in your mind, so that you have justification for disliking them. The second thing is to create a safe learning environment for all students.”

How do you do that?

If a teacher hears an anti-Semitic comment or an Islamophobic comment, instead of getting into a power struggle with a student, McMahon recommends teachers reframe it from the perspective of “it is my job to create a safe learning environment for everyone in this classroom, including you.”

McMahon also advocates for preparing children rather than protecting them. 

“There is always an age-appropriate conversation to be had,” she said. “We need to prepare them on how to understand these kinds of conflicts. We need to prepare them for the realities of war. And when we're talking about younger grades, the balance tips a little bit more in the area of protecting them, while still offering some preparation for what they might hear from their friends in the lunchroom.”