How are students learning about war in Ukraine and Gaza? We asked a veteran social studies teacher

Russia Ukraine War troops
Ukrainian servicemen climb on a fighting vehicle outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022.
Vadim Ghirda | AP

Saturday marks two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. The Israel-Hamas war has been raging on for more than four months. So how are classrooms approaching these violent, longstanding current events?

Scott Glew teaches seventh-grade U.S. studies and eighth-grade global studies at Salk Middle School in Elk River. He’s also an Iraq war veteran and was named a Bush Fellow in 2017.

“These two wars have very much been in the news and something that we've engaged with as current events,” Glew said. “We also teach our units thematically… instead of teaching chronologically.”

In the “conflict and cooperation” unit, Glew and his peers teach students about the U.S. and NATO’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war. In the “movement of people” unit, they normally talk about migration, but now that lesson includes the forced displacement of refugees from Gaza and Ukraine.

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“We try to tie conflicts into the units that we're already teaching to help students see these bigger connections,” Glew said. “Something that tends to happen with wars is we demonstrate a lot of interest in them right away, and then they sort of fade into the background. And so we are trying to be very intentional about how we are sustaining interest in these wars, even as they go on now for two years in Ukraine.”

Glew says it was 9/11 that inspired him to join the Minnesota Army National Guard, which took him to the Middle East. Those eight years of military service “shaped a little bit more of how I feel about the consequences and gravity of what we teach in the classroom,” Glew said.

His goal now is to engage students’ critical thinking when it comes to war.

But also that “kids want to know that they're gonna be okay,” Glew said. “They're surrounded with so much violence in the world and even closer to home. They want to engage with ideas and options and solutions for a more peaceful future.”

It’s no secret teachers can play a major role in students’ lives as a source of information, clarification and validation. But that, coupled with tragic events, can take a toll on educators, too.

“I think it can be exhausting sometimes,” Glew said. “I think maybe that's unfair to [students] sometimes that we burden them with with these heavy tasks and topics. But it's the world that we live in. And I think when I feel exhausted, I think about the hope that my students give me, and that helps me a lot with it.”

Glew also believes his encouragement of students to think critically in school can help them continue asking questions outside the classroom.

“It's us and our kids that are going to work together, I think, to create a more peaceful future.”