Students Are Bringing Up the Israel-Hamas War in Class. Here’s How Teachers Are Responding

By Lauraine Langreo — October 30, 2023 10 min read
Left: Protesters wave Israeli flags during a rally in support of Israel and against Hamas' attack on Oct. 9, 2023 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Right: Palestinian supporters chant as they march during a protest at Columbia University on Oct. 12, 2023, in New York.
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A handful of Benjamin Franklin High School students gathered in Cait Rohn’s classroom on a Tuesday afternoon in New Orleans, ready to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas with their peers and some social studies teachers. The war had started just 10 days before.

The school’s social studies department put together the after-school discussion after a parent asked an administrator what the school was doing to address the conflict. The teachers decided a small group setting would be best because “it would allow kids to be vulnerable and curious, and you could quickly get things back on track [if the conversation derailed],” said Rohn.

Some of the kids who showed up had strong connections to that region—two students specifically mentioned they were Jewish—while others were simply curious to learn more about the conflict, Rohn said. There are students of Palestinian descent in the school, Rohn added, but she said those who came chose not to share that family background.

As the seven students sat in a circle, the discussion began with the four teachers giving a brief review of the history of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, as well as different approaches, such as the two-state solution, that were tried to settle the decades-long conflict in the region and ease tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Eventually, students were encouraged to share their perspectives. Students who were comfortable speaking said they were disappointed in the actions of the leaders on both sides of the conflict “who are engaged in retaliation rather than solutions,” Rohn said.

“I think that they liked having a place to go where you could lay out pieces of the past without telling them what to think about it, because a lot of reporting is ‘why you should think that,’ or ‘why this should happen,’ but they just wanted a more holistic view of things,” Rohn said. “I think that they appreciated being in a space with other kids who were open to that, because it can be hard to let your guard down with somebody who is not willing to do the same thing.”

At the end of the discussion, each student could share a final thought if they chose. Half the kids passed, Rohn said, but those who spoke shared that the session wasn’t nearly as confrontational as they thought it would be and that they appreciated having a constructive discussion.

A difficult topic that affects some students personally

Right now, the Israeli-Hamas war is one of the most difficult topics to tackle in a K-12 classroom. It is emotionally charged, complex, and evolving. It can be especially challenging in schools and classrooms with a mix of Jewish and Muslim students.

It would be easy and less messy for teachers to ignore what is happening in Israel and Gaza. But educators like Rohn say that would be a big mistake.

To begin with, many students who are Jewish or Muslim likely hold strong beliefs about the conflict and will want to discuss it. Others will be curious about why the war is happening. Still others will want to know why, and to what extent, the United States is involved. Learning and talking about the conflict gives all of them the opportunity to become more knowledgeable and compassionate global citizens, experts say.

“For the students, you never know what parts of the world they’re going to end up living in,” said Bebi Davis, the 2023 Hawaii Assistant Principal of the Year and the vice principal at Kawānanakoa Middle School in Honolulu. “So it’s very important, it’s very critical that our students are learning how to be empathetic, while at the same time understanding different perspectives.”

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‘Supporting our students in becoming compassionate global citizens’

Educators were faced with a teaching challenge soon after Oct. 7, when Hamas militants crossed into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing civilians and kidnapping more than 200 people, including children and elderly Israelis. Since the Hamas attack, about 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, according to the Associated Press. Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip—home to 2 million Palestinians—since 2006, but the United States and dozens of other countries have designated it a terrorist organization.

Israel has responded with ongoing airstrikes in Gaza that, at the time of this reporting, have reportedly killed more than 8,300 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press. Israel initially blocked deliveries of food, water, and fuel to Gaza, and shut down its electricity, but has since allowed some humanitarian aid into the territory.

Nearly a week after the initial Hamas attack, Israel’s military ordered more than a million civilians living in northern Gaza to evacuate as it prepared its ground offensive. And over the weekend, Israel expanded its military assault deeper into the northern Gaza Strip, according to the Associated Press. Video released Monday by the Israeli military showed armored vehicles moving among buildings and soldiers taking positions inside a house. Hamas militants have continued firing rockets into Israel.

It’s the deadliest war in the region since the start of the long-running conflict and territorial dispute, according to the Associated Press.

In the United States, where there are hundreds of thousands of people with Palestinian or Israeli family connections, the war has prompted dueling protests on college campuses and in city streets. In Cherry Hill, N.J., a heated exchange between students broke out as a result of the Israel-Hamas war. U.S. Jews and Muslims have been outspoken about their fears of an increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks as a result of the war.

In some K-12 schools, educators are trying to help their students and communities process the ongoing conflict. Soon after the Oct. 7 attack, some school and district leaders across the country, from San Diego to New York City, released statements condemning Hamas and ensuring that schools would provide resources for students to process this international crisis.

“It is heartbreaking to see the devastating impact of terrorism on innocent civilians, especially our most vulnerable—children,” tweeted New York City schools’ Chancellor David C. Banks. He added that his district will be “providing resources to our schools to facilitate discussions about the conflict and supporting our students in being compassionate global citizens.”

But facilitating those discussions is not easy. And there are definitely wrong ways to do it. For instance, many educators said they try to avoid bringing their own biases into the conversation, saying who’s right or wrong, and starting conversations that might not be developmentally appropriate.

“Teachers are going to have to know what is appropriate for their students,” said Pam Brunskill, a senior manager of education design at the nonpartisan education nonprofit News Literacy Project. “Anything that is going to trigger unnecessary angst or fear is probably something you want to avoid. You would only include [graphic] images and information if it is crucial to your objective, and that all depends on what the students can handle.”

Andrea Clyne, the president of the National Association of School Psychologists, emphasizes that when talking about war or violence with children, educators must help students feel safe where they are and give them coping strategies for difficult emotions that might accompany their different levels of awareness of these events.

“It’s a good idea to let children’s questions guide the discussion somewhat,” said Clyne, who’s been a school psychologist for 31 years. “Certainly, we’d want to help provide factual information—separate fact from fantasy as children have a natural tendency to believe fantastical types of ideas. Providing brief, factual information can be helpful.”

These are tactics that many educators are already applying when discussing the Israel-Hamas war with their students, experts and educators say. Teachers mostly stick to the facts, giving students the historical background behind the conflict and letting students make their own conclusions. They also let students’ questions guide discussions.

“My students had a lot of questions and concerns”

Wesley Hedgepeth, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said that social studies teachers probably fit into one of three approaches when it comes to discussing ongoing conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas war: some teachers might want to discuss it but have limited time to stray from the content and standards they have to teach; some teachers have the flexibility to discuss the topic in their classrooms; and other teachers feel their hands are tied “because of vague laws that prevent discussion of divisive concepts.”

One of the classes Hedgepeth teaches at his school in Richmond, Va., is Advanced Placement U.S. Government. Though he said he’s given his students some credible resources they can use to learn more about the Israel-Hamas war, he “can’t really slow down,” he said. “I only have a semester to teach the [AP U.S. Government] curriculum.”

But for his world history class, Hedgepeth has more flexibility to connect the Israel-Hamas war to the class content and standards.

Students, he said, just completed the study of “gunpowder empires,” including the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of the Middle East region until its dissolution after World War I. “During that unit, I was able to show maps to give students an idea of where Gaza is, because almost none of them know, and link it back to Byzantine and Ottoman times,” he said.

Chris Dier, who teaches U.S. History at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans and is Rohn’s colleague, said he’s been setting aside time every day to talk with his students about the conflict.

“From the moment the attack happened, my students had a lot of questions and concerns,” said Dier, the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. “There was a sense of ‘why?’ among my students. They were curious as to why those attacks happened. What caused them? Why has Israel responded in the way that it has responded?”

At first, Dier gave his students the historical context of the conflict and reminded his students to “fact-check everything I’m saying, do their own research, and ensure they’re also understanding it from multiple perspectives.” Then it became an open forum, with parameters Dier set up to ensure respectful discourse.

“I do not allow personal attacks or offensive language,” he said. “Antisemitism and Islamophobia are never welcomed in my classroom. I encourage them to be empathetic, to take into consideration other perspectives, even if they disagree.”

In Jennifer Morgan’s 8th grade U.S. history class at West Salem Middle School in West Salem, Wis., students watch a current events program at the start of every class. Morgan then asks students to write a reflection on what they watched. Now that includes the Israel-Hamas war.

“They’re worried a lot about the kids their own age. What are they going through? Have they lost family? Things like that,” Morgan said. “I teach near a significant army base in Wisconsin. We had a lot of Afghani refugees here. Last year, we had a student move in from Ukraine. So they have a little experience [with war issues].”

For teachers of younger students, the topic might not come up at all. Stephanie Nichols, who teaches at Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham, Maine, said she hasn’t gotten any questions from her 2nd grade students, so she hasn’t brought up the conflict in the Middle East.

But if it does come up in elementary school classrooms, Clyne from the NASP emphasizes that it’s especially important to let young children’s questions guide the discussion when it comes to violent conflicts, “because otherwise, you may offer unnecessary details that are more frightening for the child.”

‘Misinformation flourishes in times of breaking news’

The biggest challenge for educators addressing a war that’s unfolding in real time at such a fast pace is sifting through the misinformation, especially on social media sites that are popular with students.

“Misinformation flourishes in times of breaking news, especially on social media,” Brunskill said. In breaking news events, “there’s going to be a lag in what’s happening and when it can be verified,” so it’s important for students and educators to be deliberate about their news consumption and to seek credible sources.

Dier’s students have brought in screenshots of social media posts they’ve seen and asked him whether the information is true or false. Sometimes, Dier has already seen the post and knows whether or not it’s real. Other times, he and his students analyze the source together.

“As a teacher, I want to be as objective as possible, and it’s difficult when the information we are receiving might not be accurate,” Dier said. “At some point, we have to be honest with students when we don’t know.”

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