Why Some Teachers Have Students Studying Zelensky’s Speech to Congress

By Sarah Schwartz — March 16, 2022 4 min read
Members of Congress give Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center Congressional Auditorium in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
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When Ruth Squillace saw that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had addressed the U.S. Congress Wednesday morning, she knew that she wanted to talk about it with her students. But she also knew she wasn’t going to put it up on the screen right away.

In the speech, delivered virtually, Zelensky made an emotional plea for U.S. assistance in combatting the Russian invasion, invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11. He asked for the United States to declare a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace, to send military support, and to impose new sanctions on Russia.

His remarks ended with a compilation of video footage from the war, showing graphic images of bombings, injured people, and bodies in graves.

Squillace teaches seniors in her social studies classes at Shoreham-Wading River High School in Shoreham, N.Y., and they have already had conversations over the past few weeks about the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. But even though her students are older and relatively well-informed, Squillace wanted to be thoughtful about how she approached the speech and its distressing imagery with them.

“I’m not somebody who would have done it in real time,” Squillace said of showing the speech.

This dilemma, of how and when to discuss painful or traumatic events in class, has become more complex for teachers over the past few years.

Teachers have heard students’ fears about the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve talked to their classes about the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against racism and police brutality. And they helped students understand the facts when thousands of people stormed the Capitol in January of last year.

When these kinds of events happen, Squillace said, teachers need time to process and decide how they can approach them in a way that’s comprehensible and helpful for students. “The older you get, the more experienced you get in education, the more you realize that you have to take a beat, to give a moment’s pause,” said Squillace, who is in her 24th year of teaching.

She keeps providing updates on Ukraine in her class because she believes it’s important for her students to stay informed and not “emotionally detached” from the wider world. But doing that while also attending to students’ mental health is a delicate balance, especially as teenagers are still dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

“The mental health crisis is real, and the anxiety we are witnessing in our students is real,” Squillace said. “We have to be mindful that this crisis, this international crisis, is coming on the heels of another crisis that they felt so intimately.”

Analyze the rhetoric, make historical connections

Squillace said she’s not planning to show her students the video footage of the invasion that was featured during the speech. Anton Schulzki, an International Baccalaureate history teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., said he likely wouldn’t do so either.

“We know why [Zelensky] chose to show that; it was clearly impactful for the adults who watched it. … But even high school students could have visceral reactions to the images,” said Schulzki, who is also the president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“This is where teachers have to know their students, have to know school policy on how they would show those types of videos,” he said.

Instead, Squillace plans to talk about why Zelensky showed the footage he did, and why he made comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. “There is rhetoric here,” Squillace said. “Zelensky is going to provide a narrative,” she said, in attempts to convince the United States to impose a no-fly zone.

She’ll ask her students to read and annotate the transcript, pulling out Zelensky’s objectives. She thinks that they’ll identify that he was “pulling on American heartstrings” by comparing what’s going on in Ukraine to past attacks on the United States, and showing emotional footage to move lawmakers.

This focus on analyzing persuasive communication could work across different subjects, said Schulzki. “You could talk about how politicians communicate with the public, how they get their message across.”

Teachers could also analyze the speech with their students from a historical and civic perspective, said Andy Blackadar, the director of curriculum development for the Choices Program, a history and current events curriculum and professional development organization affiliated with Brown University.

“This is a chance for teachers to review with students: What does Congress have the power to do here? Who has the power to deploy U.S. military forces? What are the processes of government?” Blackadar said.

There are historical examples of leaders of foreign countries addressing a joint session of Congress that students can examine, too, said Schulzki, noting that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke to lawmakers in December 1941, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In order to make these connections and process world events in real time, teachers need to have some flexibility in their lesson planning, Schulzki said. He raised concerns that recently proposed legislation in at least 10 states, which would require teachers to post curricular plans in advance, could hamper this kind of instruction.

“If we limit those discussions, then we do our students a disservice,” he said. “I think the worst thing we could do is limit those conversations.”

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