Update: Since the publication of this story, Russia invaded Ukraine.
In Rhonda Coombs’ 9th grade world geography class, the Russia-Ukraine border crisis has been a big topic of conversation over the past few weeks.
Coombs, who teaches at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Mont., assigned her students to analyze news coverage of the conflict, asking them to make at least one connection to previous lessons.
Some wrote about NATO and the history of military alliances, others explored the idea of international borders, and a few made links back to the fall of the Soviet Union. And they raised important questions, too, that are playing out in real time, such as: Why would Russia send troops to the Ukraine border, if it’s saying it’s not going to invade?
The conflict grabbed students’ interest, and kids left Coombs’ class with “enough knowledge to care,” she said. “They can keep a pulse on this situation and wonder what the U.S. is going to do, and then form an opinion thereafter.”
The lesson was a hit. Even so, Coombs acknowledges that classes like hers may be more of the exception than the rule. Just over half of all states require a world history or geography course for graduation, according to the Education Commission of the States. But even within those classes, Coombs said, teachers often choose to avoid discussing current international events.
“It’s kind of scary because it’s fluid,” she said. Discussing world affairs, and the United States’ role in them, requires both historical knowledge and the ability to stay on top of shifting news.
With Russian troops arrayed at the border of Ukraine, and President Joe Biden promising sanctions if Russia invades, teachers may find themselves fielding the same questions that students ask when international conflicts, war, or humanitarian crises make the news: Why is this happening? And why is—or why isn’t—the U.S. involved?
“The crisis is a great opportunity for teachers to do a few things. One is to explain: Something that’s happening across the world in Europe, why does this matter to some young person in the United States, or to the United States?” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on international relations and foreign policy. The group also publishes curriculum and simulation resources for high school and college educators.
“In order to be an informed citizen, one needs to be globally literate. One needs to understand why the world matters, how it works, how foreign policy affects the world,” Haass said.
But international relations are notoriously hard to teach.
“The vast majority of teachers don’t consider themselves subject matter experts in the area of global issues or foreign policy. And the reason is that it falls between two of the subjects that we usually teach,” said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer at iCivics, a nonprofit that promotes civics education and provides educational resources for teachers.
On one side of that gap is world history, where most teachers start in antiquity and might never make their way to the 20th century, let alone current events, Humphries said. On the other side are American government teachers, who may cover the United States’ actions in the wider world, but are mostly focused on teaching the systems and structures of this country.
International relations is also inescapably political, a fact that can discourage teachers from taking it on—especially now, as some states have placed restrictions on how teachers can broach issues that may be seen as “controversial.”
Discussing American involvement in foreign wars, humanitarian crises, and other conflicts raises big, thorny questions: When and how should the United States intervene in global conflicts? Why does the government intervene in some instances, but not in others?
“Teachers are worried that it’s controversial to talk about U.S. military engagement, or that it’s somehow unpatriotic,” said Jody Sokolower, the co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project at the Middle East Children’s Alliance. Sokolower, a former managing editor at Rethinking Schools, also edited Teaching About the Wars, that organization’s guide to teaching about the Iraq war and U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Posing nuanced questions and asking students to evaluate different sources to develop their own answers can be a path forward, said Humphries.
“Really reasonable and intelligent people disagree on this, and this disagreement goes back through our history,” she said.
Teachers build a foundation for international studies with context, diverse viewpoints
Getting to these lofty questions about the United States’ role in the world requires background and context, teachers say.
Before Coombs’ class ever talked about the Ukraine-Russia border crisis, they had learned about the Soviet Union, NATO, and the European Union. Now, they’re moving into another unit, and Coombs is laying the groundwork for students to take on the roles of members of the White House National Security Council, in a simulation of discussions about the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, and its insurgency in Nigeria.
The simulation, part of an educational resource called Model Diplomacy developed by the Council on Foreign Relations, is geared toward older high school and college students. But Coombs said her 9th graders can take it on with the right scaffolding. She built up students’ knowledge systematically, focusing first on colonialism in Africa, then the Nigerian independence movement.
It’s not just world history or geography teachers who can prepare students to analyze international affairs. There’s a way to do it in U.S. government class, too, said Humphries.
“If I’m a government teacher right now, I’m teaching about Ukraine-Russia from an institutional perspective,” she said. Humphries said she would explain the U.S. Senate’s role, and why a delegation of senators traveled to Ukraine in January. She would talk about the evolution of presidential powers in the United States, she said, and why Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, limiting the President’s ability to engage in armed conflict without a declaration of war by Congress.
Sokolower said that building students’ ability to understand the U.S. role in the world today also involves “taking an honest look at U.S. history.”
“Textbooks, U.S. history and world history textbooks, tend to paint a very rosy picture—as though U.S. involvement is always for altruistic reasons, or that we’re always on the right side—and that often isn’t true, or it’s much more complicated,” Sokolower said.
Bringing in voices from other countries is essential, said Anton Schulzki, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, and an International Baccalaureate history teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Schulzki teaches the IB course History of the Americas, in which he covers the history of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “We try to talk about different viewpoints,” he said. “How do Mexican historians look at the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, and how does that begin to explain the current relationship between the two countries?”
“It’s not just the history of Manifest Destiny,” he added.
Sokolower said it’s important to hear the voices of everyday people, too. Her recent book, Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village, collects testimonies from residents of the Palestinian village Silwan and is written for young people.
“Traditionally, history is taught in terms of kings and presidents and military leaders,” Sokolower said. “And if you look at history in terms of who are the people and who are the movements, what were the issues that they were confronting and how were they trying to fight for more freedom, it really casts things in a different light.”
Prompting students to ask: ‘What should be our priorities?’
Still, it can be hard for students to think about international conflicts, and the United States’ role in them, without bringing in their pre-existing opinions about U.S. leaders and politics, Humphries said.
“What you don’t want students doing is evaluating current presidential actions based on their opinion of the President,” she said. Humphries, who used to be a classroom teacher, shared one activity she did to get around this issue.
She would write summaries of decisions that past presidents made regarding U.S. military involvement or other interventions in international conflicts, but without any identifying details that could give away who the president was or what historical event she was referencing.
Then, she’d ask students to discuss the unnamed president’s actions: Were they acting within the outlines of executive power? Did they make the right decision?
Eventually, students and teachers can get to complex, weighty questions about the U.S. role in the world, Humphries said.
Questions like: “When the U.S. promotes a global market and ideals of democracy and justice, are we projecting our self-interests or our ideals—or both—and are we improving global interests and justice?”
This question, specifically, is posed as part of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, a new set of guidelines for social studies education released last year. It was developed by a national panel of dozens of academics, educators, and civic nonprofit leaders.
One of the roadmap’s seven central themes is “A People in the World,” and it offers key concepts and driving questions that ask, among other things, what role the U.S. should play on the world stage.
Getting students to this place where they can wrestle with these questions of foreign policy is a process, said Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The sequence is first to get them to understand why this matters, why it’s important, why it might affect their lives,” he said.
“Once you absorb that, either in principle or specifically, you can go on to: What are the options? What are the potential tools? What should be our priorities? What costs should we be willing to pay?”