Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


 
I began my class like I always do – with a question


 
“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.  


 
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.  


 
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.  


 
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.  


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


 
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints. 


 
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing. 


 
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care. 


 
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.  


 
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.  


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


 
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.  


 
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.  


 
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” 


 
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.  


 
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world. 


 
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.  


 
Tennyson writes


 
“Theirs not to make reply, 
   Theirs not to reason why, 
   Theirs but to do and die.” 


 
And after the result is graphically portrayed, the speaker extols their virtue: 


 
“When can their glory fade? 
O the wild charge they made! 
   All the world wondered. 
Honour the charge they made! 
Honour the Light Brigade, 
   Noble six hundred!” 


 
So I ask my students what they think about it. Is it a soldier’s duty to follow orders no matter what? Should they question those orders?  


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


 
And then I present them with an 80s heavy metal video by Iron Maiden of the song “The Trooper.”

 
 
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field. 


 
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.  


 
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.  


 
I certainly have my own opinions on the matter, but I keep them to myself.  


 
The way I see it, this isn’t the time for me to insert my opinion into the class. It’s an opportunity for my students to think through the problem, themselves.  


 
And, frankly, that’s really the point of most of school.  


 
It’s not the transmission of knowledge. Teachers can’t magic information into children’s heads.  


 
Instead, we provide opportunities to learn. We encourage students to think. We’re more like gardeners than anything else. We water, we weed, we make sure the soil is fertile. But it is up to the child to grow and in which direction to strive.  


 
That’s why far right scare mongers are so ignorant and absurd when they try to constrain teachers from teaching about history or racism.  


 
These campaigns are not aimed at educators. They are aimed at students.  


 
The goal is to offer children only one path in which to grow.  


 
They want to stifle thought, stifle free expression, stifle intellectual freedom by removing the option to think.  


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


 
It may not be as dramatic as Putin invading. “Shot and shell” may not be flying. But the forces of fascism are equally at work on the minds of our children.  


 
In teaching about the war in Europe, educators are waging a battle against the war at home. 

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

12 thoughts on “Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

  1. When I was in the classroom back in the day, there was a common expression – “It’s just good teaching” – meaning that something we might be doing for a particular reason or student population was also the best way to teach in general. As I read this, having read many of your previous blogs, all I can think is, “This is what an excellent teacher does.” It is shameful that our country would rather have machines teach our children than cultivate excellent teachers like yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Beth. Your comments are much appreciated. Obviously, I agree, and I think most teachers are doing things like this in classrooms throughout the country. That’s why self-proclaimed culture warriors are up in arms to stop us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. By 1991, when the first Bush launched the First Gulf War, I’d been teaching for 16 years. In 1989, I transferred from a Middle School in the same district to a high school so I was teaching 9th graders in 91.

    Back then, teachers didn’t have fascists and freaks watching over our shoulders trying to control what we taught and said. Some of my students had brothers and serving in the first Gulf War. As a former US Marine and combat vet, I decided not to change the lessons I was planning unless my students expressed interest in what was happening in the Gulf.

    That didn’t take long. One of my female students waited until after class one day to ask me what it was like in combat. Her older brother was a Marine and was there, in the Gulf on the ground.

    I told her, let’s talk about it in class tomorrow.

    So, the next day, i set aside the lessons I was teaching in every class and started that discussion focused on her brother. There were lots of questions during that discussion. My students knew i was a combat vet and they wanted to know what it was like. The only question I wouldn’t answer was how many I’d killed. I told them that was something I wasn’t gong to talk about. I said if I talk about that, it would sort of sound like bragging and killing people, even people shooting at you, shouldn’t be that.

    Then one kid asked, “Can we write letters to our guys over there?”

    And that launched a five week off-and-on writing assignment, those letters to our troops fighting over there. I don’t remember all the details but before mailing a letter, kids were free to share or not share what they were writing and report back if they got replied.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great. Reminds me of why I miss teaching. I can relate to using music in class to connect ideas for kids. If I could teach today, I’d used Hero of War by Rise Against. It’s too bad too many teachers are constricted from being creatively effective like this.

    Like

  4. I also taught this last week. Paired it with, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Of course we discussed Ukraine. I need to look up the Hero of War song. I’m glad you are doing what you’re doing, and it’s fortifying to me hearing you and others are resolved to providing education that meets the needs of the students, and meets the needs of the times.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.