How Do We Teach About War?

How Do We Teach About War?

Wednesday, I suddenly awoke at 3:43 AM, and my first thought was “How do I teach about war?”.

In a previous post, I discussed what it is like to teach refugees and children of refugees; however, teaching about war is an entirely different concept, and it is certainly a struggle. Most teachers are thinking about this question too, so I would like to share my perspective.

However, I want to also offer a disclaimer. I live in the United States, and most of my students are American this semester. I cannot truly appreciate how difficult it is to teach Ukrainian students right now, especially with the destruction surrounding them. My experience is not the experience of those living in war zones, and I am aware that, in many ways, my writing is from the perspective of an outsider. I sincerely feel for the teachers caught in this awful situation and am not trying to diminish their struggle in any way.

If you are a displaced Ukrainian teacher, consider applying to MyCoolClass through a simplified application process to stay connected to your students. MyCoolClass has instituted policies to help refugee students, including working with Ukrainian speaking volunteers and regional host families, and are creating a volunteer program to provide free supplemental education to displaced students. If you’re interested in more information, do not hesitate to contact [email protected].

All of that said, this was not an easy post for me to write, and I hope that it helps others.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Less than a month after I turned 18, I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I was a college freshman, and I had a week until my roommate arrived. Alone in an empty dorm room, reading that book was an experience I will never forget.

In middle school, I had been fascinated by World War II, and I owned a collection of books about Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and the impact of the war. However, I knew almost nothing about World War I. Apparently, that was common in the US at that time, which is why my World History II professor assigned the book.

I read All Quiet on the Western Front in two days, sitting, and standing in various parts of my room, pacing with the paperback in one hand and my face partially covered by the other. I was speechless during most of it, and I’m still speechless now.

My favorite passage from the book, the one that has never left my head, is this: “Kropp, on the other hand, is more philosophical. He reckons that all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music, like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner. That would be simpler and fairer than things are out here, where the wrong people are fighting each other.”

And I knew that if the leaders who ordered the wars had to fight the battles, there would be only peace.

My middle school and junior high school students have yet to read All Quiet on the Western Front, of course, but that’s the lesson I am attempting to teach right now. “It’s not the ordinary people,” I remind them. “You cannot blame an entire demographic for the bullying behavior of a handful of men.”

You cannot blame the victims.

Teaching American Students is a Unique Challenge

My generation watched the aftermath of 9/11 on every high school television. It is us who remember Thich Nhat Hanh pleading for restraint and our leaders having none. The actions of our government are ultimately what led to political disillusionment and apathy in this American generation. If the highest leaders in the world will act impulsively and lie, what faith should we have in any aspect of government? It damaged us in a way that is difficult to explain to other generations.

But my students are too young to know any of that. Most of them have not even learned about the Cold War yet, so their grandparents’ stories of hiding under desks make no sense to them. Stories are simply stories. Truthfully, American kids are lucky that they have not had to cope with an invasion or attack. Yet, they have their own terrible memory of chaos.

On January 6, 2021, I was teaching a 5th grade class when the news hit about the riot at the US Capitol. A student came to class and said, “Did you see what’s happening right now?” I hadn’t, so all I could do was assure them that adults would intervene and settle everything. I told them to have faith in the grown-ups.

That Capitol attack is the 9/11 of my American middle schoolers. More than 14 months later, they still bring it up with shudders, fear, and anger. It removed a sense of their security; if the Capitol isn’t safe, does safety exist at all?

So, I was not surprised when they started talking about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. In the first few days, it was easy to assure them that adults would handle adult problems. I told them it would be contained, and that people would find a way to peace.

After all, I reminded them, the Cold War stayed cold, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, and sometimes good things come out of horrific situations.

But it is becoming harder to reassure them. They are neither dumb nor oblivious, and they are scared. I–and I think so many teachers–want to protect them from too much information. They are already living through a pandemic and climate catastrophe; why must we add a war to this information overload?

And yet, they are the ones who will ultimately pay for the actions taken today.

It is their generation who will have to clean up the tangled geopolitical mess left from this event, regardless of the outcome. They are the ones who are feeling their safety and innocence crushed without warning.

And my heart aches for them.

All this leads me back to my 4 AM question: How do I teach war?

There’s a Reason We Teach the Past

In 6th grade, I asked my social studies teacher why we had to learn history. After all, it’s in the past. How does learning about Byzantine, Rome, or the World Wars have anything to do with my life?

He gave me the answer we should always give our kids: “Learning about the past helps us not repeat those mistakes in the future.”

There’s a reason that Rome fell, and the French Revolution (largely) succeeded. There’s a reason that the most common Independence Day holiday is secession from Britain. There’s a reason that so many countries fight civil wars. Every action cause reactions and understanding those reasons and reactions could theoretically prevent us from starting new wars.

Compassion begets compassion; hate begets hate. Perhaps knowledge begets peace.

My 6th graders are learning about ancient civilizations, and they complain often. They do not understand how Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt are relevant to their lives. Over the last few weeks, I have thought that if their teachers would connect the invasions of those civilizations to the Invasion of Ukraine, students would likely be more interested and appreciative of the curriculum.

Nevertheless, I don’t judge the history teachers, American or otherwise, because I suspect they are also waking up and thinking about how (or if) to teach war.

Designing Curriculum Based on Truth

I almost exclusively teach English, although that can take many forms. I certainly do teach a wide range of topics through the books I assign, but if I teach history, it’s a very selective version. Yes, we learn about Middle Eastern conflicts, marine life, immigration, mining, and a wide array of other subjects, but it is in the context of books and (mostly) planned lessons.

To be forced to teach history through current events is not something I ever expected, and I think that’s true for most teachers.

One of the most enjoyable and difficult aspects of being a self-employed teacher is planning. I literally spend hundreds of hours each year thinking, researching, and sculpting curriculum. I try to teach what I know students will need later. For example, kids are more likely to need to know about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than they are to understand a (arguably racist) story about a fictional journey down the Mississippi River.

Thanks to joining MyCoolClass, and soon leaving my current teaching platform, I am once again redesigning curriculum. For example, my previous platform dissuaded me from teaching Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Eli Wiesel’s Night; MyCoolClass would never censor books that are so essential.

And with the new freedom to teach what I want, my brain constantly thinks about how to teach a culturally balanced, inclusive, globally relevant curriculum based on truth, facts, and reality. How much do I shelter students? How much do I focus on American conflicts in a global sense? How much do I teach history versus current events? What will my students need to know most?

Honestly, my primary goal in teaching is to create empathetic, compassionate, healthy adults. Their career and academic paths do not matter to me. All that matters is that they can see different perspectives and feel for both their neighbors and strangers.

If that seems like a ridiculously high expectation, you should know that this is the kind of thought that goes into being a self-employed teacher.

Teaching the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict to 8th Graders

Last year, I taught Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree: Young Readers’ Edition to 8th grade students. It is a true story about the complicated friendship between an Israeli woman and Palestinian man between the 1960s and early-2000s. It is an emotionally laborious book to read and perhaps a more arduous book to teach. It will stay with me forever, and I suspect my students feel the same way.

Some of the students knew nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but most of them knew fragments of information. They all left with a very different perspective of hate. Tolan shows the Six Day War and other aspects of the conflict from both sides, and he does not hold back the truth. The book discusses bombings, torture, exile, and bigotry in open language.

Teaching it was a constant balance. I had to ensure that students understood that the actions of a country’s government did not represent the actions or opinions of its citizens. Additionally, the terrible choices by one person does not represent the beliefs of an entire demographic.

I never could have predicted that I would be teaching that lesson again only a few months later.

At 5 AM, I Was Looking at Books

Unable to go back to sleep, I began to scribble notes on a legal pad in the dark. I refused to turn on any lights, convinced that I could return to sleep as soon as I jotted down my thoughts.

But at 5 AM, I was sitting on the floor, flipping through pages of all the middle grade and young adult books I have about wars, conflicts, invasions, and revolutions.

Over the winter break, I bought nearly three dozen books, convinced that I would have time to read them. Yet, they remain stacked on the TV stand in my living room. Marc Aronson–my favorite middle grade nonfiction author–and Steve Sheikin are both well-represented in that stack, along with a handful of others.

I have multiple books about specific American conflicts and heroes, which are unlikely to be helpful to international students, and a nonfiction book about the marines who planted the flag on Iwo Jima. I have Aronson’s books about Sir Walter Raleigh and a global perspective about the American Revolution.

My American kids could absolutely benefit from seeing their history through a global lens, helping them appreciate the actions of their country in a broader sense. Teaching about Raleigh could give me the opportunity to show multiple sides. Despite being beloved by some, he was still invading land that was already inhabited, and that is certainly aside to the story that students should know. Lesson plans began to develop in my head.

An hour later, while I was forcing myself back to sleep, I was still thinking of Raleigh. Yes, there is a benefit to teaching him, but is that really enough? Is that the social studies book I should choose for my students who honestly could use a better education about wars and Eastern European history?

So, no, I decided. As much as I love Aronson, Raleigh is not relevant enough for me to designate a month to teach him. I’ll need to find something else.

With that decision, I began to think of Sheikin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Perhaps obviously, it is an adolescent nonfiction book about the creation of the nuclear bomb. I have not read it yet, but many of my kids have, and they give mostly positive reviews.

“If chemistry teachers are teaching about sarin gas and napalm, you should be teaching about the deadliest weapon, right?” I asked myself at 6 AM. Despite America being the only country to use the bomb, it is certainly globally relevant, and it is perhaps more pertinent now than it was when the book was published in 2012.

Yet, a few months ago, two of my students were heartbroken when they found out about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They knew that World War II had many casualties, and they knew about the concentration camps. Still, somehow, the idea that a country could drop two bombs that it knew would create catastrophic damage was too much for them. It seemed like a behavior that was detached from reality, an action more savage and unjust than could ever be described.

However, that was their reaction before the Russian Invasion. The shock my students experienced last year is gone. Now, they have a twisted appreciation for the atrocities in the world in which they live.

So, do I teach the horrors of the past, the horrors of the present, or no horrors at all? Do I have an even greater responsibility to teach hope, comfort, and optimism? How do I find balance? For that matter, is balance even possible?

To My Fellow Teachers: How Do We Teach about War?

I would like to say that there is no answer to this question; that would allow me to walk away from it and sleep through the night. However, not only do I know that is not true, I know that (at least for me) not to think about these things would feel selfish. If it truly is my responsibility to equip the next generation with the tools to survive in a world full of trepidation, this is a question that deserves a legitimate answer.

Right now, my answer is “honestly”. When kids ask questions, they deserve answers. I can teach them to fact-check and to think critically. To that end, current news, historical propaganda, and text analysis will all feature in the upcoming curriculum. I can help kids analyze the truths and lies around them and draw their own conclusions.

In fact, language teachers are at an advantage in this scenario. We teach students how to read what others publish and how to use writing to express themselves.

Teaching them to fight hate with words and independent thoughts? That’s a good start.

To Concerned Families: Find a Teacher to Help

Although I believe that a solid education begins at home, teachers can help families answer tough questions. In addition to history teachers, MyCoolClass has educators who specialize in cultural studies, political science, economics, and geography. Additionally, members teach more than a dozen languages, including Ukrainian and Russian.

If your learner is wanting to better understand this geopolitical crisis, consider connecting with a teacher or registering for a demo lesson. Just like me, that teacher is likely to have spent considerable time debating how to properly teach these struggles. They can help.


I was writing about the students’ reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I had to pause for a few hours to teach classes. It was a strange transition to set aside the feelings brought on by this post and display the exuberance necessary to keep my sixth and eighth graders engaged. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach thinking about how difficult it would be to keep up this energy and positivity if I were teaching in a war zone.

It is impossible for me to express the respect and admiration I feel for Eastern European teachers and students right now. There is a special bond between teachers, and my heart is with you all.

In Marc Aronson’s book Trapped, which my 6th graders read, Aronson gives a thought about hope: “Hope–it is such a frail word. Hope offers nothing concrete, no plan, no schedule, just a wish, a prayer, a belief–it flickers on and then flickers off. And when it goes, the blank darkness, the icy silence is easily filled with rage…”. My students spend half an hour dissecting this quote, and their observations are always inspiring.

Hope conquers darkness, silence, and rage. Critical analysis conquers deception. Empathy conquers hate. Honesty conquers fear.

So, how will I teach war? Critically, Empathetically and honestly.

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