Teaching Syria to 6th graders

My friend Mike Harris teaches sixth grade social studies in Chapel Hill, and he’s decided to put his regularly scheduled lessons on pause to help his students get a handle on what’s going on in Syria, and why they US may send cruise missiles into that country in a few weeks.

One of Mike’s colleagues wrote, in an email thread, that he 

will probably do something on Syria/US on Tuesday.  Part of the problem is that Syria is so complicated and it seems like it would take days just to lay down the basics – where to start with sixth graders?! 

Great question!  The answer will depend on who your sixth graders are, and what they know already, so a great starting place is to ask them. More than 100,000 people have died in the civil war that has been raging in Syria for the past two years, so it’s possible that a student you teach has a relative who has died or been injured, or who knows someone who has died or been injured.

Once you find out whether this is a raw issue for some students, I’d start with some basics — where is Syria? How did the Assad family come to power?

I might ask students why they think he ran unopposed in the elections in 2000 and 2007.  That leads nicely into why there’s a group called the Free Syrian Army that has been protesting against Assad’s rule — Assad’s attempts to put down those protests is what led to the current civil war.

For now, the key, I think, is to explain that a civil war has been going on for more than two years — here are two paragraphs from the Wikipedia article about the Syrian civil war

The Syrian civil war, also known as Syrian uprising[51] or Syrian crisis(Arabic: الأزمة السورية‎),[52][53][54] is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between forces loyal to the Ba’ath government and those seeking to oust it. The conflict began on 15 March 2011, with popular demonstrations that grew nationwide by April 2011. These demonstrations were part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded the resignation ofPresident Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, as well as the end of Ba’ath Party rule, which began in 1963.

* * *

In June 2013, the death toll surpassed 100,000 according to the United Nations. According to various opposition activist groups, between 80,350 and 106,425 people have been killed, of which about half were civilians,[66] but also including 65,100 armed combatants consisting of both the Syrian Army and rebel forces,[24] up to 1,000 opposition protesters[33] and 1,000 government officials.[25] By October 2012, up to 28,000 people had been reported missing, including civilians forcibly abducted by government troops or government security forces.[67] According to the UN, about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 1.8 million have fled to other countries.[68][69]

Okay, so why is this such big news now, since the war has been going on for more than two years?  Well, on August 21, President Assad — we’re pretty sure — used chemical weapons on his own people, killing 1,429 people, according to Secretary of State John Kerry (talk with students about what a Secretary of State does).

President Obama, the Commander in Chief of the US military, has ordered ships into the Mediterranean Sea and a few days ago, it looked like he was planning to attack Syria, as a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons:

obama syria


But then, he decided to seek the approval of Congress.

obama syria2

Now would be a great time to introduce sixth grade students to Congress — 435 members in the House and 100 in the Senate — have students learn who represents them in Congress and see if those members have made it clear how they might vote on an authorization of use of force against Syria).

Depending on how “into” this discussion students get, you could look at Britain and how its Parliament voted against intervention in Syria, leaving the US in a tough position.

See what questions students have and make it a collaborative exploration.

I’ve just set up a shared Google Doc where teachers can have pose questions or comments that come up as their students engage with Syria.  I’ll check in daily to respond to what they write — this way Mike and any of his colleagues who choose to share what they are learning can have a common place to visit, and can learn from each others’ questions.

We’ll see where this goes…


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Teaching Syria to 6th graders

  1. heather garrett says:

    such an excellent post!

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