Back in February, I started following Andy Carvin on Twitter and for the first time since my initiation to tweeting in November 2011, I experienced the power of social media journalism. “Primary Source Documents” took on a whole new meaning and my heart ached as I read retweet after retweet from people on the ground, reporting from the attacks on Homs, Syria. I believe it is part of the human experience to feel pain when we hear of peoples’ tragedy, but it is more profound when it is people with whom you have personally connected. In the same way that we can be guilty of stereotyping people for negative actions, a group of people can also represent a warm memory. For me, this was such an experience. My time in Syria in June 2009 made me fall in love with a country; not its government and not every person, but the people I met and the history I walked invited me to experience the charms of a nation I had known little about. In February 2012, I felt clammy and short of breath, as I lay on my comfortable couch, in my safe home, reading the second by second bloodbath that was going on in a distant place that felt so very close to my heart. I wanted to stop it. I wanted to do something.
The tricky part of action is figuring out what action is most meaningful and effective. That involves a careful weighing of consequences and a sort of cost-benefit analysis. Yelling too loudly can deafen people’s ears and falling silent can align us with the problem. How could I make a difference for the civilians caught in this violence? What were my options? I wasn’t going to fly to Syria and join the rebels: cross that off. Letter campaigns, maybe. Write a letter, sign a petition: yes. And, oh, there’s that thing I do everyday; I teach. Yes, teaching people about Syria and getting people to talk about it is an option.
At the same time, my responsibility as a citizen of the world and my responsibility as a classroom teacher gave me pause. To encourage critical thinking, I gravitate towards teaching conflicts so that students can analyze differing perspectives; though I am also very conscious not to communicate personal positions to my students or leave them thinking that there is one right answer. I want them to find the grey area and be comfortable seeing multiple sides. But when is it the time to teach middle ground and when is it time to teach students to speak up?
In hindsight, most of us can agree on points in history that don’t have middle ground. The Holocaust was wrong. Rwanda was wrong. September 11th was wrong. Agreed. But what about points of history that we are living, that we are a part of? We teach students about past historic events and the value of speaking up, yet I’ll bet we can all recall moments when political correctness sanitized our teaching and our teachable moments. We teach civics lessons about the power of our constitution and the importance of exercising our freedom of speech. But when do we model that and how often do we give students the opportunity to evaluate what is going on right now.
In a time when, as parents and teachers, we are deeply invested in anti-bullying education, we need to also analyze how we incorporate that into our instruction of history and global citizenship. Bullying does not just happen on the playground. The worst and most terrifying bullies are abusive governments. And though we cannot loom every social justice issue over students’ heads and ask them to carry the weight of the world, we can model action for those that speak to us.
Even though we shouldn’t need a label to give us permission to act, there is evidence that what the actions of the Syrian government may be motivated by religious hatred; in other words, genocide. And, even if it’s not, there is enough evidence to warrant action that silence was no longer an option for me. So, in January, I began by attending a fundraiser for the Syrian people, through the Syrian Sunrise Foundation. I listened to Syrian ex-pats describe the political history, the current conflict, and the desire of Syrians to be free of the current corrupt and autocratic regime. I also listened to a father, who described how his son, a paramedic in Syria, was shot and killed while driving in an ambulance that was helping the wounded. I then decided to hold an optional lunch conversation for interested students. I made a Prezi to explain the situation in Syria at a Middle School level, and eleven students and three colleagues showed up. Given that’s about 5% of our total Middle School population, I was actually pleased. They brought their lunch, listened to what was happening in Syria, and asked questions. Perhaps they told their friends. Maybe they talked to their parents. It’s a start. It’s something.
When we were in Syria, we connected with a family in Damascus for lunch. Though they live in FL, they spend summers visiting family in Syria and they invited us to share a meal and visit their home. In March 2012, I was able to visit again with this family on a visit to FL to visit my parents, and I later Skyped a presentation with their 12th grade son’s school to help educate his peers about Syria. Again. Something.
I know that there are many, many teachers out there who educate on issues of social justice. I’m not the only one. But this was an instance of personal significance that allowed me to model my gratitude as an American, as well as my support for the many Syrians living in fear—or, worse, dying—who once took us by the hand for a cup of tea.
*Photos in flyer are from BBC News Syria: Guide to the Uprising (now called Guide: Syria Crisis)
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