Teaching compassion for refugees

In New York’s South Bronx, a ninth-grade social studies teacher is spending five weeks on curriculum based on Iraqi refugees’ experiences, reports Learning Matters. The show aired on PBS Newshour this week and will be rebroadcast.

The teacher wants her tough-shelled students to learn to empathize with people who have even worse problems than their own. Students look at photos of refugees and imagine their lives. They’re told to list the 10 things they’d take with them if they had to leave home in five minutes. Later, told they have to dump half their possessions, one boy gives up his electronics in favor of “my mom, my sister, my other sister.”  It’s sweet, but is it social studies?

I can’t help wondering what the students aren’t learning in those five weeks. The teacher is skipping the standard curriculum. What’s the trade-off?

As far as I can tell, students aren’t asked to read literature that deals with the refugee experience, such as The Kite Runner (Afghanistan), which could be a powerful empathy builder. Dave Eggers’ What is the What? (Sudan) is supposed to be good. Too difficult to read?

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  1. Soapbox0916 says:

    It could be done to be both, but I agree that the way it is described, it probably is not. Sigh!

    Since I work with the homeless and poor on behalf of local government, a big struggle I face is that most people can’t connect textbook/theory with reality so I could see this a useful application to showcase how to apply what they learn, but it does need to be tied directly to the curriculum.

    Lack of compassion is not actually the main problem, I think the biggest problem is that the average middle class type person doesn’t understand what they have and what they take for granted. For example, if going to school meant walking an hour each way, would you go, how does that impact education policy? if going to school meant giving up income for your family, what is the impact. Just a few decades ago, my grandmother dropped out of school in 3rd grade in order to work. There is a historical correlation with poor countries to what happened in history and what is still happening today.

    I can see this relating to social studies in terms of policy, and helping to understand why people make some of the decisions that they make, and why certain decisions were made in history, but make sure to integrate it into the curriculum. This seems like it may be circumventing the curriculum instead.

  2. I experienced something very similar in 6th grade, except we were pioneers heading out west in a wagon train instead of refugees. It was the best thing we did all year. It’s now over 3 decades later and I still fondly remember the lessons from when I was 12.

  3. In my own classroom in the same community I mix test-prep curriculum with simulations and longer units with culminating projects that show student competence in relation to state standards as well as students’ ability to express themselves given a larger variety of experiences than are mandated by the state. That said, some required, smaller curricular pieces are left out over the course of the year in order to make time for worthwhile endeavors from which students can learn a great deal.

    While five weeks is a long time to spend on a single unit, if taught correctly it will allow students to access larger themes such as economics, government regulation, human culture, etc. more easily. In the long run it could be much, much more worthwhile than marching through the state curriculum without stopping, as many teachers do.

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    As nearly as i can tell, I find the posted comments here specious and just plain silly.

    Though the educationists who have replied thus far may not be aware of it, we have been here before.

    I am 68 years old. I grew up in the Des Moines school system. And during the years I was in K-6 there — though the parents never thought of it as “K-6” — we had a number of refugees added to our student body. (The years were 1948-1955 inclusive, and continuing in the case of a great many of the DP kids.)

    The plain fact is, after WWII, there were at least hundreds of thousands of displaced persons — DPs — from various countries in Europe. They had no homes to go to, and usually, no countries willing to accept them. A great many were relocated into the northern US Great Plains, and into the central Canadian prairie provinces, where there were existing ethnic communities that spoke the specific language and could help these folk relocate and assimilate.

    As I recall (since I went thru grammar school with quite a few of them), the real effort was to get the kids speaking English. Everyone helped; in the elementary grades, the kids usually were speaking English quite fluently within a few months.

    The effort always was directed at English-language immersion and cultural assimilation. It was always assumed that these folk would know their own culture and would continue it without any government assistance.

    As nearly as I can recall, most all of the kids did just fine — without having to delve into “larger themes such as economics, government regulation, human culture, etc.”

    These folk needed to know how to survive and prosper. Virtually all did. I wish we could be as direct, and do as much good, today.

    And, now, let the flames begin…


  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    You forget the self-satisfaction of the teachers who pull this mush-headed crap on the kids.
    A question for adults is why these people are refugees. A question for kids is why these people are refugees.
    We will be settling an Iraqi family in our town shortly. Problem is, dad worked for the Americans and they are subject to murder by the unreconstructed. Think that’s going to go in the compassion lesson?
    Me either.
    See “The Wild Place” by Hulme. Worked with DPs after WW II, including some settlement issues. Reviewed on Amazon by me. See comments. Buy the book, if one is available. Plenty of room for compassion there.
    Five weeks of tear jerking? Outrageous.

  6. If you’re trying to get American kids to understand the plight of refugees, wouldn’t it make more sense to study American refugees? Katrina is recent, there are lots and lots of personal accounts around, including audio and video. Heck, what about the refugees from the recent flooding? Joplin tornado victims? All I can think of is that these American refugees might not suit the sensitivities of the teacher in question.

    My guess is that this is all about the politics and very little about the education.

  7. Cranberry says:

    If I were a parent, I would be fit to be tied. Why is it o.k. for a teacher to decide to jettison the state curricular expectations? Five weeks is a large segment of 36 weeks. The unit would be fine as activities for an after school “Global Issues” club, but it’s using instructional class time.

    She’s an English teacher, not a social studies teacher. The activities presented were not text-based. If those activities were aimed at the students’ current level of academic skills, they need more instruction in skills. They need to practice reading. They need to write essays. Concern for their social skills is touching, but this unit sacrifices academic development for social skills. Is that a worthwhile sacrifice?

    I can see why the competition for spots in “test-obsessed” charter schools is so fierce. This teacher feels free to jettison the curriculum for a feel-good curriculum, which is emphatically not aimed at developing academic skills. I presume her principal approved the lesson plan. Maybe the students shown couldn’t handle more academic activities, but wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to try? The activities shown were very, very simple.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    See “teacher self-satisfaction”. Must be in the edskool curricula. ‘way up there in the Important Stuff.

  9. In my 7th grade, they brought in a Hungarian women telling us stories about growing up behind the Iron Curtain. She only lectured for one afternoon but it made quite an impact.
    This would have been around 1979-80 or so.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    LS. One afternoon is sufficient. I expect you were bright enough to know what she had to say might extend from, say, the Baltic to the Straits of Taiwan.
    Some years ago our church had a presentation about women standing up to tyranny. I think, from the sponsoring group, they had something like Code Pink in mind.
    But what they got was an authorized re-enactor of Corrie ten Boom. Cap, shawl, accent, and all. Whole story and answered questions.
    Most interesting.
    Could be a good show for school. A couple of hours.
    I think there’s a pattern here.