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?