Creating safe space for dialogue key to teaching K-12 students about war in Ukraine

When it comes to helping young students understand complex world events, like the war in Ukraine, the first step is to create a safe classroom environment where they feel comfortable opening up, says Hilary Brown.

The Associate Dean of Undergraduate and Professional Student Services in Brock University’s Faculty of Education says both K-12 students and their teachers often want to talk about issues going on in the world, but may need a supportive space to do so.

Creating a safe environment for these conversations and finding developmentally appropriate ways to engage with difficult subjects is critical for teachers seeking to help students navigate current events, Brown says.

To accomplish this, Brock’s teacher candidates spend a significant amount of time examining their own ​unconscious biases in their program in order to engage in dialogue about sensitive topics with students who have different backgrounds and perspectives.

“We talk about how we can address the issues that are happening in the day, in the moment, and how to bring that into the classroom in a safe and respectful way,” Brown says.

Beyond fostering inclusive dialogue, she says there are several techniques teachers, and teacher candidates, can use to engage in discussions about the war in Ukraine.

This includes, for example, making connections to the curriculum as a way to examine current events, particularly in subjects like Primary division social studies and Intermediate division history and geography. Another technique is the inquiry process, which allows students to explore topics that are important to them.

“Learning how to teach through inquiry is really powerful. It encourages your students to ask and find answers to questions they are interested in and in turn, you can learn from them,” says Brown, who advises teacher candidates not to fear what they don’t know.

Salman Hassan, a sixth-year Concurrent Teacher Education student, is putting lessons from his program into practice while completing a practicum placement in a Grade 12 university-level World Issues class.

Hassan’s students learned how to analyze media reports of the conflict and recognize reliable sources. They then used the inquiry process to evaluate and draw conclusions from media reports.

“I felt that learning about the inquiry process was imperative for my success with tackling the Ukraine and Russian war in my classroom,” Hassan says. “Teaching students to be critical and to be aware of their research in an organized manner has allowed us to have thoughtful discussions in a non-biased manner.”

In her kindergarten practicum classroom, second-year Consecutive Teacher Education student Natalie Bilokrely created a developmentally appropriate mini-lesson that saw her identify Ukraine on a world map and teach students about the symbolism of sunflowers in the nation to open up a dialogue about peace and solidarity. Students are creating their own sunflowers to be displayed on a bulletin board outside their classroom.

While she was born in Canada, both sides of Bilokrely’s family are originally from Ukraine and she has deep ties to the Ukrainian community and culture.

“The vicarious trauma of the events unfolding in Ukraine at the hands of the Russian Federation truly prompted my passion to channel my energy into representing the dignity and strong spirit of the Ukrainian people by developing learning opportunities for young children who, one day, will see these events in their history lessons,” she says.

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