Students and Teachers Struggle to Discuss Geopolitical Crises

In a time of high tension in schools, students and teachers consider ways to invite, rather than discourage, respectful conversations about difficult topics.

9 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Beacon the newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School in Washington, DC. The original version ran here.

College campuses across the country are embroiled in debate over the Israel-Hamas war. But at Jackson-Reed, many students and teachers report that they are uncomfortable even engaging in conversations about the conflict. 

On October 7, Hamas launched an attack against Israel. Israel responded with militarized action and the conflict has been ongoing for months. The latest attacks are the result of years of build up, as tensions in the region go back decades.

Art credit: Dominique Greene

Hala Elamine, a senior and co-leader of the Arab Student Union (ASU), said that students are afraid of potential conflict that could arise from discussion of the war. 

“I don’t think [the school] has had enough conversations because I know that they don’t want to offend anyone or cause controversy,” Elamine said, “but it’s just resulted in a lot of people feeling like they can’t get support from the school as they are going through a really hard time.” 

A Jewish senior who asked to remain anonymous said, “As if it’s not hard enough to deal with the war itself, I feel like we also have to deal with our classmates and friends.” A Jewish junior who also requested anonymity added, “I think it’s important to talk to [other people] but it is extremely difficult.”

Most teachers have chosen not to broach the topic in a classroom setting. “There’s a big risk to wade into it and there isn’t much of a risk to just stay silent,” said Social Studies teacher Eduardo Canedo. “There’s a cancel culture … and I don’t think teachers are very eager to wade into that,” he added.

English teacher Joseph Welch also said creating an open and respectful conversation surrounding the conflict was challenging. 

“Do I think our students have a need for a space to talk about it and have better communication with adults about the topic? Yes,” Welch said. “But I also think it takes a very skilled facilitator to have that conversation. It shouldn’t be something that is forced on teachers, especially because I do think there is a lot of room for misinformation and it is very raw and emotional.”

Students echoed Welch’s fear of an unmanaged conversation. “Since it’s so politically charged and controversial, it’s scary to talk about,” one Jewish senior said.

Jewish Student Union (JSU) supervisor Aaron Besser added, “I really wish that we had a way to talk about the issue in a way that felt like we could listen to people who we didn’t agree with and where we could have a constructive dialogue.”

Welch has chosen to make himself available to students who would like to talk about the conflict. “I’ve had conversations with individual students or small groups of students, students who want to talk with me about it,” he said. “Either from them coming to me or me checking in with them.”

Additionally, the English ll curriculum has been restructured at Jackson-Reed due to sensitivity surrounding the conflict. Students were scheduled to begin their second unit directly after the events of October 7, where they would read “Night,” and “Maus,” two memoirs that depict the events of the Holocaust. 

Five teachers met with Assistant Principal Marc Minsker, who oversees the English department, to discuss the delay of reading “Night and Maus.” Minsker said that teachers were struggling with how to teach “because [the conflict is] a sensitive topic right now.”

The department decided to postpone reading the books until tensions decreased. Minsker explained that he “thought it was thoughtful, and it wasn’t one person’s decision, but a discussion [that resulted in this change].” 

Additionally, administration sent out its weekly eNews email to families on October 23 where they recognized the personal connection many students have with the conflict. This announcement explained that the school wants to support students while also creating a safe space to discuss and explore “current events rooted in conflict.” 

Principal Sah Brown said that the school hopes to “maintain an environment that is supportive of all our students and as a school have a unified approach.” Brown said he wants to take his time to listen to students from different groups to understand “what their ideas are and see how we can ensure that it doesn’t create any sort of division.”

The eNews also included a link to a list of resources prepared by DCPS for discussion and mental health tools. The links provided address the impacts of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and to provide tactics to discuss the conflict in a respectful way. 

Anthony Hiller, the DCPS Senior Director of Core Content Alignment, said in an email to the Beacon that this list was created so that teachers and administrators can establish safe classroom environments, discuss historical context and the nature of the conflict, and work against Islamophobia and antisemitism. 

“More than a statement, it is the aim of the district to support our educators and students as they do the work to understand the Israel-Hamas war and the history of conflict in the region,” Hiller said.

DCPS has provided similar resources in the past. At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War, a resource list was compiled to achieve many of the same goals as the list compiled for the Israel-Hamas War.

However, this DCPS resource list and the school’s statement in the eNews appears not to have reached many students. “I didn’t even know there was a resource list,” said junior Francesca Krevat.  

Many students have taken to social media platforms such as Instagram to post about their stances on the conflict–pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and in between. In multiple instances, students have received unsolicited comments from peers and other users, and also engaged in arguments through direct messaging.

Inside Jackson-Reed, Elamine says that the Arab Student Union hopes to collaborate with the Jewish Student Union to provide more information about the war to help students feel less wary about discussing it. “Just working with them to share information, that’ll affect people by making them more okay with talking about it,” Elamine said.

JSU supervisor and math teacher Elana Horowitz recognized the importance of adhering to one’s morals before making a judgment about the conflict. “Finding your line of humanity is where to start, and then engage with the decisions that are being made today,” she said.

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