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Teaching About Syria

A Meaningful Lecture On Human Rights

NEW: Here is a four-day version of my Syria unit, which I highly recommend. Given that my current students are pretty high-skilled, it might need a few extra days for most classrooms. I strongly suggest watching the video "Who's Fighting Who in Syria" TWICE with the students and I also think it is essential to watch about 20 minutes of White Helmets. This movie shows Syrians in a really important light -- the extent which some Syrian go to bring good to their country and their countrymen.

I’m putting together this special section of the website to provide some ideas and materials to teachers who are considering teaching about the crises in Syria. I term it “crises” because there are so many different things happening: civil war, starvation, human rights abuses, and refugees. It is the most important international political issue of the moment and one through which we have the opportunity to teach a whole realm of crucial historical topics. The more I teach about it the more passionate I become and the more certain I am that Syria should be a focus of more of our global courses.


I have had the chance to spend about two weeks teaching about Syria, together with a brilliant co-teacher named Zoe Roben and a wonderful student teacher Bassem Elbendary, which is a good chunk of time but not as long as I’d like. 


In fact, we could spend a whole semester on Syria and Iraq in which they serve as current lenses to trace a web of causation from the past, including the U.S. invasion and aftermath, colonialism, Crusades, world religions, etc. In this, I’ve been strongly influence by the “It’s Complicated” curriculum of my colleague, Stephen Lazar. His goal has been to use the C3 Framework and to think about how we can get students to understand complicated connections through a backwards walk from the present to the past.

I've been fortunate enough to team up with some great and generous people, in addition to Zoe. My great friend, Noah Gottschalk, who is Oxfam's senior policy advisor on Syria, helped me think through the unit, the most important questions, and all of the major players who could be involved in the UN conference. As I will mention below, wonderful people at the MET, UNICEF, the NYU Near East Center, the Multifaith Alliance, Tutt Cafe, and the Kings County Supreme Court helped make this a learning experience byond the classroom.

My own goals for the Syria unit fall mostly within the areas of comprehension, connections, and perspective. On the base level, I want students to comprehend the major actors involved, the causes of the various problems, and the possible solutions. I want them to know things like what “Sunni” and “Shiite” are, what types of human rights abuses are taking place, and what the United States’ policy has been regarding the civil war and refugees.


Connections are perhaps even more important. Students should be able to connect the various players and their interests that are at stake. Why is Iran allied with Assad and Saudi Arabia with the rebels? What is the connection between ISIS in Iraq and in Syria? How do tensions between Russia and the U.S. come into this? What are the connections between the civil war, refugees, terrorism, and international politics? They also need to make connections to the past. How does the current situation in Syria connect to the rich history and culture of Islamic and pre-Islamic civilization in the region? How did the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq help contribute to this crisis?

On the level of perspective, students should work to empathize with the people caught up in the conflict. I tell them that we are ping-ponging back and forth between learning “facts” and trying to connect with the humanity and emotion of the story. 

We can’t just understand what is happening. We need to understand what it means to the people involved. In that sense, perspective also means trying to understand the conflict, civil war, and refugee issues from various perspectives. What does it mean to a regular person who supports the government or another who supports the rebels? And how to outside actors like the governments in Turkey and Germany view the crisis?


The ideas and materials below are an initial sketch from my first attempt at teaching about Syria. I hope that it becomes a starting place for others to contribute ideas. There are a plethora of sources out there on the internet for our use. But how do we use them?


Our Big and “Simple” Questions:
  1. What is happening?

  2. Why is it happening?

  3. What can we do about it?



One more thing…the most important move before teaching a current topic like Syria is to get in touch with people. The more we can bring in other voices, the more the students gain a richer and deeper experience. Perhaps this is easier where I teach, in New York City, but see where you can get in contact with organizations that work with Syrian refugees, Syrians in the United States, libraries, museums, and more. In my discussion below, I’ll outline some of the ways that I did that.

Here are two ideas that I did not do, but that I think would be really valuable: 1) a museum gallery or public teaching from the students to the rest of the school; 2) a letter from the students to their elected officials about their recommendation on the U.S. policy toward Syria and Syrian refugees. Each of those would compel students to show what they know and to produce a real piece of civic action. If I had one more week, I would do those.


Instead, I opted for a mock U.N. mediation modeled loosely on the current talks taking place in Geneva. This project is focused on the idea of perspectives. Students take on  the role of a diplomat or NGO advisor and we meet to discuss possible solutions or resolutions. A copy of the project is here. To make it even meatier, bring the students to a public place to hold the forum. Somewhere outside of the school. Zoe and I brought our students to the Kings County Courthouse to hold the negotiations there.


Now let’s trace back to see some of the ways in which we taught the unit:


Here I want to point out that much of the teaching involves engaging students with a source and then having rich partner or group conversations afterwards. To do the latter part, you need to have a toolkit of some discussion protocols. I might suggest a particular one for a source, but oftentimes we can mix or match. Here are some of my favorite discussion protocols (the only one I invented is the “Something Protocol.”


Discussion Protocols

  1. Four Corners

  2. Barometer

  3. Quotation Sensation

  4. Fishbowl Seminar

  5. Concentric Circles

  6. Flash Photography or Tableau

  7. Something Protocol

  8. Debate



I don't think it is helpful to go over every news article that we shared with the students, but I will say we ended up with three reading packets, each with about 6-10 articles. Larry Ferlazzo's site on Syria was a great starting point for gathering resources. We tried to give students freedom to read in-class and for homework what they found interesting and , to annotate them, and then to come in to class ready to discuss them with partners and the larger group. 


Below is a list of the readings we used to make our packets

Day 1 – Inquiry

The first lesson is meant to connect students emotionally to the various crises taking place regarding Syria and to begin to spark questions that they have about what is happening. To do this, I put together a gallery walk of images from these sites. On the image powerpoint, I also include a chart for them to make to record their thoughts and questions. After the images of Syria before the war, during the war, and of Syrian refugees, we have a debrief discussion. We list their questions on chart paper. These are the original sources for the gallery walk phootographs.

Day 2: Overview of Refugee Issues

Here, I want students to delve a bit deeper into issues surrounding refugees. In a way, we will learn about Syria backwards…starting with the most recent problem (refugees) and tracing back to its causes (civil war). For this, I use a video about refugees in Lebanon as well as a few articles about refugees, including the story of Aylan Kurdi. To help with the articles, Bassem prepared this worksheet of guiding questions, which includes a wonderful perspective activity for students to imagine themselves as Syrian children.

Day 3: Trying to Understand the Conflict

There are two short youtube videos that are very helpful for understanding the background of the Syrian civil war. One is called “Syria’s War: Who is fighting who” and the other is “Syrian Conflict in Five Minutes.” These videos are very dense but they outline really important historical points. To help students through them, I have this worksheet.  We also watch the video twice. The first time we just watch. The second time we start and stop to answer the questions.

Day 4: The Civil War

I want students to get a little deeper into understanding the conflict. I have them working in groups of four. I give them this BBC reading and ask them to make a visual timeline with 8-10 key dates and a description. The groups also need to draw four images of what is taking place in Syria on the timeline. When we debrief, I ask them: “At what date did Syria become a crisis? Why?” I also ask them: Based on the reading, who seems to be responsible for starting the crisis?

At some point in these first four days, I want students to begin to take positions on key questions regarding the conflicts. Zoe put together a wonderful barometer activity for students to physically take their positions. I give students the reading for tomorrow’s lesson for homework.

Day 5: Five View of Syria Jigsaw

Today students explore different views of the conflict. We do a classic jigsaw reading and discussion. Students start out with one group where they all have the same reading of one person’s perspective from this article.  Once they have completed the preparation worksheet, we then scramble the groups so that everyone can hear the perspectives of people who read a different story.

Day 5 Supplementary

I think this 17 minute about refugees trying to get from Hungary to Austria, “We Walk Together,” is a powerful way to connect students to the difficulties of the refugee experience. A tableau/flash photography activity worked really nicely afterwards.

Day 6

Now it is time for students to start to debate and discuss key issues involving refugees and foreign intervention options in Syria. I use a fishbowl debate format for this activity

Day 7

In order to increase the students’ sense of the various actors involved in the conflict, or in supporting victims, I’d like to bring in one or more NGO perspectives. You could do some kind of jigsaw activity around different NGOs (see options in the project assignment). Being based in NYC, we brought students to meet with UNICEF and to hear from them firsthand about the work they do to protect children in Syria and as refugees.

Day 8

So far, we’ve seen so many different types of sources: short videos, readings, photographs, speaking with people. I think that one movie can really make a difference in helping students achieve that emotional connection with the topic and to really understand the situation. This year, I chose “A Syrian Love Story,” a wonderful film about a refugee family before and during the war. Check out a review here. The wonderful folks at theNYU Hagop Kavorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies Library purchased the film and screened it for us in their small theater so we had an extra-special experience, A nice follow-up activity is to have students do a perspective-piece journal; in other words, they choose a person from the film and write a 1-page diary entry from his or her perspective.

Day 9

By this point, we need to start getting deeper into understanding the role of ISIS in this conflict. While students know should know that the Syria crisis goes far beyond ISIS, we also need to recognize that it plays a key role in internal and external politics. I suggest the following videos to help students understand some of the factors involved in ISIS and how it relates to Syria. I use different conversation protocols after each one of the videos.


1. Are Yezidis facing genocide video

2. Isis Terror Yazidi Women Sex Slavery video

3. ISIS Destroys Historic Ruins in Palmyra

3. A Brief History of ISIS

For homework, I want to place a counterweight to the focus on ISIS’ atrocities by using this “
Golden Age of Islam
” reading and this article on Muslims who fight against ISIS.

Day 10

With all of the emphasis on current atrocities taking place in the Middle East, it is important to continue to place it in a larger historical context by showing many of the beautiful contributions of Islamic Civilization. In NYC, it is surprisingly easy (and free) to take a visit to the MET, which we did to visit their lovely Islamic Arts gallery and to get a docent-led tour. If something like that isn’t doable, consider putting together your own gallery walk of images from the MET’s collection. Another supplementary option is to show this short clip from Islam: Empire of Faith. It won’t have the impact of a museum visit but it will help students understand that what we’re seeing from ISIS is an aberration from a long and rich history of Islamic Civlization.

Day 11

Let’s have a day for students to just read, think about, and talk about some of the news articles we provided. Zoe broke students into groups who chose to read about the Iraq War, the Kurds, or possible solutions to the civil war. Each group made a poster with the 6 most important points and then presented their findings to the class.

Day 12

When students tell me what they will remember from this unit, one experience comes up again and again: hearing from a Syrian refugee. We were fortunate, through contacting the Multifaith Alliance, to have Shadi Martini come speak to our class. Born and raised in Aleppo, he has a tremendous story of resilience and courage in the face of the brutal Assad regime. He currently lives in Michigan and was going to skype with us but then it turned out he was in NYC just for our program! His speech and the Q&A afterwards was so memorable. In one of my other classes, my friend Noah from Oxfam set us up to speak with Fadi Halisso from Basmeh and Zeitooneh for Relief and Development, who was born in Syria and currently lives in Lebanon. He started an organization to provide support for refugees and took time from his visits to the UN and the State Department to speak to our class!

If I had an extra day or two

I would really spend it learning about the Iraq War (which students now know very little about)  and its connections to the current crisis in Syria.

Day 13 and 14: UN  Conference Preparation

This day or days is preparation for our UN conference. Students choose their roles, we have laptops for them to research their country or organization’s position, and then they write a 1-page brief or speech.

Day 15 – The UN Conference

This experience brings the whole unit to fruition. It was a jewel. We brought the students to the Kings County Courthouse to have a more formal experience. Even though the courtroom wasn't the perfect setup for a conference, it added a sense of gravitas. We followed the format on the asisgnment sheet, with the student playing the UN Special Envoy acting as the moderator. I gave him some tips to introduce the conference, to call up the representatives to speak, and then to moderate the discussions. The speeches showed students abilities to understand the perspectives of the countries and organizations as well as the connections between them. We laughed so much when the representatives from Turkey and Greece began arguing with each other and when one student baegan accussing another of lacking humanity. Most importantly, when they got down to figuring out an actual course of action they became stumped since the various interests of the secuirty council and the Syrian representatives made any kind of consensus impossible. This added to their sense of the complities of the reality.

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