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Local teacher on talking to students about the Israel-Hamas war

A paper figure attached to a broken window in a home that came under attack during a massive Hamas invasion into Israel on Oct. 7, 2023.
Francisco Seco
A paper figure attached to a broken window in a home that came under attack during a massive Hamas invasion into Israel on Oct. 7, 2023.

The militant group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 Israelis and taking another 200 hostage. Since then, Israel has launched a bombing campaign that has killed over 4,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Pictures and videos across social media depict the violence and its results.

What do you tell children and teens about this? If you’re a teacher, do you bring it up in the classroom or steer clear of it?

Louisiana Considered host Bob Pavlovich spoke to Chris Dier, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, about his approach.

Dier was Louisiana’s teacher of the year in 2020 and a national teacher of the year finalist. He's also active on TikTok — the platform his students are most active on — where he makes videos about marginalized history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights:

Bob Pavlovich: As a history teacher, how are you grappling with this moment?

Chris Dier: First and foremost, we always have to recognize as teachers that this is a complex situation, and it's a sensitive matter, so it requires a lot of careful consideration.

Our students need to have a space where they can talk, learn and understand. We must be objective from the start and ensure that we tell our students what we know — but also be honest about what we don't know.

Pavlovich: I'm not an expert on the topic. You're not an expert on the topic either. How are you educating yourself so that you can talk to your students and help educate them?

Dier: I look at a variety of news media and try my best to sift through the bias. I try to follow reporters who are on the ground. It’s not easy because there’s so much information. If it’s hard for us as adults, can you imagine being a high school student trying to understand what’s going on?

Pavlovich: For teachers who may be afraid to take this topic on, why should they, and where should they start?

Dier: I think history teachers need to take this topic on because it's relevant to the content that we teach. We teach history, but we also teach how history impacts current events.

In terms of teaching something that might be contentious in the classroom, and obviously, this is contentious, I set the tone as best as possible. I ensure that students discuss things with positive intent, with empathy and that they're not going after other students. On this topic specifically, we have to ensure that antisemitism or Islamophobia does not seep into the conversation.

When you create these parameters for any conversation, then students, especially if you have cultivated a culture of respect in the classroom, can thrive.

Pavlovich: While some students may not feel a connection to the conflict, I imagine others may be deeply impacted. How do you maintain sensitivity in classroom discussions when it can be a very personal topic?

Dier: This is a topic that does require a lot of sensitivity. I consistently reiterate that antisemitism and Islamophobia are never welcome in my class.

It's not necessarily an issue with students. And I think that goes back to my classroom, but also other teachers' classrooms as well. We have conversations frequently about these topics. So when something big happens, it's not, “We're going to have our first ever intense, controversial conversation.” That's what we do in history classes. That's what we've been doing, and that's what we should do.

Pavlovich: Can you tell us a bit about what classroom conversations on this topic have looked and felt like so far?

Dier: When everything happened, I gave students a little background and some sources to follow to get more information.

This week is when the conversations really started to happen. I started by asking them, “What do you know and what did you hear?” I gave them an opportunity to fill out a Google form where they can ask questions privately.

Then I pulled up maps of the region, the most objective maps I could find. I had students write down what they knew about the conflict and share that with a partner.

A lot of them brought in information that they heard on social media that is completely false, that’s been debunked numerous times over and over again. That's an opportunity for me to say, “Where did you hear that? Can you tell us the source?” Because, as a teacher, you don't want to just say, “You are flat-out wrong. You are misinformed, obviously.”

This is what we do in history classes. We always get students to check the source, analyze bias, contextualize and corroborate information.

We also have conversations about how we feel about it. Of course, we want to make sure students feel emotionally safe to be able to discuss and talk about their opinions.

Pavlovich: What sort of questions are the students asking you?

Dier: Well, some students have virtually no knowledge. A student wrote on the slip, in the Google form, ‘What is Gaza?’

Then some students are asking questions like, “Why did Hamas do what they did?” Other students are asking, “Why is Israel bombing Hamas? What's the cause of all of this?”

A lot of them were born in 2007 or 2008, so they may not have any knowledge of things that have transpired prior to this. They're aware that they are missing historical contextualization that is necessary to have these conversations. They've asked basic questions about things they've heard on social media. They've asked questions about what their parents have said.

Pavlovich: You talked about the issue of misinformation and disinformation. How do you teach your students to be critical of what they’re seeing on social media and online?

Dier: Even before we have these conversations, the way I teach history is I have students analyze primary and secondary sources. I ask them to source the documents, to figure out who said it, why they said it and who was the audience. We look at other documents to see if they corroborate. We do all of these different things that historians do.

So when events like this happen, I'm constantly telling students, “You have to analyze the source.” Because it's not just news media, it’s celebrities who are weighing in, the state of Israel has an Instagram account. People are all over TikTok giving their hot takes.

Pavlovich: Some teachers avoid current events because they aren't up to speed or they’re worried about politics. What would you advise them?

Dier: I understand that we are in a time where teachers, notably history teachers, might be nervous to discuss certain topics. I mean, this has been an issue in multiple states where they've passed legislation designed to stop teachers from teaching about certain issues regarding race, gender, sexuality.

In terms of an issue like this, I will say we have a moral obligation to at least hear our students out. And to grapple with them, even if it's just grappling with the news together as opposed to doing a lesson on it. Just giving them a space to address everything coming their way.

I understand that some teachers might be nervous and not want to take on a topic that is considered contentious in the United States.

If that is the case, and that teacher is worried about being fired or backlash, then I would suggest the teacher get with their administrators to try to come up with a plan to at least address it as a school or as a community. Because what students learn outside the classroom always seeps in, and in many ways, if we don't address it, that is what can lead to antisemitism and Islamophobia, which is certainly on the rise given these events.

Bob Pavlovich, a long-time fill-in host for New Orleans Public Radio, joined the station full-time in 2023. He hosts "All Things Considered" and "Louisiana Considered" on Thursdays.
Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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