As the war in Ukraine continues and the 24-hour media cycle brings an endless barrage of distressing information and shocking graphics to our students, their comprehension of the conditions and their fears weigh heavily on my mind.

Phillip Potenziano, superintendent of the Brunswick School Department.

As much as we want to shelter and protect our children – especially those at a young age – our older children are highly aware of these events and have undoubtedly heard reports and conversations, many without context for understanding. Classrooms can provide a place for children to have safe conversations about what they have seen and heard about this war, and hopefully come to some understanding of the who, what, where.

For example, geography is a critical component in this war. Educators can guide discussions about why Russia so desperately wants that geographical “buffer” between it and other Eastern European countries that are NATO members with “western” governing philosophies. We can also help students explore how our government’s sanctions and the suspension of business by private corporations will affect not only their economy but ours.

Complex issues like this one are the perfect landscape for critical thinking. How is our nation responding and why? The U.S. has been involved in other conflicts that are not really “our fights”; why are we not jumping into what are apparently war crimes and genocide? Why can’t we use no-fly zones, and should NATO get involved? These questions demand thoughtful debate, and deep-dive conversations in the classroom can help untangle some of the answers.

I can’t think of a better way to put good, old-fashioned civics in context: What is the U.S. president’s role in a war in another part of the world? What is the role of Congress? What exactly is our foreign policy and who manages it – and isn’t the term “rules of war” an oxymoron?

iCivics just launched an incredible tool: Created in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations, Convene the Council is a new game. “Step inside the White House Situation Room,” says the website, “as you take on the role of president of the United States and make foreign policy decisions with the support of your National Security Council.” Associating this awful conflict with a game certainly seems counterintuitive, but we all know that games are a vehicle that students can relate to.

Perhaps the most important lesson is how to find accurate, objective news. Imagine a class exercise comparing NPR with Facebook or the BBC with Twitter. Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit that makes entertainment and technology recommendations for families and schools, has curated a list of reputable sources of news and information that are geared toward younger people. You might find these sources helpful at home as well.

Our young people are extraordinarily empathetic and may want to find ways to help. Similar to discerning trustworthy media, they must learn how to research and identify reputable charitable outlets. I think this guide to how to help people in Ukraine from PBS’s NewsHour is a good starting point. Discussions about what happens to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and how other refugees have been welcomed, or not, to our country will certainly fuel that much-needed empathy.

One of the most important tools our students garnered during the pandemic is equally valuable today – resilience. Most of them have not been exposed to war before, and, both at home and at school, we can make sure they understand that wars have happened before and wars do end. We can’t allay all their fears, but perhaps by opening the lines of communication, putting the facts in context and helping them have an impact, we can usher them through this and help them come out on the other side with a better understanding of the ramifications of war.

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