Tackling the Refugee Crisis in the Classroom

I go back to work on Monday, having had seven weeks off and having been able to tune out a lot of the news feed constantly scrolling in my mind. One thing I haven’t been able to mute is the stories about the refugee crisis. Having spent a little time over the last couple of days planning and preparing for new classes, I’ve also given some thought to how we as teachers can help students to understand and deal with the information they see and hear, as well as some of the more distressing images. These are a few ideas that might be of use:

Get the language right.

It’s not a migrant crisis, it’s about refugees. There is an important distinction in the language, not necessarily reflected in the mainstream press, and ensuring we get the language right – and that we correct student misconceptions – is a key part of helping students to understand the issue. For me, as a migrant, it’s an easy example. Highlighting that I chose to move to the UK and explaining some of the reasons can help explain the difference to students.

Spend time on the causes, not just the effect.

Whilst Syria is the number one country people are fleeing from at present, it’s far from the only one. Data like this can go a long way in showing students that it’s a global issue, not just one or two nations. Discussing the reasons people become refugees and make such dangerous journeys, as well as the different causes in different countries, can go a long way in helping students to not only understand what’s happening in Europe, but also the world. Who knows, it might also just help to build up some tolerance and compassion.

Don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

It’s not easy to see images like that of Aylan Kurdi. It’s not easy to talk about children dying when the people you’re talking to are children themselves. But if we don’t have those conversations, who will?

Consider your audience.

It’s a good possibility that you have migrant children, or even refugee children, in your classes. Be sensitive to how those students might respond – but also consider how they might help the rest of the class to understand.

Identify how your class or school can help.

Schools love a good charity day, so maybe one dedicated to raising money or goods for refugees is a possibility. We had a fundraising day last year where we asked students to donate when they weren’t getting anything in return – no free dress day, no cakes, no attending performances – just giving money to people who need it. That in itself was a lesson. Having a look at who is organising donations in your local area, or donating to NGOs like Save the Children or Oxfam is a good start.

Use curriculum time as appropriate.

The artwork that has been posted on the internet in response to the photo of Aylan Kurdi has been astonishing. Could you do something similar in your art lessons (though perhaps with a different image as stimulus)? Could you do some empathetic writing or poetry? There’s lots of options in Geography, in RE, in Citizenship, in History – in pretty much any subject. Can you embed it as part of the learning instead of using it as a bolt on?

Teach some critical literacy.

Students need to know that not everything the media portrays is unbiased. This is a good reason to teach them this. For instance, compare and contrast the newspaper front pages from a few weeks ago with this week. Look at the language used to describe refugees – not just as migrants, but as a swarm, for example. Most importantly, engage with the ‘why’ – why does this happen? Why do we allow it?

These are just a few thoughts. It’s not an issue that’s going to disappear overnight and it’s not an issue we can willingly turn a blind eye to in our classrooms. We need to teach outside of our communities.


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