Teaching the Russia – Ukraine War

The colors of Ukraine flag in the shape of a heart.
(Image credit: Image by Luisella Planeta from Pixabay)

The longer the Russian-Ukraine war goes on the easier it is for it to fade into the background in the U.S., but teachers should still be discussing the war and its larger global implications in the classroom. 

Even if doing so isn’t easy. 

The war has been fast-moving, ever-changing, heartbreaking, and difficult to process. In addition, many educators lack expertise in the complex geopolitical and historic background to the conflict.

Even so, Lightning P. Jay, a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership at Binghampton University, believes it is worthwhile to teach about the war in Ukraine. 

“Students are capable of much more nuanced thinking than public discourse typically gives them credit for,” says Jay, whose research focuses on developing teacher capacity for authentic instruction of the past. “I think students, with help and in collaboration with one another, can think deeply about meaningful and sometimes even scary things that are happening in the world.” 

Jay and Kevin Buterbaugh, chair of the Political Science Department at Southern Connecticut State University, share advice for teaching the Russia – Ukraine conflict effectively. 

Approach Ukraine War As a Learner Not An Expert 

You do not have to be an expert in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to effectively teach it. “Frame yourself as a learner. Use your experience of being a learner transparently and as a form of modeling,” Jay says. “Send the message to students that part of being a citizen, and part of being a learner, is this ongoing curiosity and an acknowledgment of the limitations of your own knowledge. I think that's a valuable lesson in and of itself.” 

With this mindset, your goal as a teacher is not to impart knowledge on the topic but help guide students as they learn more about it. 

Use Primary Sources From Russia and Ukraine  

Primary sources are a good way to have students engage and learn about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Buterbaugh says. 

Using primary sources does not require too much background on the part of an instructor. For example, Buterbaugh recently had his class read a resolution passed by the General Assembly of the United States condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He then engaged them in the discussion of the resolution, asking questions such as, ‘What is that resolution?’ ‘What is it doing?’ ‘What is it not doing?’ 

“I can ask my students and I can help lead them in a discussion just looking at those primary sources coming out of this conflict,” he says. “You can also do the same thing with photographs.”  

For instance, Buterbaugh was struck by a photo of a tent city of Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. Students can discuss the potential implications of these images. 

“Get students to think about what is that picture saying? Why did the photographer take it? What does it tell us about the conflict?” he says. “If you start to get these massive tent cities across Europe, how does that affect the United States?” 

Examine Russia and Ukraine’s Competing Narratives 

Discussing the war in Ukraine can also be a good way to explore media literacy as students can analyze statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“As an instructor, you should be helping students understand that there is a narrative battle taking place,” Buterbaugh says. “And they should be somewhat skeptical of both sides’  stories. I think Putin regularly lies. Zelensky might not be lying, but he's only sharing a part of the events in order to push his narrative rather than another. So students should even be skeptical about what is being presented from the Ukrainian side. This is a good example to teach skepticism, and also, how you examine evidence. What kind of evidence is really valid? What isn't?” 

Use Analogies But Don’t Oversimplify 

Jay believes comparing this event to other events that may already be a part of a history curriculum can be a powerful teaching tool. For example, he says a teacher might ask students to explore similarities between the current invasion of Ukraine and the German invasion of Poland in 1939. 

“On some face level, there are similarities,” he says. “These are both land wars in Europe. At the same time, there are also face-level ways in which this is not similar. It's 2022, we're coming out of a pandemic, this is Russia, it's not Germany. Putin is not literally a Nazi. We don't have Polish troops riding in on horseback….” 

This type of approach can deepen students’ knowledge of both events. “If you examine the analogy between 1939 and 2022, you will learn more about 1939 as well as the present,” Jay says. 

However, he cautions that sometimes educators use analogies that are too simplistic when teaching younger students. “One of the places where I see teachers make an error is thinking the analogy has to be drawn from the life of a child,” he says. “‘If your dad took away your allowance, how would you feel?’ That's a very, very bad analogy for economic sanctions.” 

Don’t Demonize But Discuss War Crimes   

“Instructors should be aware of trying to distinguish between the actions of the Russian government and the actions of the Russian people,” Buterbaugh says. 

However, that doesn’t mean teachers should gloss over the atrocities that have been committed. “There are clear moral and justice issues in this war,” Buterbaugh says. “Russian soldiers, not all, but many, have committed war crimes in Ukraine. It is also clear that torture has been used in areas under Russian occupation. There have been enough abuses that we can say these are systemic – they are the result of Russian institutions and perhaps explicit policy. It is essential that these not be ignored. As part of this, students should be presented with the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions. These were designed to prevent what we have seen in Ukraine.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.