Humans of Syria

We have just started our Middle East unit. Last year we discussed ISIS a bit, but we ran out of time before we could really focus on the refugee issue. Unfortunately, the crisis is only getting worse, so no matter what cost in time, we will examine it this year. Although this lesson focuses on the Syrian refugees, it is important to remember that there are significant numbers of displaced peoples from other countries as part of the overall “EU refugee crisis”.


Warm Up:

Zaartari refugee camp in Jordan

Population: 80,000




How big is the problem?

This map shows how large Europe’s refugee crisis really is – check out this interactive map on the origin and destinations of refugees moving into Europe compiled from three years of UN data.

 What is the difference between a migrant and a refugee?



Student Reflection:

1. What are three adjectives you could use to describe the scope of the refugee crisis?

2. How has the refugee crisis changed over time? In 2015, which countries have the highest number of refugees leaving? Why do you think that might be true? Which countries are the most popular destinations for refugees?

3. What are some challenges that refugees face?

4. According to the U.N., what is the difference between and refugee and a migrant? Why does it matter?


Who are the Syrian refugees?

In particular, I think is important that my students see the human face of the crisis, and hear the stories of civilians who trying to escape from the violence, chaos and extremism that is consuming so much of Syria.

Fortunately the excellent Humans of New York blog is currently doing a terrific series on that very topic. Here are some of the Syrian families that have been cleared for resettlement in the United States.







For the rest of the stories, please check out @humansofny


Student Reflection:

1. Are there any trends or similarities between these stories?

2. What was the most surprising, interesting or powerful thing you read?



1.  Please share stories and resources!

2. Are you planning on teaching about the refugee crisis in your class? What lessons or activities are you using?

Declaring Independence…but for who?

Question: What rights and freedoms do you think the government should protect?



The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies, then at war with Great Britain, regarded themselves as 13 newly independent sovereign states, and no longer a part of the British Empire.

The Declaration justified independence by listing colonial grievances against King George III, and by asserting certain natural and legal rights, including a right of revolution. These ideas were based on Enlightenment philosophy, particularly John Locke’s theory that government power derived from the consent of the governed.

Check out a great warm up video here.


This video has a great introduction by Morgan Freeman on the context and impact of the Declaration of Independence. It also features a complete read-through of the document by a cast of Hollywood movie stars. However, the read-through is not quite as dramatic as I thought it would be…it kind of starts to drag when they get to the list of 27 grievances. I recommend just showing the introduction.


This video is from the John Adams miniseries. It gives a nice context on the debate in the Continental Congress (The reading at the end is MUCH more interesting and dramatic…it doesn’t include the list of grievances).


An abridged Declaration of Independence (full text version)


When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

*Translation – This document will explain why we want independence!


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Questions: Describe the “unalienable rights” in your own words. What rights and freedoms do you have now that you think the government should protect? Where does government get its power? What if a government does not defend the rights of its citizens? What are some groups that were not treated equally during colonial times?


    • Abuses 1 – 12 abuses involve King George III’s establishment of a tyrannical authority in place of representative government.  King George III rejected legislation proposed by the colonies, and replacing colonial governments with his appointed ministers. The King is a tyrant, because he keeps standing armies in the colonies during a time of peace, makes the military power superior to the civil government, and forces the colonists to support the military presence through increased taxes.
    • Abuses 13 – 22 describe the involvement of Parliament in destroying the colonists’ right to self-rule. Legislation has been passed to quarter troops in the colonies, to shut off trade with other parts of the world, to levy taxes without the consent of colonial legislatures, to take away the right to trial by jury, and to force colonists to be tried in England.
    • Abuses 23 – 27 refer to specific actions that the King George III took to abandon the colonies and to wage war against them. For example, the American sailors were regularly kidnapped and forced to serve in the British navy.

Question: Which grievance do you consider the most important?


We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Questions: What powers do the new United States have? Who do you think was the intended audience of this declaration (name as many people or groups as you can)?




These are GREAT ideas from the Declaration of Independence:

    • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
    • A government is a contract with the citizens. People give up some of their freedoms, so that government will protect their rights.
    • If a government does not protect the rights its citizens, then they can and should change the government or start a new one.

BUT consider the following:

    • Thomas Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers owned slaves.
    • Slavery was still legal and enforced in all 13 colonies when the Declaration was signed.
    • Most countries in Europe were ruled by Kings who believed they were given their power directly from God, and could rule however they wanted.
    • Britain and the American colonies did have elections, but only wealthy men could vote or hold political office. Women and poor men did not have any political rights.

Pretend you live during 1776, and you have just read the Declaration of Independence.

Write a brief diary journal from the point of view of: (pick any three)

  • A Loyalist in America
  • A Son of Liberty
  • A woman
  • A free person of color
  • A poor person
  • The British King
  • The British Parliament
  • The French King



Comments and feedback welcome!

The Tipping Point – Making a Common Sense Argument for Independence

 “Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”  – Thomas Paine Common Sense 




Common Sense is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine that inspired the American colonials to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the winter of early 1776. It was published after the fighting broke out between the British and colonists, but before the Declaration of Independence. In clear, simple language it explained the advantages of, and the need for, immediate independence from Britain.

Common Sense targeted a popular audience, and was written in a straightforward and simple way, so Paine’s political ideas were understandable to everyone, even uneducated or illiterate colonists. This brought “average” colonists into political debate for the first time.

Before Common Sense, many colonists still thought of themselves as British citizens who were just angry at their government. But afterward, many colonists wanted to break away and form a new country.

The Declaration of Independence was written and signed just a few months after Common Sense was published.



Here is an abridged interpretation of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. (The actual pamphlet is quite long…you really need to break it down to use it in the classroom.)

The Purpose of Government

Society and government are two separate things. People in society do what they want in search of happiness. Government exists because of what people do wrong – it sets limits on the behavior of people. At best, government is a necessary evil. At worst, government is intolerable.

Without government, society has absolute freedom. People can do anything wish. Unfortunately, people can and do commit evil. Government punishes evil doers, hence, government protects society. Therefore, we give up some of our freedom to create a government to protect our natural rights; life, liberty and possessions. (SOCIAL CONTRACT!!!)

We elect representatives to our government to make sure that government protects the natural right of citizens. Elections should be held often so that representatives can be reminded of what citizens want. Frequent elections will also keep representatives from becoming corrupt. This will make for a happy relationship between society and government.

The English Government

Simple things are easily run and easily fixed. The English government is too complicated. When something breaks, it is difficult to even know what is wrong. The English government promises much but delivers little. Let us examine the three parts of the English government: the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

Since the King and members of the House of Lords are not elected, they do not care about the people. Members of the House of Commons are elected and are the only true voice of the people. Yet, the King tells Parliament (Lords and Commons) what to do, and Parliament does it.

The Rule of Kings

It is ridiculous that one capable man who becomes king should have all future generations of his family also rule. His son might be a dictator or a fool. England has had a few good monarchs but many bad ones. Another evil of kings is that someone else rules in his place when a king is too young or too old. Kings do not make good governments. Under kings, there have been at least eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions. In England, all a king does is start wars and give away property. One honest man is worth all the kings who ever lived.

The Current Situation in America

On the following, I offer nothing more than common sense. War will decide who will rule America. Some say that America needs Britain to be successful, but they are wrong. America would have been great without Europe. People escaped from Europe to come to America for political and religious freedom. And to call Americans “Englishmen” is wrong since many people in America come from other countries.

America has no advantage by being connected with Great Britain. Our relationship with Britain has brought America into war with other nations. Whenever Britain goes to war, it disrupts American trade with other European countries. It is better that America stay out of European problems.

There are those who cannot see the abuses of Britain. If you believe that peace can be made, you are lying to yourself and you have the heart of a coward.

The Ability of America to Fight a War

I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who has not said the colonies and Great Britain would separate at one time or other. The time is now. It is cheaper to fight than to spend millions to repeal acts of Parliament. We are united and this continent has the largest number of armed men of any power in the world. It would be easy for America to build a navy; we have the resources of tar, timber, iron, and cordage. America builds some of the best ships, most of them are not fit to use. Our arms are equal to any country, and we can produce our own gunpowder and cannon.


To conclude, many reasons may be given for independence. Some of which are:

      • First – other nations cannot solve our conflict as long as we are considered a part of Britain. Hence the conflict will go on forever.
      • Second – France and Spain will not help us if we do not break with Britain.
      • Third – we must not be seen as Englishman and rebels fighting Britain but as different people seeking independence.
      • Fourth – if we sent a document to foreign governments stating British abuses and our failed attempts to peaceably fix them, and showed that we were pushed towards separating from Britain, it would do us great good.

 Until independence is declared, America will suffer.


Questions to consider

1. What is the social contract theory of government?

2. Who was the intended audience of Common Sense?

3. According to Common Sense, why should America declare independence?

4. Which argument for independence do you think is most important? Least important?

5. How do you think loyalists reacted to Common Sense when they read it?


Comments and feedback welcome!

Survivor #50595

Our English classes are studying literature from the Holocaust, and today Holocaust survivor Julius Jacobs came to to tell his story to our entire 8th grade class. In addition to visiting our school for the past ten years, Julius has spoken to dozens of other schools, churches and civic groups.

I’ve took Holocaust studies as an undergrad, read survivor autobiographies, and I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., but I’ve never personally had the opportunity to hear a survivor account in person. Of course, it’s just different…more powerful. Basically, I got to have the experience that I wanted my students to have when we looked at modern day slavery.

It was particularly crushing to see and hear the Julius’s anguish, even 70 years later, as he recalled the last time he saw his mother and father at “the selection” in Auschwitz. Julius was actually selected not once, but twice for selection himself, and both times was saved by good fortune.

The last question Julius took from the a student in the audience was, “Why do you keep telling your story?

Julius’s answer was elegant and heartfelt. He swore to God that if he survived, he would spend his life telling others what happened. He wants us to never forget what people are capable of if they are governed by fear and hate. Do not judge others for their differences. Our differences do not matter. We are all one people.

Sometimes life just drops a teachable moment in your lap.

When we got back to class, I asked the students to consider the similarities between experiences of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and experiences of the African slaves. Here are some of the comparisons they came up with.

Both Jews and Africans were:

Killed in the millions.

Forced to work as slaves for the benefit of their masters.

Mistreated or killed by their captors for any reason…or no reason.

Allowed barely enough food, clothing or shelter to survive.

Died from starvation, disease and suicide.

Forcibly separated from their families.

Persecuted simply for belonging to a certain group.

Treated as “other” or “less than”.


Julius Jacobs dedication page

Comments and feedback welcome!

Close Reading: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


I won’t lie…although I don’t regret any of the lessons I’ve developed, or the discussions we’ve had in class, this slavery unit is starting to feel too long. It’s hard to tell though, we’ve had so many school cancellations and delays for weather, plus the President’s Day holiday, that my perspective is probably off. All told I think it will be three total weeks of class by the time all is said and done. A long unit to be sure, but not crazy long. But still, if I’m starting to feel it, then the students must certainly be ready to move on. Oh well, in the home stretch now.

After our introduction with modern day slavery, we examined the horrors of the Middle Passage, the Virginia slave codes, and a comprehensive timeline of slavery throughout all of the thirteen colonies. One of my overarching goals for this unit was to help my students to appreciate the full extent and power of the system that was in place to virtually eliminate any possibility that slaves would fight back or try to run away…because if they don’t understand that simple, powerful truth, then I fear that the inevitable, if unstated, conclusion would be that the slaves were too unintelligent, weak, or cowardly to do so.

As a culminating activity for our slavery unit, I wanted to use a primary source to help students see daily life from a slave’s point of view. Our curriculum does not extend to the mid-1800’s, but I felt that the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was the best overall resource available due to its relatively accessible language, vivid imagery, and well-known author. Additionally, I wanted to finally try my hand at a structured close reading lesson, something which I had never done before.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a fairly quick read at only 188 pages, but close reading is a time intensive activity, so I knew that I wanted to work with an abridged version. Luckily, the work is in the public domain and available in full text online, so it only took an hour or so to create a customized primary source to fit perfectly within the unit! I decided to focus on the first few chapters where Douglass describes his life as a child in slavery.

I took about ten minutes or so to introduce Frederick Douglass to the class. When students arrived, the picture above was on the screen. When I asked students if they had heard of Douglass, many hands went up, but only a few knew anything concrete about him. The most common knowledge was that he used to be a slave. I gave a brief overview of his life, including some context on the national and regional attitudes toward slavery in his time. Then I showed a quick video introduction, which largely reinforced what I had already presented. On a side note, I found a surprising dearth of short Frederick Douglass biographies on YouTube given his importance in our country’s history. There were a handful of longer format documentaries, but the video below was one of the few worth using that was under 5 minutes run time.



The abridged text that we used included excerpts from three chapters of the Narrative, so I basically just repeated the procedure below three times. I think that pacing is a particularly important concern with close reading to keep it from getting bogged down. I actually used a little electronic stopwatch during steps 2, 3, 4 and 6. Even so, with the introduction, and a follow up day for the students to complete an activity reflection and develop a rough draft, the whole lesson will take us six days to complete.

Step 1: Read aloud

Each chapter excerpt is only 3-5 paragraphs, so this part only took a few minutes. I read aloud while students silently read along. Since the passage was fairly short, I took a little bit of time to bring it to life a bit by speeding up, slowing down or pausing to build tension, and changing my inflection to cue students to particularly strong ideas. However, I did not give additional commentary or context…it’s OK for students to come out of this part with questions for clarification.

Once I finished reading, I told the students which paragraphs we are going to focus on for deeper analysis. (For each chapter, I pre-selected two paragraphs for close reading and discussion.)

Step 2: Re-read and post it

Students had 3-5 minutes (depending on the class) to silently re-read the two paragraphs and use colored Post-It strips to highlight important information. I asked them to use one pink strip for each paragraph, and least one yellow strip for both paragraphs combined. At first, I said that students only needed to use a yellow strip to mark a spot that they didn’t understand but, surprise surprise, very few students were willing use a cute little flag to inform me and their peers that they didn’t “get it”. However, one simple change yielded great results!


Step 3: Reader 1/Reader 2 annotations

Each student was given a graphic organizer that aligns with the paragraphs of the reading.

Students had five minutes to complete annotations as Reader 1. I repeatedly reinforced the idea that they should respond to the reading, rather than just try to summarize it. Bullet points were OK. Opinions, emotions, and personal connections were OK. The Post It notes were a great anchor for this part, and I told them, “If you don’t know what to write, write about your Post It notes.”

Then, students had another five minutes to do second round of annotations as Reader 2. To ensure that they saw a variety of responses, I did not have students pair up. Instead, they exchanged papers in their small groups a different way (clockwise – counterclockwise – diagonal) for each chapter. They had to read the Reader 1 comments before they wrote anything as Reader 2. They could not repeat any information. However, they could respond to Reader 1 by agreeing, disagreeing, adding more information, etc. I think that the Reader 2 role was a bit tricky for students to “get” at first, but by the second time around, they were doing great.

Step 4: Pair and share small group discussion

Three to five minutes for students to talk about their annotations in their small groups. This is one of my most frequently used strategies, so the students are very accomplished at it by this point. I feel it is a terrific way for all students to share, and hear different ideas prior to, or during, class discussion.

Step 5: Class discussion

I did not have set agenda for this part because I wanted to be responsive to their questions and concerns. Again, my goal was for students to have a general sense of the daily life of a slave, rather than recall any one specific fact. However, since we were only discussing two paragraphs of text, it was pretty easy to hit all of the main ideas in 15-20 minutes. I use numbered popsicle sticks for random selection, so I just grabbed four or five and started calling on people…summarize each paragraph, what quote did you pick and why, what else did you want to know that wasn’t in the text, etc.

Step 6: Summary journal

Students had 10 minutes to complete a summary of the two paragraphs. We do 3-5 sentence journals almost everyday as warm ups or exit slips, so they are very comfortable with that. Even so, I was initially surprised at how much longer it took the students to summarize the text, but in retrospect, that made sense given that we were using a primary source instead of a textbook.



So, I am still in the middle of things (we are doing class discussion for the second chapter tomorrow), but it seems to be going well so far. I am definitely looking forward to the students’ feedback on their unit reflection journals!


Check out what the students thought about this lesson!


Comments and feedback welcome!