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?

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!

Student Responses to Modern Day Slavery

These are a sampling of student response to our lesson on Modern Day Slavery. All quotes are printed with permission of the authors.


“We are all living on the same earth, and we are supposed to all be equal importance, but still people are enslaved without choice.”

“The whole idea of stealing someone’s life to benefit your own makes me wonder what people think justifies their actions, and how they can go so long staring at people break down in front of them.”

“It angers me that there are still so many people that are slaves. Every single human being has rights, so why do some people treat them like they have none? The word that comes to mind when I think of slavery is captivity. This is because those people are held against their will, but they know nothing else. They are literally like animals in a zoo because of the way people treat them.”

“It is very upsetting to know that people in the land of the free are still in slavery. How are we letting that happen anywhere, even more so in our own country?”

“I don’t understand how people could have slaves. It is so wrong to have somebody else do work that nobody should go through just to make your life better. There should be more people that are educated about slavery so we can end it. I think we all take the way our lives are for granted, but so many of us forget about all those who have no choice in how they live their lives.”

“When I saw the images on the video, I was so angry, screaming inside, that this should be illegal. The children had to work so hard, and I thought that school was hard. I think that the U.S.A. should help and donate. Then again, I think that if we donate money and food the slave owners will just keep it for themselves and not tell the slaves. If I could, I would donate anything to the slaves personally.”

“I feel disgusted at myself. 5 years ago I would cry if I didn’t get the toy I wanted, but 5 years ago there were children even younger than me being killed over money. Most of the older slaves are slaves who have survived the harsh conditions from a young age. Once you are a slave you can’t ever be free again. Those young children will be working forever. They won’t have a life. Looking back on it, I have taken so many things for granted. A house, school, bed and food are all things slaves don’t receive. They will probably never have the chance to be a normal human being.”

“I am disgusted by the slave owners. It is disgusting that some people have the mindset that they are more important than other people; that some people are unequal to them.”

“I am just so angry and upset that people can be so cruel towards other humans. They don’t have the decency to treat them right. People are more focused on money than morals and doing the right thing. I’m just ashamed that parts of our society has come to this. I was very upset that young children will not have a real life or good future, but will have to endure the trauma. I think we need to help make a change and we all can try. This just made me really thankful for my freedom.”

“I am so disappointed. I can’t believe no one is doing something about this. If I were those girls I would be scared and alone.”

“I don’t understand how this is even possible to happen in such open areas. Why can’t people stop slavery? I feel so stupid and helpless because I can’t do anything to help stop it, because we don’t even know when or where it is going on.”

“I can’t believe that slavery still exists. I had no idea until today. No one should be treated the way those people are. People who have slaves are wasting so many lives. I hope that one day slavery wouldn’t exist. I feel so bad for the people who can’t even drink fresh water. I take so much for granted.”

“I think that we should end slavery because it is not fair that they have to do physical labor their whole lives without getting paid and having no education. They should get the same chances that we get like to go to school and get a job.”

“Not am I just angry, I am furious. This is unfair that this is happening to these people. Why are we not freeing them? Why are we not giving them the life that every human deserves? Why do so many people sit back and not even think about this? People should stop worrying about money and actually focus on the real problems in this world.”

“I think that it’s really depressing that an issue that involves so many people, not as many people know it’s going on. I think it’s unfair that some people are free their entire lives and some are trapped forever in a never-ending cycle, never to escape and waiting for someone to come help. Some people never have happy endings.”

“I think that I am so selfish for being sad because these people have no clue that there is even a life out there for them. That’s their life…working. They don’t even know they are slaves, they think it is normal because they have no way to know. They don’t deserve that.”

“A crushing feeling. One that reminds you that it was there every time you breath. There is no way to explain it, but I suppose it is guilt. I feel guilty because I know with every breath I take, someone that I never met is taking their last because we, as a society, didn’t do enough.”

“The world is crazy it is all about money and politics. But no one pays attention to the people who need it most.”

“The people who are enslaved are trapped and can’t escape, and their lives are ruined. It’s scary to think about not having any possible chance of a bright future when we are making a big deal about our high school classes.”

“I can’t believe that these things happen to innocent people. I feel ashamed at our world and what people do. Slavery is absolutely the worst thing ever. Now I think what if that was me? I can never stand to do that.”


Comments and feedback welcome!

Building Empathy: Modern Day Slavery

We are about to spend two weeks examining the institution of slavery in colonial America. However, to kick off the unit, I decided to spend two days exploring the idea of modern day slavery. I did this for two reasons:

  1. To help my students develop an appropriate emotional connection to the people they were going to learn about.
  2. To increase the overall relevance of the unit.

I was a bit nervous going in, because this was my first time developing a lesson specificially to build empathy (what if they rebelled against it…or even worse, didn’t care?). But nevertheless, I felt strongly that the effort was worth the risk, and was cautiously optimistic that it would be successful.

Day One: Global Connections

Coming in the door, students saw this map on the board.

Percentage of population that is enslaved.

Source: Washington Post

Happily, many students stopped to examine the map, and even talk about it as they realized what they were looking at.

I spent about five minutes introducing the idea of modern day slavery using the map to highlight “hot spots” like India, S.E. Asia, and Africa, but also to demonstrate the truly global scale, and the fact that United States was part of it.

Then, I told them we were going to use a series of videos to look deeper at modern day slavery, and that it might make them a little sad or mad…but that would be an appropriate response. I did not want them to take any notes during the videos, they just needed to really watch. At the end of the day, they would write a short journal response. (We do a lot of reflection work in class, so they are quite used to using journals as an exit ticket). To prevent the mood from being broken, I had the students get paper and pencil ready to go before the viewing the videos.

The first video was a excellent, quick summary of the facts and figures of modern day slavery. I stopped the video once to explain the concept of trafficking, and how that was what happened to the Africans during the colonial slave trade.


The second video was a real gut-punch in terms of generating empathy. The students were riveted. On a side note, watching this five periods in a row was a bit draining for me.


The students were pretty subdued when I turned the lights on afterward, and there were tears evident here and there. I quietly asked them to spend the last few minutes writing. They could write whatever they wanted. I would eventually collect it, but it wasn’t for a grade. If they wanted to write anonymously, they did not have to put their name on it. It was more important that they express themselves honestly.

Day Two: Close to Home

The warm up for the second day was a PowerPoint slide of a brief journal relfection I created in response to the TED video.

“Although I knew about modern day slavery already, the video really made it more real for me because I saw pictures of people actually living in slavery today. It’s weird to think that right at this moment, they are still out there suffering.”

I shared my thoughts and feelings about the videos, and then asked the students to pair-and-share with partners for a few minutes about their own reaction to the previous day’s content.

While the previous day had focused on global slavery, I wanted to bring the issue closer to home and show students that modern day slavery exists in the United States as well. Again, I asked students to simply watch the final video without taking notes, but assured them that we would have time for discussion and journaling afterward.

I think this video was powerful because it was recent, occured close to us (I teach in Pennsylvania), and the girls that were held in slavery were young, worked in the open, and lived in an ordinary-looking neighborhood. Additionally, I thought it important to hear stories of people that had escaped or been rescued from slavery.


When the video concluded, I told my students that I thought it important that we discuss what we had seen over the past two days. However, I only wanted them to share if they were comfortable, so I promised not to call on anyone unless they volunteered. To provide a non-verbal means of group expression, and to provide structure for the discussion, I invited students to come up to the white board and write a word that best represented their feelings. I led the way by writing “Guilty” and “Hope”. And then I waited…

Each class responded differently. In some, students immediately got up and started writing. In others, there was a bit of hesistation as everyone waited for someone else to go first. My honors class was particularly apprehensive. After a minute or so I helped them out by quickly reading through the lists of words that the other classes had created. That worked like a charm, and students immediately rushed to the board.

Student reaction to modern day slavery


I started discussion by talking about my two words.

Guilty: I feel guilty because I have a good life with a lot of opportunities, and it is painful to see and hear about so many other people trapped in horrible situations. I also have to admit that I’m at least a little bit a part of the problem because some of the things that I own were probably made in part from slave labor. (I didn’t want to beat them over the head with this, but I thought it important to make a connection to the larger global system).

Hopeful: Although the problem is big and scary, it was important to see and hear examples of people that are fighting against it, and people that have escaped or been rescued. (I wanted to plant the seed they can take action. I am hoping to leverage this lesson into a larger service project).

To give all students a chance to verbalize their feelings, I asked them to pick any word from the board that resonated with them, and discuss it with their partners.

After a few minutes, I opened the floor for a wider class discussion. I didn’t really have an agenda for this part, as I just wanted to be responsive to each class. Generally, two or three students led the discussion in each class. If there was a lull, I’d say aloud one of the words from the board, and ask if anyone wanted to respond to it. Sometimes students asked questions like, “How could this happen?” or “Why doesn’t anyone stop it?“.

The only thing I could in those instances was to be honest.

Slavery is about money. People do it because they benefit from it financially.

I don’t know how to stop it, but I want to learn more and try to do something.

Then, I asked them to journal one more time. Again, I gave them no prompt or direction, they could write whatever they wanted. They did not need to put their name on it if they wanted to stay anonymous, but I was going to collect their journals, because their thoughts and feelings were important to me.

Finally, I made a wordle of the combined student one-word responses. I think this will be useful to show later in the unit to help maintain the emotional connection to the content. It also serves as a powerful bond between the students across all of the classes.

Student Response to Modern Day Slavery

For the future, I’d like to get permission from some of the students to make a blog post of their journal responses. Also, I hope to organize interested students into conducting a awareness campaign, and possibly some sort of fundraiser event to support an anti-slavery N.G.O. Fingers crossed…


Check out student journals responses to modern day slavery!

Check out my Frederick Douglass lesson!

Check out what students thought about the lesson!


Comments and feedback welcome!