War in Ukraine highlights challenges Utah educators face when teaching current events

Mar 1, 2022, 6:09 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 9:52 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Inside a geography classroom at Skyline High School, Tuesday’s lesson deviated from the original curriculum plan.

“As soon as things started to happen, they were immediately [saying], ‘I want to learn this, I want to learn this.’ They’re very eager,” Melinda Reay said about her students.

Melinda Reay, a social studies educator at Skyline High School in the Granite School District. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)

Last week, as news broke of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reay gave her class the option of a 15-minute lecture on what she knew about the situation at the time, or a full-period discussion this week. They chose the latter.

“They were very, very good on Thursday, to be prepared for today’s lesson, because they really did want to know in-depth,” she said. “They don’t just want to know a surface level. They want to go deep into this.”

Class started with Reay calling for a show of hands from students who heard about Ukraine outside of her classroom. Nearly every hand went up.

Students have seen viral tweets and Tik Tok videos, Reay explained, that include little context about the situation and can perpetuate misinformation.

“They’ve seen jokes about, you know, the draft, for example, or they’ve seen jokes about Russia invading into America, and kind of like a little bit of information that just isn’t necessarily true,” she said. “And so, providing clarity in the class helps them to be able to really understand what’s going on.”

The lesson covered the region’s history leading up to today’s ongoing conflict and incorporated social media posts and clips of news coverage from Ukraine. Reay said she spent several hours working on it outside of the classroom and over the weekend.

“One of the big things that’s important in my class is being aware of the world around you, because curriculum doesn’t matter unless it applies to actual real-life situations,” she said. “And what better way than what’s happening right now in Ukraine.”

It’s a challenging topic to teach though, Reay said, noting that she’s taught several students who have Ukrainian or Russian heritage and can find the material to be sensitive. She said it’s also become more difficult for educators to teach current events in general, due to heightened political tension and pending legislation.

“We have a lot of legislation right now that could require, you know, us posting lesson plans, months in advance, which can be really difficult when we have current events like this,” she said.

Multiple bills introduced in the Utah State Legislature this year target curriculum and learning materials for additional restrictions and requirements, including HB374, SB114 and SB157.

Another proposed measure, HB234, was met with strong pushback from educators and a petition. It would require all public school teachers in Utah to make all learning materials and syllabi available for parental review. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, sponsored the bill, but is no longer pursuing it this session.

Despite the balancing act that teaching current events requires, Reay said she believes it’s necessary to help her students become informed citizens.

“Education was originally started to make better citizens,” Reay said. “And so social studies teachers, that’s our job, we have to make better citizens. And to make a better citizen, they have to be informed. They have to understand what’s happening in the world around them.”

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War in Ukraine highlights challenges Utah educators face when teaching current events