Classrooms Without Borders shares Israel-Hamas curricula, but some local educators can’t talk about it
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Classrooms Without Borders shares Israel-Hamas curricula, but some local educators can’t talk about it

New resources help teachers and students navigate the moment, but with knowledge comes difficulty

With reliance on scholarship, curricula address present concerns. (Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr at https://rb.gy/a4cdfa)
With reliance on scholarship, curricula address present concerns. (Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr at https://rb.gy/a4cdfa)

As students sat at their desks, James Lucot, a history teacher at Seneca Valley Senior High School, discussed the Israel-Hamas war. Tensions inside his classroom increased. One student kept referencing their family in East Jerusalem. Another student cited sentiments freely flowing on social media.

“We had some potential for contention,” Lucot said.

The educator, with more than 20 years of experience, saw a path forward.

“I said, ‘I will concede that you know more about this subject than I do,’” he said.

Lucot’s classroom admission didn’t signal defeat, he told the Chronicle. Rather, it demonstrated an unwavering commitment to a long-held philosophy.

“My students sit at desks all day hearing from people who say they have every answer to every question,” Lucot said. “What I tell my students is, if you’re ever in an environment where someone claims to have every answer on every topic, you should get up and walk out.”

By acknowledging his willingness to learn, Lucot said, the classroom conversation increased.

Students revisited and questioned their earlier perspectives. Terms, like “hostage” and “prisoner,” were no longer hurled with accusations, but instead addressed and defined in ways that fostered greater insight into the war.

The Seneca Valley educator credited Classrooms Without Borders, and its vast resources, with aiding his professional growth and knowledge regarding complex geo-political affairs.

Founded in 2011 by Tsipy Gur, the Pittsburgh-based organization offers seminars, travel experiences and comprehensive materials for educators.

Weeks ago, CWB released updated curricula and guides for middle school and high school educators interested in teaching about Israel. Topics include dilemmas faced by the Jewish state, a brief history of Israel and the Palestinians, and a consideration of local demographics.

Tsipy Gur stands at the Lidice Memorial for Children during a 2023 Classrooms Without Borders seminar in Europe. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz

Releasing these materials now is essential, according to Gur.

“After Oct. 7, many of the teachers we support wanted to learn how to teach about this with students,” she said. “The teachers needed help so we did what we needed to do.”

Shortly after the war began, Kate Lukaszewicz, CWB’s education programs director, and Avi Ben-Hur, CWB’s scholar in residence, drafted, revised and released relevant lesson plans.

The goal, Lukaszewicz said, wasn’t just sharing sources specific to the current conflict but prompting broader study.

One topic raised within CWB’s curricula is whether a state should prioritize releasing hostages or protecting national security. Another question probes whether a country can wage a “moral war.”

“We knew it would be important to get instructional resources to our educators so they could address this moment between Israel and Hamas with clarity, confidently and with high-quality factual materials,” Lukaszewicz said. What also became obvious was that “we needed to encourage students that these are understandings and skills they can apply in other contexts in their lives.”

Researchers use the term “transfer” to describe the “cognitive practice” when a student’s mastery in one area facilitates the application of that knowledge or skill in a separate setting, according to Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Lukaszewicz said she hopes CWB’s materials lead to that outcome.

Gur agreed but said the immediate need for quality materials is evidenced by a current climate in which many students and educators feel silenced.

One teacher who relies on CWB materials declined to speak with the Chronicle.

Gur said two other educators told her that despite using CWB resources to learn about the Israel-Hamas war, they were not permitted to speak with the media.

Across the commonwealth, other prohibitive measures are occurring.

Last month, Bucks County Herald reported that 10 of the county’s 13 districts have policies requiring teachers and staff to obtain approval before speaking with journalists.

Two years earlier, Philadelphia’s Board of Education began requiring all district employees to receive permission from the district’s communications office before addressing the media.

Pittsburgh Public Schools policy 311 doesn’t bar employees from talking to the press, but describes the district’s ability to limit an employee’s free speech: “The District has a heightened interest in monitoring speech made by an employee in his/her professional capacity in a school setting.”

Gur said she’s pleased so many educators benefit from CWB, but worries about a future in which fundamental democratic practices are stymied.

Lucot said he, too, is worried, mostly about a societal willingness to traffic misinformation.

Students readily use terms like “socialist,” “fascist,” “Marxist” and “communist,” without knowing what they mean, he said, and “there has to be a concerted effort on tolerance and understanding.”

Four months into the Israel-Hamas war, the necessary lessons may already be ancient; nearly 2,400 years ago, Diogenes, a Greek philosopher, offered prescient instruction to today’s teachers, districts and administrators.

His words, which are inscribed on the Pittsburgh Allderdice building, read, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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