7 Ways to Get Students Writing about the War in Ukraine

Between this post and my last, a war began. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Like the rise of Nazi Germany after WWI, the conflict in Ukraine has been building for more than twenty years. Putin and his post-Soviet ancestors have been playing a game of Hungry Hippos with the Ukraine and former Soviet satellite states since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, Europe is facing its biggest crisis since WWII.

My students are obsessed with the War in Ukraine. I’m not sure if it’s the heartbreaking Tik Tok content, the surreal threat of nuclear war, the fact that Zelensky has us all ready to write a new Taylor Swift album, or that this is the most televised war in human history. Regardless, they are invested; they want to talk about it. So, let’s let them. 

Here are seven ways for students to write about the War in Ukraine in your class tomorrow:

#1 Map Analysis

An understanding of Eastern European geography is integral to understanding what’s going on in Ukraine. In addition to illuminating the historic geographic ties between Russia and Ukraine, it also provides crucial context for NATO, the UN, the European Union, and the United State’s reactions to the Russian invasion.

The plan: Grab one, two, or all of the maps from this Washington Post article and put them on a slideshow. Project the maps to the class, and ask them to write their answers the following questions:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?
  • What historical events/context would be helpful to understand in order to interpret this map?
  • What does this map reveal about the war in Ukraine?

Discuss afterwards as a class. Stop there, or use this as a building block to more complex analysis of the crisis.

#2 Editorial Essay

This one needs little to no explanation for all of you ELA teachers!

The plan: Choose an editorial relating to the Ukrainian crisis– The Atlantic has been knocking it out of the park– and assign it as a flipped classroom reading. Create questions for students to answer questions that analyze the writer’s moves, argumentation, and ideas. As a class or in reading circles, ask students to discuss their answers and generate noticings about the mentor text

These are some of my favorite reads about the war so far:

Students can write their own editorials in response to a specific aspect of the War in Ukraine using the mentor text as their guide. If they can complete their essay in 450 words or less, students can even submit their writing to the NYT Student Editorial Contest!

#3 Reflection Warm-up

My students are not just interested in the War in Ukraine, they are stressed about it. Though located on another continent, the internet makes the conflict feel close. The Ukrainian Crisis along with the pandemic are shaping up to be the 9/11 of this generation. They need space to express their concerns and fears.

The plan: Consider assigning this Vox mini-documentary, which provides primary-source footage and well-summarized facts about the War in Ukraine in less than 10 minutes, as a flipped classroom assignment. Then, ask students to write their answers to the following questions:

  • What do you know about the War in Ukraine?
  • What media have you been exposed to so far that has covered the War in Ukraine?
  • How does the War in Ukraine make you feel? Frustrated? Sad? Scared? Explain.
  • Do you feel connected to the War? If so, how?
  • What are some ways you might help people affected by the War?

Stop there, or ask students to discuss their answers in small groups.

#4 Primary Source Found Poem

As a social studies teacher, I didn’t learn about found poems until a couple of years into my teaching career. Essentially, students take a piece of writing and pull words or short phrases (30-100) from it to rearrange into a poem of their own creation. It’s a great way to analyze a text for ideas and themes. It also bolsters students’ creativity. I use found poems in my social studies classes exclusively with primary sources.

The plan: Ask students to read a speech by Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. (Here’s one from the Munich Security Conference and one to the European Parliament.) Students will then identify a theme from the speech that they wish to create a poem about (e.g., international solidarity or Ukrainian resilience). Ask the students to read back through the speech, circling or writing down words or phrases that connect to their chosen theme. Students will create a poem about their chosen theme using the words they selected. (My students will write their final poems on Ukrainian flags that we will make out of construction paper. We’ll hang the final poems all over my room. Pics soon to come!)

#5 An Editorial Cartoon

Anyone who’s ever taught with me knows I love getting my students to create editorial cartoons to study current events. Editorial cartoons encourage students to be creative, make clear arguments, understand historical context, and to be clever. It also encourages them to evaluate current events for themselves.

The plan: Students should find a news article relating to the War in Ukraine from an accredited news organization of their choosing. After reading the article, they should create an editorial cartoon providing their opinion on what the author discussed. The cartoon should have one, central image and a caption.

Here’s a more detailed set of instructions that I provide for editorial cartoons. Please feel free to use, but do not reproduce it as your own 🙂

#6 Use “We Lived Happily During the War” as a Mentor Text

In his viral poem, “We Lived Happily During the War”, Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky grapples with the discomfort of being an onlooker to conflict and crisis.

The plan: Give students Kaminsky’s poem to annotate. Encourage them to look for moves that relate to style, diction, and sentence structure. Students might notice that Kaminsky plays with personal pronouns to create distance or intimacy and that he uses repetition to broaden the geographic scope of his point of view.

Feel free to stop here or use this as a starting point for students to create their own poems with Kaminsky’s as a model.

#7 Thesis Statement Practice

If I feel crunched for time, I like to use current events as practice topics for writing claim statements. It is such a great way to kill two birds with one stone– current event study and thesis development. Use this as a quick warm-up activity for your students.

The plan: Choose an article or video on the War in Ukraine to give students as a flipped classroom assignment (or no need, if you have already brought them up to speed on the crisis). Then, as a class or as part of the flipped assignment, watch this video on how to create a Big Idea Claim:

Ask students to write their own Big Idea Claims in response to what they have learned, read, or watched about the War in Ukraine. Have students switch their claim statements with one another and provide feedback based on the techniques and strategies highlighted in the Mini Moves video.

As a social studies teacher, I can find myself sticking so rigidly to my curriculum that I forget that history is not just the study of the past– history is actively creating itself around us in this very moment. I need to remind myself to give students space to write, discuss, and create in response to current events, because in this way, too, they can be historians.

I hope that by my next post the War in Ukraine has ended and Ukrainians can safely return to an independent, democratic nation.


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