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How the war in Gaza can teach students empathy

John Fredericks
John Fredericks

As my students prepare for winter break, one of the most important things we do in class is reflect on the year: how we’ve grown, the skills we’ve learned and what the world has shown us. This year, I can’t avoid these questions without broaching the topic of Israel, Hamas and the war in Gaza.

Hamas's attack on Israel, and Israel’s retaliation on the people of Gaza, present each teacher with the same question: How do I talk about this with my students? Wars such as the one in Gaza don’t fit neatly into a lesson plan or on an agenda board. It’s a complex issue containing a multitude of perspectives and requiring a vast knowledge of historical context. 

Some teachers may be equipped to traverse this landscape, while others may feel that the topic is too emotionally charged, too political or too explosive. For those of us who want to discuss the war in Gaza with our students, but don’t know how, one way into the conversation is to focus on the immense trauma that both the children of Israel and those living in Palestine experience. 

I accomplish this task by teaching students to write about their own trauma, wherein they can learn empathy and, with careful guidance, extend that empathy to children — indeed, students — who have been thrust into an awful situation halfway around the world. Exercises such as this help my students reflect on how their emotions are linked to the human condition, no matter the context.

I do this every year through an essay prompt: “Describe a time you’ve overcome an obstacle.” I have assigned this essay with success since I began my career teaching freshman writing courses at the University of Nevada, Reno. In those days, students at UNR enjoyed the opportunity to write a personal narrative designed to get them thinking about their life and reflecting on how they could grow from their successes and failures. In my high school classroom today, it is also meant as a way for students in Mississippi to access their trauma. 

I start this assignment with my story. I tell them about my home life as a child, my sister’s struggles with mental health and drug addiction, my father’s turbulent years living out of his car and how high school became a sanctuary for me, because of a few, very influential teachers who provided stability and support.

The students hear my story and, after copious questions about life without a smartphone, are ready to write their own essay.

This year, one of my sophomores — I’ll call her Jessica — described her most recent breakup. She drew a meandering picture of teenage love, before revealing that her boyfriend cheated on her. Her trust broken, she ended the essay by explaining that in order for her to grow, she had to cut this boy loose and focus on her self-esteem.

Essays such as Jessica’s flood my desk: students who don’t make the basketball team, fractured relationships with parents, failure to pass a driving test.

I read other stories, too.

Stories such as that of my student “Christina,” who experienced a series of traumatic events so devastating that they rival almost any I’ve read in my 11 years as an educator. In order to protect her privacy and respect her story, I won’t share the details of Christina’s trauma here. Her essay was a difficult one to read, but Christina made clear that out of her trauma came her son, whom she loves more than anything and will fight hard to protect. 

Through their essays, Jessica and Christina have recounted an important event in their lives and learned to process it with an honest accounting of their emotions. 

Once my students have written their own story, they’re ready to hear others. Through their writing, they have trained their ears to trauma. They can now listen closely to the stories of children living in Israel and Gaza and access the same emotions of fear, loneliness, hunger and bravery that they have experienced in their own lives and written about in my classroom. 

When I introduced my students to some articles about the conflict a few weeks ago, most of the questions I fielded were not about the historical underpinnings of the conflict or the machinations of war, but about how the children of Gaza — children like them — felt. How did these kids deal with such stress and trauma? What can we do to help?

Christina has also learned the power of story. Earlier this year, she found herself in trouble for a fight in the lunchroom. I was the closest teacher to the fight and escorted her to the library to cool off and wait for an administrator. While in the library, she told me, “I just feel so much anger. I’ve been through too much. It’s not fair.”

Grasping for the right words. I told her that she will not feel this level of anger forever. I asked her about the girl she tried to fight. “Do you know her story?”

“No,” she said. “But I’ll find out.”

John Fredericks teaches English language arts and AP English literature at West Tallahatchie High School in Webb, Mississippi, and is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus senior writing fellow.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].


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