Students explore the history of Syria from the Ottoman Empire to French colonial rule, Syrian independence, and the rise of the Assad regimes as historical background to understand the recent conflict.
In this lesson, students will:
- Read stories of Syrian refugees to learn more about the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis in Syria.
- Analyze how comics reveal the experiences of individuals.
- Consider how the stories of individuals can inform understanding of a larger political context.
All comics are provided by PositiveNegatives. PositiveNegatives brings contemporary humanitarian and social issues (such as racism, conflict, migration, trafficking, and climate change) into the classroom through interactive literary comic books based on real-life testimony.
Note: The comics deal with intense content, and some parts may be upsetting for students to read. Be sure to preview the comics to make sure they are appropriate for your classroom.
You may wish to complete this lesson over the course of two class periods.
In the Classroom
1. Build Background Knowledge
Ask students what they know or have heard or read about the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria. It may be helpful to locate Syria and surrounding countries on a map. Then distribute the reading, “Overview: The Civil War & Refugee Crisis in Syria,” and have students follow the instructions for reading the text. You may choose to have students skim the key terms and then read these more carefully as they encounter each term in the comics.
After reading, have students turn to a classmate to share the new information they underlined in the text. Invite students to share any questions the reading raised for them. Answer clarifying questions about the information in the text.
2. Introduce Comics
Ask students what they think is the purpose of a comic strip. You may wish to post the definition: A comic strip is a series of drawings arranged in panels to tell a story, usually with text in balloons and captions. Explain that, while some comics deal with humorous content, others can tell serious stories. Introduce the comics that students will explore today, explaining that each one tells a true story of an individual from Syria seeking asylum. The comics are based on testimonies from Syrians seeking asylum in Scandinavia in 2015.
Post the lesson’s guiding questions on the board: “How can we learn about history or current events through an individual’s story? How do comics help us do this?” Invite students to share initial thoughts about these questions.
3. Model Reading a Comic
Distribute the handout, “How to Read a Comic” and review it with students. Select an excerpt from one of the comics to read aloud to the class. (It will be important to project the comic as you read or distribute copies to students.) As you read, model using the strategies for basic comprehension that are shown on the “How to Read a Comic” handout. For example, demonstrate how to follow the order of the panels, re-reading and following a different order if your first attempt at the panel sequence did not make sense. Notice the distinction between captions, thought bubbles, and word balloons. Using the questions at the bottom of the handout, have students help you retell what is happening in this moment of the story.
Distribute the handout, “How to Analyze a Comic.” Explain to students that these prompts will help them think more deeply about the techniques the authors used in their comics. Ask students how they would respond to prompts on the handout based on the excerpt you just read aloud. If this seems challenging, demonstrate how you would respond to the handout prompts to analyze the imagery, text, and tone of the comic.
Have students pair up, and assign each pair one of the three comics that you did not use in the model portion of the lesson. Tell students that they will be responsible for understanding their comic and sharing about it with classmates who did not read the same one. In pairs, students should read the comic they were assigned three times, with a different purpose on each read (it may be helpful to post these three tasks on the board):
- to get an overall sense of the story and see what stands out to them;
- to fill out the “One Refugee’s Journey” handout based on their character’s story; and
- to fill out the “How to Analyze a Comic” handout.
Once all pairs have read their comic three times and completed the associated handouts, form groups of either three or six students (depending on whether you decide to have partners stay together or split up to share about their story). Make sure that all three comics are represented in each group. Within these groups, have students take turns sharing information from “One Refugee’s Journey” and some ideas they recorded on “How to Analyze a Comic.” After each story has been presented, groups should discuss similarities and differences they notice across the three stories. You may choose to have each group chart key ideas that come out of their conversation.
5. Closing Discussion
Have each jigsaw group share a few key ideas that emerged in their group discussion. Return to the lesson’s guiding questions, and ask students to use the comic they examined and their jigsaw conversations to reflect on their thinking about these questions now. How do these comics add to their understanding of the bigger political context introduced in the “Overview” text? How is the information in the comics similar to and different from the information in an article or on a news broadcast about the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria? What have these comics made students want to learn more about?
- Have students explore current data on the Syrian refugee crisis from the website of the United Nations Refugee Agency and then present a brief report to the class on the data that stands out most to them.
- Have students read these stories of refugees from different countries, published by the UN Refugee Agency. Invite students to use the techniques discussed in this lesson to create their own comic about one of these individuals’ stories.
- Have students explore video stories about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, from Al Jazeera’s Life on Hold series. The site includes a place for viewers to leave comments for each refugee. Invite students to click “Add your thoughts to the wall” to leave a comment for a refugee or to see others’ posts. You may wish to orient students to the website to be sure they know where to find important features. Each refugee’s page provides a main video that is about eight minutes long as well as a small map that shows this person’s route. Note: The videos are intense and may be upsetting for students to watch. Be sure to preview the videos to make sure they are appropriate for your classroom.