S. Burlington teacher sharing experience in Ukraine to develop empathy in the classroom
As the world has grappled with Russia’s war on Ukraine these last 12 months, students are learning about the many facets of war — alliances, conflicts, sanctions, refugee resettlement and the tragedy of lives lost.
One teacher at South Burlington High School is using her prior experience as an educator in Ukraine to help students understand these stages of conflict, with Russia and Ukraine as the backdrop.
Christie Nold spent two years living and teaching in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with teacher Christie Nold. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Tell me about your time in Ukraine, how did you come to be there in the first place, and what was the political and cultural atmosphere like where you lived and worked?
Christie Nold: I was finishing up a master's program at the University of Vermont focused on Holocaust and genocide studies, really looking at post-Soviet countries and how they were grappling with their memory of that time. And I had spent all of this time deeply engaged in a thesis that I was really excited about. And my professors did a wonderful job feigning excitement about it and ultimately, it felt like a fairly selfish intellectual pursuit.
So I was ready to do something that involved a bit more action, and decided to sign up for the Peace Corps. And because of my experience with Eastern Europe through my studies, and also because of my background in education, I was placed in Ukraine as an educator.
And when were you there? What years were you there?
I went over in 2008, and returned in late 2010.
It must have been incredible. Did you learn to speak Ukrainian or Russian during your time there?
I learned Ukrainian as part of a really fantastic training program that they offer. And then the community that I ended up serving in spoke a language, called Surzhyk, which is a combination of Ukrainian and Russian.
I have to imagine that during your two years there, you must have bonded with some people that established some relationships that you still have to this day.
Absolutely. Ukraine is an incredibly welcoming place once folks are able to break through what can be a challenging wall of post-Soviet relations. And once you're in, you're really in, and so neighbors take care of each other. Educators take care of each other. Students would regularly show up with whatever they might be able to offer. So I would get to school and have cabbage on my desk or potatoes on my desk, or in one case, have a goose on my desk! It is a really incredible place where people are willing to share whatever it is they have.
I’ll have to ask about the goose another time! We fast-forward now to 2023. And you're working as a global citizenship educator in South Burlington High School. How does your experience as an educator in Ukraine inform how and what you bring to the classroom in South Burlington?
So in this unit that we're in right now, the standard is around conflict. And because of my experiences in Ukraine, it seemed a natural fit to talk about what was going on between Ukraine and Russia. It can be really easy to develop intellectual understanding. But my hope is to develop a sense of empathy and connection, which comes from a more full-bodied place of understanding. And so I think that through talking about Ukraine, through speaking to my students, my former students, my former colleagues and my community, I'm able to build more of that heart-centered connection with the curriculum.
When you're seeing this happen in real time — as we all are watching this conflict around the world — I'm wondering what are some of the questions that students bring to you when they bring up things that happen week to week, things that are changing so quickly in Ukraine?
Absolutely. So many of the students really centered around that question of why, and what is it that Russia is looking to gain? And then we'll circle back to those questions later in the unit and see where students are now in their understanding of the questions they had at the beginning. But I think the deepest sense that I got from them was a lack of understanding, watching the devastation that's happening, watching how many people are losing their lives, how many people are being pushed out of the country? I think a lot of our young people were simply stuck with that question of why.
Another area you're hoping to bring some clarity to and understanding is this question on media literacy, helping students identify what's fake news, distinguish between what's really happening and false information. I'm wondering if the topic, in terms of what's happening in Russia, for example, state-sponsored news out of Russia that purposefully obfuscates their responsibility for the invasion of Ukraine. Does that ever come uncomfortably close to the misinformation coming from American news outlets, like Fox for example, concerning the reporting on the 2020 presidential election here in the U.S.?
Yeah, a big part of what we talk about is the way in which a story is constructed. And there is no reporting that is free from bias. We're bringing our perspectives all the time — however, it's on us to determine just how much bias a story might be holding.
So one of the very first things that I did together with students was start to break down the idea of what is a text. So we looked at and listened to the National Anthem as a kind of text. And then one of the next pieces we looked at were two images, the image of Zelenskyy in the streets, with folks around him, and then an image of Putin at this very, very large table with his advisers all the way at the end. And what I shared with students was that neither of these images were taken in a vacuum, it was not released by accident. So what is it that Ukraine is trying to communicate about their style of leadership through the image that they've produced? And what is it that Russia is trying to communicate about their style of leadership through the image that they have produced?
And I think you're absolutely right to say that it would be unfair or unjust or incomplete to only focus on misinformation that's coming from overseas. And it gets critically important that young people are turning their attention to the media sources they're consuming, especially as it relates to social media.
Do you have any plans in the future to go back to Ukraine?
Oh, I would absolutely love to. It is such an incredibly beautiful country. And I will be really interested to see what recovery efforts will look like when folks can finally start turning their attention to a real rebuilding, and curious to see what role folks can play.
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