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L.A. Teachers Help Students Navigate Ukraine Misinformation

Russia’s violent push into Ukraine has teachers and students more than 6,000 miles from the conflict sifting through fact and fiction. Social media feeds and a lack of digital literacy are complicating the issue.

Students learning about Ukraine situation - use once only
Karla Guevara, 17, listens during a history class at Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS
(TNS) — In Ricardo Martinez’s sophomore English classes, one question keeps coming up among his students as the Russian invasion of Ukraine gets bloodier and more destructive: Am I going to get drafted to go to war?

While some of his students at Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet in Glassell Park have been disengaged from the current news cycle, with its images of rumbling tanks and bombed-out buildings, others have expressed fear about what the war might mean for them.

Martinez surveyed his students to find out what they thought about the crisis, and he found out they had questions about what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is, if the nation would be plunged into the next Great Depression, if World War III was coming.

Teenage boys in his classes at the Los Angeles school more than 6,000 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine, worried that they would be sent abroad to fight.

“I thought they were joking around, because the kids who were asking were not the most serious students,” Martinez said. But when he realized they were distressed, he carved out time to explain that the U.S. does not currently have a draft, that former President Nixon ended it in 1973, but that it also could be reinstated.

Pivoting briefly away from the essays he’d assigned about short stories they’d read in class, Martinez showed his students political cartoons to help them understand Russia’s actions and the history of the Soviet Union. They discussed the invasion and the possibility of escalation. To ease their anxiety, he urged them to find Ukrainian groups to support.

“It’s a teachable moment, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn about a part of the world they’re not exposed to,” Martinez said.

As the news of Russia invading Ukraine dominates news cycles, teachers throughout the country are helping students navigate the wave of emotions that comes with devastating world events. They’re providing much needed historical and political context. And they are doubling down on media literacy practices amid the flood of misinformation online.

With current events colliding in the classroom, they are crafting new lessons to address the questions they know will arise.

But teaching about the invasion of Ukraine can be tricky. The situation changes daily. Ukrainian or Russian students may be personally affected by the violence thousands of miles away. And some students may be struggling with pandemic fatigue or other stressors.

At Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, a city 15 miles west of Riverside, Kathryn Greene spent evenings during the invasion’s first week putting together a timeline of historical events to give her sophomore students important context.

Many came to class believing they were watching the war play out in TikTok videos — including one supposedly showing a Ukraine fighter jet shooting down Russian aircraft. The Ukrainian pilot was nicknamed “The Ghost of Kyiv.”

“It is at a whole new level this year with social media,” Greene said. “Students come in with 10 to 15 minutes’ worth of questions, and it’s everything from real, legitimate questions to conspiracy theories.”

Greene teaches world history and Advanced Placement world history. Media literacy has long been a part of her curriculum. So, along with putting together lesson plans on the history of Ukraine and its fight for independence, she also spoke to her students about steps they can take to spot misinformation: reading beyond headlines, considering the source, and asking an expert, such as a teacher or librarian, to confirm or dispute the facts.

“I’m making sure they are heard and feel valued, and [also] making sure they don’t get caught in misinformation memes,” she said.

Students in Anibal Hernandez’s class at Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet were fired up after seeing the viral video of “The Ghost of Kyiv.” They came to Hernandez with several questions about the war when it broke out. Hernandez, who is in his first year of teaching, used their enthusiasm to explain historical terms, such as “the Soviet Union,” “NATO” and “Cold War.”

On Wednesday, Hernandez showed a condensed version of President Biden’s State of the Union address, the part about sanctions against Russia and escalating punishments. Some students leaned forward as Biden’s words were broadcast from a ceiling projector. Others slouched in their seats or rested their heads on their desk.

Afterward, Hernandez brought up their previous discussions.

“What do you remember from last week?” he asked.

“Ukraine shot down five jets,” one student offered, referencing “The Ghost” as others nodded along.

“The interesting thing about that though — remember last week we talked about when things are starting to come out, about ‘the Ghost of Kyiv’?” Hernandez replied. “Is that story true?”

“It’s at issue right now,” said Iren Stanfield, a senior. “Supposedly it’s been confirmed, but nobody really knows, people are just posting it.”

“Right,” Hernandez agreed. “The former president [of Ukraine, Petro] Poroshenko, said this guy exists, but that’s a complex part of this war. We don’t know entirely what could be true, what could be false. Some people are using video games to pass them off as what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine.”

In fact, the video claiming to show “the Ghost of Kyiv” was fact-checked by news organizations. It’s actually a video simulation.

Atiana Pineda Rodriguez, a junior, found the context of the invasion helpful. When Hernandez asked his students if they wanted to continue following the war during class, the 16-year-old nodded. The war was a daily topic in her family, she said, often over dinner. She said she was eager to explain NATO to her father.

“It’s really unfair that the Ukrainian people are getting attacked,” Atiana said. “I really do wish the U.S. could help out ... so this could all be over.”

Social studies teachers also responded to the grim news by adjusting lesson plans and gathering online resources.

“It was a ‘drop everything’ moment,” said CherylAnne Amendola, who teachers history at Montclair Kimberly Academy in New Jersey. “Students aren’t going to learn anything about the Declaration of Independence when they hear news that a nuclear power has started war with another country.”

In River Forest, a suburb 11 miles west of Chicago, Samantha Stearns begins classes with 15 minutes of Q&A with her eighth-graders. They had just finished a unit on the formation of the Soviet Union, so they discussed “the consequences of historical decisions” and the tension that had long existed in Eastern Europe.

Stearns, who has taught for 12 years, had her students analyze viral videos and discern whether they were real, manipulated or from a movie. One student followed up with her afterward to show her how a manipulated video had garnered millions more views than when they had first viewed it.

“When you give them the space to be part of the conversation, it gives them feelings of empowerment,” Stearns said. “They will go out and find these videos, critique them and then come back and tell me that they showed their parents. It’s a good exercise of them being critical thinkers.”

In Daniel Jocz’s class at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school, his own students are helping set the facts straight. In one of his classes, a student lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin for helping people in eastern Ukraine, but another student, who is Russian, pushed back.

“That’s the propaganda machine. I know because we always see this in state media,” the Russian student replied.

His comment led to a discussion about condemning the actions of the Russian government instead of the Russian people, not all of whom share Putin’s views. Another student brought up the alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny by Russian operatives, which many students had not previously known about.

“They’re seeing each other as resources that they can learn from, versus just classmates,” Jocz said.

Andrew Swan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Massachusetts, said presidential elections and major events, such as the U.S. Capitol riot, are times when teachers have reached out about what other educators are reading and teaching.

“We’re generally trying to teach kids the same thing, which is to understand the world better,” Swan said.

After his eighth-graders came back from a weeklong break, many were confused and peppered him with questions: Why is Putin invading Ukraine? What’s the point of invading a country that doesn’t want you? Will this really become World War III?

Swan came prepared with a lesson plan about the conflict. He also took a few minutes to show them a 10-second clip of a crying soldier — apparently Russian — to discuss the information war happening online.

The best part of the grim lesson that day?

His students understood that the person in the video clip may not actually be a Russian soldier.

They needed more information, he said, before they made up their minds.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.