Ukraine: Discussing the War and Refugee Crisis with Students | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Ukrainian Refugees crossing a fallen bridge.

Ukraine: Discussing the War and Refugee Crisis with Students

Use this lesson to help students process how they are feeling about the devastating war in Ukraine, develop media literacy in what news they consume and how, and explore the mounting refugee crisis.


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK
  • Global Migration & Immigration
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

This lesson is designed to help students process how they are feeling about this devastating war, develop media literacy in what news they consume and how, and explore the mounting refugee crisis. The content is divided into two parts, which each contain material for at least one fifty-minute lesson. Depending on timing, you might choose to omit some activities and adapt the content to your class/lesson needs.

This lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 6 activities
  • Student-facing slides
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic
  • 2 extension activities

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine. The escalating conflict is causing a widespread humanitarian crisis, as civilians are injured, killed, or forced from their homes. The UNHCR projects that more than 4 million Ukrainian people – 10% of the population – will leave the country because of the Russian invasion, and as of March 8, 2022, half of the 2 million Ukrainian refugees who fled to other European countries are children. The conflict is also having an impact on those seeing the sad and disturbing scenes unfold from afar. In the UK, the uncertainty and fears surrounding the conflict have led to people young and old obsessively consuming the news (a phenomenon dubbed ‘doomscrolling’), which is having a detrimental impact on people’s mental health. There is also the issue of fake news – since the war began, false information has gone viral, leaving many uncertain about what is real and what is not.

In addition to understanding the terrible impact of this war, there are important reflections to be had concerning the response to the refugee crisis. European governments and private citizens have mobilised to help Ukrainian refugees. For example, the European Union plans to allow Ukrainian people to live and work in EU countries for up to three years, the Polish government is providing Ukrainians with healthcare and social assistance, and individual volunteers have assembled to provide free rides, food, and supplies. We can and should be inspired by these stories, but they also raise ethical questions about the different treatment migrants and refugees from other parts of the world, including Middle Eastern and African countries, have faced recently in Europe.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Before discussing the war in Ukraine with students, it is vital to reflect on your beliefs, politics, and emotional responses in relation to this conflict and understand how they might impact your engagement with it. When educators start with themselves, they can help develop classroom communities that are centred around relationships and care, and in which students feel safe to discuss challenging issues.

Reflect on your relationship to this conflict using the following questions:

  1. What emotions do the recent events surrounding the war in Ukraine raise for me?
  2. How might my emotional response to this conflict be similar to or different from my students’ emotional responses?
  3. How might my feelings about the conflict affect what my students experience in my class?
  4. How might my students’ own identities and life experiences shape how they encounter this conflict?
  5. How can I create space in the classroom to discuss this conflict?

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Part I

Before you explain to students that you will be discussing the war in Ukraine and its impacts in the lesson, we recommend that you create a classroom contract or revisit a previously created one. You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

After you have created, or reviewed, the class contract, ask students to reflect on the following questions in their journals (Students should have the option to keep their journal reflections private.):

  1. How is the news of the war affecting you?
  2. What would you like others to know about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing?

To debrief, you might choose to invite students to share any responses they feel comfortable sharing. Or, you might opt to do a group brainstorm, inviting students to share what feelings they think might be in the room concerning this conflict. You can collect these feelings on the board. When discussing feelings, it can help students to be more open if they do not make ‘I’ statements or share how they personally feel, but if they think more broadly about what people might be feeling.

After noting down the different feelings, you might notice that a lot of them are connected to negative emotions. It is important to validate such feelings. Let students know that such feelings are normal and that talking about them can help reduce the mental toll they take.

Next, explain to students that they will be reviewing key information about the conflict by looking at a news article.

Before they do so, find out what students already know by inviting them to journal on the following prompts:

  1. What do you know about the war in Ukraine?
  2. What have you heard about the war that has struck you as surprising or troubling?

Share a resource from a trusted news outlet to establish baseline knowledge of the events and dispel misinformation. You might choose to share extracts from one of the following articles that explains the circumstances, timeline, and impact of the war:

Note: We recognise that your students may have varying degrees of proximity to the events in Ukraine, a lived experience of war, or refugee status. Please ensure you engage with any content beforehand and decide if it is appropriate to share with your students.

We also recommend mentioning to your students that some media outlets reporting on the war in Ukraine have done so in a racist and dehumanising way. They may well be aware of this racist coverage and have been impacted by it, so it is important to acknowledge it and give your students a chance to share any concerns. If you need support in discussing race with your students, please see our unit Discussing Race and Racism in the Classroom.

Debrief the news story by leading a short class discussion using the following questions:

  1. What, if any, questions do you have about the war?
  2. What do you need from others to understand, cope, process, and be safe as this story continues to unfold?
  3. How can you offer support to people you know who might be impacted by these events?
  4. What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?

After you have given students time to reflect and process their initial responses to the war, you may decide to guide your students through strategies for engaging with news coverage in a responsible way.

Coverage of war is often incomplete and may also include information that is later discounted. Students should understand that initial reports may change as new information comes to light. Established news sources are less likely to spread misinformation, since they have processes for vetting stories before publishing.

The following ideas may be helpful to guide a discussion:

  • Discuss the following questions with your students:
    1. How can you stay informed about the war while at the same time ensuring that you are taking care of yourself and your peers?
    2. What questions should you consider before sharing news on social media or with friends?
    3. Do you have any strategies to make sure that the news you follow is reliable?
  • Read the article Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?, which claims that news has the potential to be stressful or harmful to people if they consume it too frequently or if the news they follow is intense and graphic. Discuss with your students:
    1. How often do you check the news? Do you have news alerts set up on your phone?
    2. What are the potential benefits of following the news regularly?
    3. Do you ever come across news sources that are graphic, intense, or upsetting? Are there some types of news coverage you think people should avoid?
    4. How can people find a good balance between being informed and being overwhelmed by the news?
  • Share the News Literacy Project’s Ten Questions for Fake News Detection with your students to help them find reliable sources.

Part II

To introduce your students to the growing Ukrainian refugee crisis, share the following passage, which you can also find in the PowerPoint for this Lesson. (Note: The situation involving Ukrainian people fleeing the war is evolving rapidly, and we recommend you consult a recent news story to find the latest information and statistics.)

On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe with a population of about 40 million people. The conflict has continued to escalate, and many civilians have been killed or forced from their homes due to the fighting, creating the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Most of the refugees are entering Poland, with large numbers also crossing into other countries west of Ukraine: Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia. As of March 8, 2022, half of the refugees fleeing Ukraine were children, and Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been ordered by their government to stay and fight. The UNHCR (the UN agency in charge of refugees) estimates that more than 4 million Ukrainians – 10% of the population – will leave the country because of the Russian invasion.

European governments and private citizens have mobilised to help Ukrainian refugees. For example, the European Union plans to allow Ukrainians to live and work in EU countries for up to three years, the Polish government is providing Ukrainians with healthcare and social assistance, and individual volunteers have assembled to provide free rides, food, and supplies.

Show your students a selection of images of Ukrainian people fleeing the war from the Atlantic photo essay Ukrainian Refugees Say Goodbye to Home and Family Members. (Note: We recognise that your students may have varying degrees of proximity to the events in Ukraine, a lived experience of war, or refugee status. We encourage you to be careful in choosing images to share, balancing a desire to help your student confront and understand the crisis with a desire to meet them where they are.)

Then, ask your students to reflect in their journals on what they learned about the Ukrainian refugee crisis using the Head, Heart, Conscience strategy:

  • Head: What information did you learn from these sources about Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes because of the war? What questions do you still have?
  • Heart: What emotions did these sources raise for you? Were there particular images that stood out to you? If so, why?
  • Conscience: Who should be responsible for helping Ukrainian refugees? According to the paragraph you read, what are some steps individuals and governments are taking to help Ukrainian refugees? What other ideas do you have about how people and governments can help refugees?

Once students have finished reflecting in their journals, give them an opportunity to share aspects of their reflections with a partner or call on a few volunteers to share with the whole class.

European governments and individual volunteers have been stepping up in inspiring ways to aid Ukrainian people forced to flee their homes because of the war. This generosity should be celebrated. At the same time, it highlights the harsh treatment that refugees and migrants from non-European countries have at times faced in Europe. This activity is designed to help students think about the ways people are standing up to help Ukrainians while also exploring ethical questions around the differences in the reception refugees and migrants from different backgrounds face in Europe.

Ask students to read one or both of the article excerpts in the reading Choices People and Governments Make to Help Refugees. Once students have finished reading, they should discuss the questions below in small groups of 3–4 students. These questions are also located within the reading, below each excerpt.

Excerpt 1 Reflection Questions:

  • What does Godlewska-Jeneralska plan to do to help Ukrainians fleeing the war? Why did she decide to help?
  • According to the article, why do many Polish people feel close to Ukrainians? What are some other reasons people feel close to each other?
  • Why does Godlewska-Jeneralska believe it is ‘natural’ to help Ukrainian refugees? Why might people feel a greater obligation to help those who feel geographically or culturally ‘close’?
  • What problems can it create when people prioritise helping those who feel geographically or culturally ‘close’?

Excerpt 2 Reflection Questions:

  • What assumptions do the politicians and the journalist quoted in this article make about refugees from non-European countries? What assumptions do they make about Ukrainian refugees? What do these assumptions say about who they think ‘belongs’ in their countries?
  • The politicians and the journalist mentioned socio-economic class, religion, education, and physical appearance as significant aspects of refugee identity. Why do you think these factors shape the way people respond to refugees? Should they matter?

Finish by asking a few volunteers from different groups to share their responses with the class.

In times of crisis, it is important that people take care of themselves and others. Place your students into small groups of 3–4 and ask them to choose one or more of the following prompts to discuss together:

  • Godlewska-Jeneralska is prepared to host Ukrainian people fleeing the war in her own home. Can you think of other examples, perhaps from your own community, of people meeting a crisis with generosity?
  • Who in your own community might be feeling particularly vulnerable because of the war in Ukraine? What can we do to help those who feel vulnerable?
  • The news about the war in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis is upsetting for everyone, and in particular for those who have a personal connection to Ukraine or the region. What steps can you take to care for yourself in the face of this crisis? (Some ideas include talking to someone you trust or limiting the amount of time you spend reading the news.)
  • Intolerance, fear, and existing stereotypes have shaped the extent to which many societies respond to refugees with empathy and support. What can we do to challenge these harmful attitudes and encourage more equitable responses?

When students have finished discussing, ask them to return to their Head, Heart, Conscience journal reflections and add any additional thoughts or questions these activities raised for them.

Extension Activities

You can build on the final reflection by using our Toolbox for Care teaching strategy, which invites students to create a physical toolbox containing ‘tools’ that represent the skills, attitudes, and actions that they need to care for themselves and their communities during difficult times.

  1. The ‘universe of obligation’ is a helpful concept in analysing the choices both governments and individuals make about what groups of people they are most likely to protect. Our global system assumes that every person will fit into their own nation’s universe of obligation. However, that is not always the case, especially for refugees who are forced to flee their own countries. Share Facing History’s reading Universe of Obligation with your students. Read it together as a class, and then discuss the following questions with your students:

    • What factors influence the way a society defines its universe of obligation? In what ways might a nation or community signal who is part of its universe of obligation and who is not?
    • What factors do you think should influence whether migrants or refugees are included within a country’s universe of obligation?
    • What do you think might be some of the consequences for those, including migrants and refugees, who are not within a society’s universe of obligation?
    • How do we expand our own universes of obligation? What can we do to encourage our communities and nations to feel and act responsibly towards others?

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this lesson.

Additional Resources

Resources from Other Organizations

The resources below provide additional guidance for addressing this topic in the classroom.

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