How the war in Ukraine is being taught in Berkeley schools

History teachers have been fielding questions about Russia’s nuclear capabilities, Putin’s motivations and whether the draft would return if the U.S. joins the war.

How the war in Ukraine is being taught in Berkeley schools
A classroom at Berkeley High, where history teachers have been helping students grapple with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

When the Russian army began its invasion of Ukraine, Berkeley High teacher Bill Pratt was in the middle of his unit on the appeasement of Nazi Germany — Britain’s policy of tolerance toward Hitler’s expansion in Eastern Europe that was intended to avoid a larger war.

“I don’t want to say the timing was fortuitous, but there have been such striking parallels,” said Pratt. “It’s a rich time to be teaching history.” 

As the world watches a historic war unfold in real time, teachers have been tasked with helping students make sense of the conflict. In the last two weeks, most of the history teachers at Berkeley High have constructed lessons on the topic, from the war’s historical context to its potential implications.

At home, students have been learning about the conflict through TikTok, watching videos recorded by Ukrainians on the ground. Students, especially younger ones, are awash in content, but, teachers say, missing crucial context. 

Hasmig Minassian, head of Berkeley High’s universal ninth grade program, helped draft a series of lessons to explain the fundamentals of the war to freshmen, who came to class with a lot of questions.

The lessons touched on everything from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reasons for invading to the Ukrainian border patrol that blocked Africans fleeing the war from leaving the country for days. Students have wanted to talk about their fears about how the war could impact their lives.

“They were concerned about things like, ‘Could this mean we go to war? Could this mean there’s going to be a military draft?’” said Minassian, who explained to students that the U.S. draft ended in 1973 after the Vietnam War and was unlikely to be reinstated. “Russia’s nuclear capability is always top of mind for them,” she added.

“One of the most insightful things that a kid said was that it seems like Putin is trying to avoid being humiliated both personally and in terms of the humiliation of his nation.” — Bill Pratt, Berkeley High history teacher

Other topics of discussion included crackdowns on freedom of speech in Russia as well as the actions the United States and Europe have and have not taken in response to Russia’s invasion. 

In Pratt’s 11th-grade American history course, the lessons have brought light to similarities — and differences — between Russia’s war against Ukraine and World War II. 

“It’s just been one of those times where their interest in what’s going on in Ukraine has deepened their interest in the parallel events that we’re studying historically,” said Pratt, a history teacher at the high school since 1994. 

In his unit on appeasement, Pratt’s students learned about Germany in the 1930s, a country a fraction of its former size in the wake of World War I. Lessons documented how allied powers stood by as Germany annexed the Rhineland and occupied Austria, moves that Germany justified through notions of a Germanic empire. 

Putin has laid his own claim to all of Ukraine, arguing that Russia was responsible for its existence and that it never had a tradition of “genuine statehood.”

The lessons are designed for students to “deeply understand the world in the 1930s and the approach of the most devastating war in human history,” Pratt said. He sees those lessons “resonating on a base level with what it feels like in 2022 to be witnessing what’s going on in Ukraine.” 

In one activity, Pratt’s students used maps to visualize the boundaries of Germany’s lost empire and the territory Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Germany after World War I, modern-day Russia pales in comparison to its size and power during the heyday of the Soviet Union. 

“One of the most insightful things that a kid said was that it seems like Putin is trying to avoid being humiliated both personally and in terms of the humiliation of his nation,” Pratt said. “That really struck [students] as an important parallel with Hitler’s rise to power in relation to Germany’s defeat — the promise of return to the past glory of a lost empire.”

“History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes,” said Pratt, who is careful not to alarm students about the chances of a third world war, explaining how allies have avoided steps — including those that Ukrainians have pleaded for, like a no-fly zone — that could pull other nations into Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

In his teaching, Pratt said he drew on insight from a former Ukrainian student of his who had moved with his family to Berkeley after fleeing the 2014 war in the Donbass, a region in Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists.

Minassian said students took particular interest in critiques of the racially biased media coverage of the war, in which some newscasters at Western outlets have described Ukrainian refugees as “civilized” in contrast with people fleeing war from Syria or Afghanistan. 

Fake news also featured in class discussions about Ukraine, with teachers urging students to question what they see on social media. Videos of the Ghost of Kyiv, a fighter pilot who reportedly singlehandedly shot down Russian aircrafts, have gone viral despite “no information linking them to a single Ukrainian pilot.” “If something doesn’t sound right, it might not be right,” Minassian advised students.

The lessons have provided context, but little comfort about a war that has already produced over 2 million Ukrainian refugees, led to at least 474 civilian deaths, and destabilized much of Europe. “[Students] have a genuine fear that this has major implications, especially for people in Ukraine, but beyond, too” Pratt said.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.