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A Closer Look at the District’s Response to the Conflict in the Middle East

A+Closer+Look+at+the+Districts+Response+to+the+Conflict+in+the+Middle+East

While the conflict between Israel and Palestinians has been an enduring issue throughout history, October 7, 2023, the date of Hamas’ invasion of Israel, exacerbated the severity of it immensely. Three days following the attack, the superintendent of Hastings on Hudson UFSD, Dr. William McKersie, sent an email addressing the recent events. He stressed the wellness of students, urging families to reach out to counselors if they were struggling and ensuring that educational resources would be shared in the coming days. He also expressed that teachers would be sensitive when discussing it in the classroom, acknowledging that the conflict was “hitting close to home for many members of our community.” Lastly, he stated that safety was a concern for many, and building security would be very attentive as a result. On October 12, Dr. McKersie sent out a second email to all Hastings on Hudson families regarding the importance of social media awareness. It emphasized the fact that Hastings would have zero tolerance for any hate speech, including, but not limited to, anti-semitism, anti-Islam, and anti-Arab. One day later, on October 13, the assistant superintendent, Dr. Melissa Szymanski, sent an email further recognizing the importance of the conflict and reinforcing the sentiments of Dr. McKersie’s previous messages. Finally, from October 15 to November 5, the Hastings Weekly Newsletter included a link for resources available for families. However, since then, no other formalized communications or actions have been taken to address the conflict.

In terms of discussions within the classroom, history teachers are most likely to explain the conflict in the Middle East and the preexisting curriculum in tandem. 

Arthur Ralston, who teaches World History II and Modern Middle Eastern History (an elective), shared his views on approaching the conflict. He shared how teaching these two classes requires different approaches due to the fact that World History II has a set curriculum while Modern Middle Eastern History does not. The freedom of not having a set curriculum in Modern Middle Eastern History allows him to allocate more time to the subject in the classroom and give it the coverage he believes it deserves. Because of how sensitive this topic is to discuss, he is aware that “it becomes easier to say nothing because people don’t know what to say.”  As a result, many people, both inside and outside of the school setting, default to not saying anything out of fear of varying opinions. However, he also acknowledges that this is “not an excuse to not talk about it.” Regardless of these obstacles, he has managed to have robust conversations with his students. 

Caroline Atanacio, who also teaches World History II, said that in some of her classes she found that many students had a desire to speak about the conflict and felt very strongly one way or another. She even expressed that in one particular class, their conversations grew extremely heated due to the complex emotions that the circumstances in the Middle East brought up for students. However, after the first initial heated conversations, students came up to her and expressed their gratitude. This contributed to her not shying away from explaining the complicated history of the Israeli and Palestinian land dispute and continuing to examine it in class. She even found ways to connect the ongoing protests on college campuses all around the United States to the course’s curriculum, incorporating discussion about the similarities and differences between the demonstrations today and those that occurred during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. 

Both Ms. Atanacio and Mr. Ralston have employed several strategies, such as those previously mentioned, in order to give students the information they need about the conflict in the Middle East while still giving them space to formulate their own opinions. 

Acknowledging that teachers’ opinions are crucial, it is just as important to give students the opportunity to have their voices heard. In surveying the student body, a deeper understanding of their reaction to the school’s response was revealed. The majority of respondents were in 10th or 11th grade and enrolled in courses such as World History II and AP US History, as well as electives like Modern Middle Eastern History and Power of Protest. When asked if the school had handled the conflict well, the responses were fairly split, but most students believed that they had. A follow-up question was then asked, prompting students to highlight the methods in which they have seen teachers and the high school as a whole employ to bring attention to the conflict. Most reported that in-class discussions were the method primarily utilized by teachers to do so. Furthermore, numerous students shared their thoughts about whether or not the school could have done anything differently, and it was practically an equal split between yes and no. Following that question, students were encouraged to elaborate on alternative initiatives that could have possibly been taken by the school. Overall, many of the responses touched on the fact that, in order to manage  the conflict constructively, more discussions in more classes were required. Some students expressed that it would be extremely beneficial to conduct these conversations in classes other than history to add more layers and enhance everyone’s knowledge of the conflict. Other students also had similar responses to those of Ms. Atanacio and Mr. Ralston, emphasizing that even though these conversations are heavy and often challenging to have, it is increasingly important to conduct them in such a polarized society. As one survey respondent stated, “one of the biggest issues is the lack of the ability to see an issue from all sides and calmly and openly discuss it”.

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