As Russians advance through Ukraine, Grand Cities schools teach history as it happens
The Herald interviewed three social studies educators to get a sense of how schools in the Grand Forks area are addressing Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the questions students have for them. A reporter and a photographer also sat in on a social studies class at Central High School on Thursday, March 3.
GRAND FORKS — Kyle Ellingson projected a large map of Ukraine onto the wall of his economics classroom at Grand Forks Central High School. Red splotches pushing past the edges of the country’s borders indicated the progress of invading Russian soldiers .
He pointed to Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine that was recently captured by the Russian army.
“This is a big win for the Russians, right here,” Ellingson said. “Does anybody know why the Crimean Peninsula and maybe Kherson and this area right here would be so important?”
Access to water and trade — and oil, answered 12th-grader Zach Young.
“Tons of oil in this region,” Ellingson said as he waved a hand across Crimea and the Black Sea. “It’s kind of like the Gulf of Mexico for the United States…. So when the Russians took that, they took that with the idea of being able to get oil, and Ukrainians want it back. Does anybody know what the Ukrainians are doing to try to get it back? Or what they have been doing over the last — since 2014?”
Russia annexed and invaded Crimea in 2014. Ukraine has been restricting water flow into the region since then, Young answered.
“There was a war before the war,” Ellingson said.
A changing world
Ellingson is one of three social studies educators the Herald interviewed to get a sense of how schools in the Grand Forks region are addressing the invasion. A reporter and photographer sat in on Ellingson’s class on the morning of Thursday, March 3, at Central, where he and his students dedicated about 20 minutes to the invasion before settling into an economics lesson.
Among other things, they touched on reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin might fear Ukraine joining NATO, analyzed a political cartoon that shows Uncle Sam wondering why China won’t help him put out a fire labeled “Ukraine” while he pours gasoline on it, and looked at a graph that shows the United States’ declining share of global gross domestic product since the mid-1900s.
“You can use this little bit of knowledge to see how the world’s a changing place,” Ellingson said. “Ultimately, where does the United States fit into it and how are we impacted when other countries do things? When other countries did things in 1960, we could just say, ‘we’re the United States,’ right? But now, we can’t just say, ‘we’re the United States.’ We have to work with people a little bit differently because the dynamic is a little bit different.”
Lilian Fairwaiz, a senior at Central, spoke up to decry war reporters who’ve said or implied that the invasion hits closer to home because Ukraine is more “civilized” or white than Middle Eastern countries that the U.S. has invaded.
“They’re awful,” she said.
Teachers at the school encourage their students to look up multiple sources of information and to think about where their information is coming from, Ellingson told the Herald.
“Sourcing is really important,” he said, “and understanding if the source that you're looking at has a slant to it is really important.”
He and other school staff have taught their students about Russia and Ukraine’s intertwined history. In a nutshell: Ellingson said he explains that Swedes and Russians formed a culture centered in Kyiv that was pushed to Moscow by a Mongol invasion in the 1200s.
“The kids understand that, in a sense, one of the original major cities of Russia was Kyiv, and now it’s in Ukraine, kids can see the connection of how the Ukrainians and the Russians are close in terms of lineage and ethnicity and that type of thing,” Ellingson, who has taught global education and world history courses, said. “Totally separate people, as you can see in the fighting, but, at the same time, there is a connection that has been historically there, either because of the early connection or forced connection by Stalin and Russian leaders.”
At East Grand Forks Senior High, longtime social studies teacher Jay Frydenlund has also been fielding his students’ questions about the invasion. He said they wonder what the United States can do that sits beyond the sanctions it's already imposing but stops short of sending soldiers. They also wonder why Putin hasn’t been assassinated.
“It’s just a lot of discussion as far as what the next move is going to be,” Frydenlund told the Herald. “If we had a crystal ball, that would help a lot — but no such luck.”
Ukraine, he said, hasn’t been as hot of a classroom topic as others, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Students there realize, Frydenlund said, that the United States is keeping the conflict at arm’s length.
“It seems like they’re a little bit insulated from this incident,” he said. “I don’t know if the U.S. gets involved, then it‘s going to get a lot more real, but, right now, it’s just a wait and watch, I guess.”
A military draft has come up a few times, Frydenlund said, but his students realize it’s a far-fetched possibility.
It comes up, too, in Brian Urlacher’s classes at UND, where students sometimes pick the political science and foreign policy professor’s brain before and after class.
They also worry about the U.S. being drawn into the fight, but Urlacher said signs point to the American involvement amounting to economic sanctions, which makes a military intervention or a draft very unlikely. But that’s complicated by the possibility of online attacks that could escalate a conflict in relatively new ways.
“We have a pretty good playbook that's been laid out over the Cold War about how nuclear-armed states push back against each other in a way that doesn't escalate to an actual shooting conflict,” Urlacher told the Herald. “But that entire playbook was around proxy wars and economic tools, and it didn't include cyber warfare, which is something that is just now available as a potential strategy, and we don't know how that works….I suspect that's why we haven't seen a cyber response shutting down the internet in Russia or disrupting communication infrastructure, because we don't know what that would look like in terms of retaliation.”
Mostly, though, his students want to tell him about what they’re read or heard about the conflict and pass anecdotes and other information about the invasion between one another. Ukrainian resistance messages, Urlacher said, seem to resonate.
“I'm actually almost kind of on the sidelines in those conversations a lot of times, because the ones who are really interested and are following closely, they're excited, and they're nervous, and they're kind of processing information in real time,” he said. “And it's almost sort of letting them kind of talk it through, themselves.”