A 6th Grade Unit Takes a Global
Look at Youth Incarceration
By Simone Allen
Simone’s Palestine Unit Outline and all materials and
links are available here: Palestine Unit Outline.
In April 2019, I made my first attempt to weave Palestine into my 6th grade Humanities curriculum. To fill a 3-week gap before state testing, I created a mini-unit on migration, diaspora, and exile, including Palestine as a case study. Our school community is made up of Latine, Black and African American, Asian, and Arab students, parents, and teachers; I knew that this theme would resonate with many of us. After we watched a three-minute video, “Life In Gaza Explained” by Al Jazeera, the energy in the room turned up to high volume. Students were brimming with questions:
“Why is Israel allowed to do that to Palestinians in Gaza?”
“How can people get away with injustices like this all over the world?”
“Are Palestinians fighting back?”
I looked up “Israel” on Google Maps so students could see the West Bank, Gaza, and how much territory Israel has claimed. Catalina asked, “Can we see the pictures?” in reference to the satellite images. I clicked to enlarge an aerial photo of people swimming in the ocean and sunbathing on a crowded beach, with luxurious high-rise buildings lining the shore.
Zabir asked, confused, “That doesn’t look at all like the video we watched.”
I posed the question to the class: “Why do you think that is?”
Serena responded, “That’s Israel, not Gaza.”
“That’s right” I said, “and there are now walls and checkpoints that Israel has built to keep Palestinians out. The people we see on the beach are likely Israelis, not Palestinians.”
Zabir asked, “So Israelis kicked Palestinians out, and now they can’t even go here?”
I nodded in response. Zabir mouthed, “What?…” He leaned back in his chair, shook his head, and wore a perplexed look on his face.
This moment in class showed me how ready young people are to learn about what’s happening in Palestine. I had struggled with not feeling informed enough to facilitate conversations and present content in a way that did justice to Palestinian resistance and struggles. However, I realized that this shouldn’t stop me from bringing it to my classroom. I felt a heightened urgency to learn from Palestinians and take action.
The Teach Palestine Trip for Teachers
The following summer, I traveled to Occupied Palestine with a teacher delegation coordinated by the Teach Palestine Project. When we began learning about the extreme security measures that we needed to keep everyone safe, it was a first glimpse into the violence that Palestinians face under Israeli occupation. After just a few hours in the West Bank, I felt overwhelmingly infuriated and confused by how the occupation affected Palestinian’s daily lives: demolition and eviction orders suddenly landing on families’ doorsteps; child arrests at 4 am; and “flying” checkpoints that can pop up at any moment, which could change travel time from minutes to hours, or make it impossible to reach one’s destination at all.
For example, one afternoon in Hebron—an extreme example of how arbitrarily and heavily restricted movement is for Palestinians—our Palestinian guide for the day was surprised to see a young Israeli soldier denying us entry into a part of the city he often went to. A Palestinian woman who arrived shortly after us was also confused, and she walked into the restricted area. The Israeli guard yelled at her to turn around. Our guide had told us that the cost to a Palestinian for walking through restricted areas could result in anything from redirection by a soldier, a citation, an arrest, or being shot or killed. I will forever be imprinted with the memory of this woman. If she had been killed, the occupiers would have justified ending her life because of a single step over an invisible border.
As violent as the occupation is to Palestinians, our delegation was met with an abundance of joy, hospitality, and hope. The spirit of resistance was palpable in every interaction I had with Palestinians. Whether we met with lawyers, teachers, or workers at a corner store, people generously shared their stories not only of struggles, but of their certainty that Palestine will be free. It became clear that Palestinians were not interested merely in learning how to survive in the occupation; the ultimate goal is to end it. Being on Palestinian land and witnessing the people’s fierce resistance to Israeli occupation increased my own sense of determination to actively name, resist, and dismantle settler colonialism back at the places that I call home.
I began the 2019-2020 school year wondering: How do I highlight Palestinian stories that illustrate the depth and complexity of people’s struggle, resilience, and resistance? What texts and media can I bring in that reveal the absurdity and violence of settler colonialism in Palestine and in the so-called US? How can I guide students to reflect on their lived experiences to build on their background knowledge and begin examining the ways that they’ve been shaped by settler-colonial logic?
Youth Incarceration Links US and Palestine
I intentionally waited to teach about Palestine until later in the school year. Part of my teaching practice is to always start with a narrative writing unit. I had a mentor teacher who believed that this was absolutely necessary to humanize the class community to one another and make the curriculum relevant. “Everyone is an expert in their own experiences,” they said.
Along with setting up the classroom culture, building trust and community through curriculum is the key to being able to dive into heavy content matter later on. Making the connection through students’ lived experiences sets the stage for learning about another place across the globe. Although many of our students are familiar and connected with other parts of the world due to being first or second generation immigrants or refugees, starting the unit with a US context is most recognizable and familiar to my student population. My hope was that students would make connections between their families’ stories and the issues that we were to learn about in the Palestine unit.
So, before introducing Palestine, I taught a unit on youth incarceration in the US, with a focus on the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown boys. I prepared carefully before diving into this particular unit, as a number of our students’ families have been affected by the prison industrial complex. I communicated with students and families about the content of the unit so we could communally plan for students’ well-being. One student and his family opted for him to read the texts, but participate in alternate activities when we were watching videos and listening to audio.
I centered the unit on the novel Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Before we started reading, I asked students to complete an anticipation guide exploring their opinions about central themes in the book:
- Should people be given second chances if they commit a serious crime?
- What if they were children?
- How does “innocent until proven guilty” apply to people in jail, waiting to prove their innocence?
Students had a range of responses; the most frequent were that people should be given a chance to redeem themselves, depending on the severity of the crime they originally committed, and that people should only be incarcerated if they’ve been proven guilty of a crime. Along with allowing students to explore and express their opinions, this activity provided an opportunity to make personal connections and apply lived experiences. Jabari, for example, shared that his stepfather was wrongfully charged and imprisoned for most of his twenties, so he was incredibly distrustful of the justice system.
Along with reading Monster, we watched parts of the Netflix miniseries When They See Us. Several families watched the series at home with their children as we watched it in school.
Both the novel and the miniseries center the experiences of Black and Brown boys who are traumatized by the prison industrial complex. They are graphic, gripping, and showcase powerful protagonist voices. Students were engaged from beginning to end. We read and watched most of the materials in class, with some parts of the novel assigned for homework. I included teacher-led read alouds (often ending on a cliffhanger to motivate students to read the rest for homework), student-led theatrical readings, guiding questions to answer while watching the video, and partner discussions comparing/contrasting the novel with the show.
Our culminating activity was a series of Socratic seminars, in which five to six students at a time discussed their reactions, thoughts, and/or connections to what they had learned about youth incarceration. Students spent two weeks preparing for this conversation. The first week, they read and discussed leveled nonfiction articles about youth incarceration that I asked them to cite at least once during their discussion. Article topics included alternatives to youth incarceration, stories about adults who were incarcerated as youth, and youth prisons in the US. The second week, students participated in a variety of partner and small group discussion protocols, including a compare and contrast activity in which they practiced justifying one side of an argument, then switching to the other side. When we held the Socratic seminars, they were well prepared for their five to seven minute discussion in front of their classmates.
The first student, Mariah, started her group’s Socratic seminar with a strong statement:
“The high schooler who was locked up for [shooting], I feel as though he should’ve gotten a life sentence because we don’t know if he’s going to do something that could lead to more danger. I think that keeping youth prisons open would help troubled teens regain control, have rehabilitation, and redirection.”
A few students agreed and built onto this first student’s idea, until Carolina offered a counter perspective:
“I can hear where you guys are coming from, but I disagree because they should have a second chance. . . [Youth prisons] should close, because then the money they use to keep youth prisons open would go to better things, such as to make better schools.”
Throughout the week of Socratic seminars, students showed how much they had learned. The seminars gave them a structured space to explore and create deeper meaning through disagreements and hearing various perspectives.
We had laid a strong basis to look at youth incarceration in Palestine. I hoped that students would see the connections and similarities between the settler colonial realities created by the US and Israel.
“Was She Really Going to Punch That Israeli Soldier?” Our Unit on Palestine
I opened the unit by returning to the anticipation guide students completed at the beginning of the previous unit, asking if and how their ideas on incarceration changed based on our study. Then, we launched into Palestine-specific inquiry activities with an introduction to key vocabulary: Israel, Zionist, Palestine, occupation, and resistance. We reviewed the geography and a brief historical context, and I talked about my trip to Palestine. Students were hooked in as I showed pictures and shared stories from my trip, they made connections between images of youth incarceration in Palestine with our previous unit, and they expressed disbelief and excitement at images of Palestinian children challenging Israeli soldiers and throwing rocks at tanks. “Was she really going to punch that Israeli soldier?” one student wrote in response to the photo of 11-year-old Ahed Tamimi winding up her fist in front of a soldier in 2012.
The first text that we read in this unit was “Israeli Forces’ Transfer of Palestinian Child Detainees Amount to War Crime,” an article from DCI Palestine. To prepare, I asked students to make predictions about the meaning of vocabulary and concepts from the article, then revealed the definitions along with relevant photos and videos from our trip. Students were buzzing with questions and conversation.
Because this article is designed for an adult audience, I used a structured “Three Reads” protocol to support students:
- First read: Read for “gist,” while highlighting unknown words and what seems important
- Second read: Annotate by writing questions, comments, and strong reactions
- Third read: Respond to reading comprehension questions
In between each step, students discussed the article with a partner, then with the whole class. For extra accessibility, students were given a shortened version of the text to reread for homework that evening.
Next, we watched Prisoner, a video by youth at Shoruq, a community center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. Again, we participated in the “Three Reads” protocol. To synthesize all the information, students wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting the criminalization of youth in Palestine with the US. Before they began to write, I led a brief guided lecture to refresh their memories about our previous unit on incarceration in the US.
Joshua started his paragraph:
“Palestine and the US are different and similar in some ways when it comes to youth prisons. I will be talking about the similarities between these two. Palestine is sharing fighting land with Jewish people. Israeli/Palestinians are currently breaking laws by transferring prisoners out of their area.”
This student sample showed me that the students still had important misconceptions I needed to address in my teaching, such as the distinction between Zionist and Jewish, and Israelis and Palestinians.
“When we compare the guided lecture to the video Prisoner, it becomes clear that they should free Palestinians. The most obvious differences between the guided lecture and the video Prisoner is in the guided lecture they go to juvy [juvenile detention] and in the video they go to administrative detention. One similarity is that they both go to prison and don’t get to see their family for months and even years. By comparing the guided lecture to Prisoner we learn that Israelis treat Palestinians badly. These are the reasons you should free Palestinians!”
Before we jumped into our summative tasks, we had a guest visit from Zeiad Abbas Samrouch, executive director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, who shared his personal experiences of resistance, imprisonment, and living in exile. The students couldn’t believe that we were seeing someone who threw rocks at tanks when he was their age. Some questions students asked: How old were you when Palestine changed to Israel? Was your mom scared? How long did you live in the tents? What age was the youngest person to go to jail? How long did you hunger strike for?
By this point, students were ready to complete two summative tasks: a Socratic seminar and an essay focused on the following questions:
- What are your opinions now on youth incarceration in the US and in Palestine?
- Compare and contrast how youth are criminalized and incarcerated in the US with youth in Palestine.
I added optional extension assignments, including a 10-frame comic strip, in hopes that I would be able to send their work to kids in Palestine through the Teach Palestine Project. Many students were so excited at the possibility that their drawings and writing could be seen and held across the world!
Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic
The week we were starting these projects, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the SF Bay Area. Our school closure was announced on Thursday, March 12, 2020, and our last day with students was the following day. Like teachers across the globe, we had to pivot to emergency remote learning with no prior infrastructure. As a school, our first and major concerns were our community’s safety and well-being, and then building the container for emergency remote learning.
A major theme that emerged was the necessity to emphasize student choice. This is a basic teaching practice, but it became even more important during emergency remote learning. Students were in very different circumstances in their homes, so our school moved to an emphasis on feedback and interaction over grading and scoring. In this context, I designed a mini-unit on political art. Students analyzed pieces of political art, read/watched texts and media on a social issue emerging and/or evolving due to the pandemic, delved into how people were organizing, created a piece of political art, and wrote an “artist’s statement” explaining their piece.
To my surprise, several students chose to create art about Palestine. For this topic, I curated a number of short articles and videos detailing the current situation in Palestine, with an emphasis on Israel blocking them from getting the necessary supplies to treat COVID-19 patients and stopping the virus from spreading. These texts were, again, designed for adult audiences, so I used the education tool Edpuzzle to place guided questions for students to respond to throughout the video.
For the art portion of this project, students drew things such as Palestinian flags, PPE (personal protective equipment), and slogans: “Free Palestine!” They paired this with their artist statements. For example, Banaz wrote:
“My art piece is about how the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is trapping Palestine and they don’t allow them to do certain stuff. Palestine should be free but the IDF keeps on controlling them and acting like they own them. The challenges that they are facing is not being able to get tested for COVID and if they don’t get tested more people are going to get it because they don’t even know if they need to get treated or not. I think that Israel should give the people of Palestine more land and they need to let Palestine be free and not be controlling them. The IDF needs to give Palestine chances to test because everyone deserves to get tested and be safe.”
Reflections: Teaching Palestine in a Global Context
One of my biggest takeaways from our trip wasn’t about the urgency to teach Palestine as a stand-alone subject, but the urgency to teach Palestine within a global context. The mainstream narrative about the Israel and Palestine “conflict” being so uniquely complicated led me to think of this issue in isolation. However, it became important to me to draw out the connections with settler-colonialism in the so-called US and all over the world, which showed up in my curriculum with making connections as we learned about youth incarceration. Students were therefore able to process and verbalize how these bigger picture issues affected their lives as well. I think of teaching all content through a global lens now with the hopes of students starting to see their place in resistance and freedom struggles nationally and abroad.
It also became clear to me that students must locate themselves within these issues if the goal is for them to care beyond the learning unit. This is true for adults, too. When our delegation met with organizers of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, they emphasized the necessity of global solidarity and made clear that there is a role for all of us in the struggle for freedom for Palestinians and oppressed peoples all over the world. They spoke about when they launched the academic boycotts in the early 2000s, which called for universities to refuse to work with Israelis. They talked about how we can all find ways to raise consciousness and organize within our own social circles, workplaces, and other networks that we’re connected to. My initial doubts about being able to teach about Palestine melted away when I was able to locate myself within this international struggle and know that we all have roles to play in achieving our collective liberation.
Additionally–reflecting further on my original hesitations about teaching Palestine–I felt I didn’t know enough, and I was concerned about doing more harm than good. Working through my doubts about being able to bring Palestine into the classroom showed me that the biggest barrier to hurdle over was perfectionism. I wanted to make sure that I teach a unit that was humanizing, impactful, well-researched… etc. And I realized I was stopping myself from teaching about Palestine, as well as several other social issues and matters, for fear of saying/doing the wrong things. When I shed this fear, I was able to engage with the wealth of resources available about Palestine. I had a small start by introducing Palestine as a case study within a mini-unit, but it was a start that has snowballed into so much more since then.
I’m not advocating for us to teach about things that we’re not ready to, but rather take the risk to fumble as we all do as educators in order to bring the most pressing issues into our classrooms. There is no better time than now, no better person than you to do the difficult, necessary, and life-changing work required to heed the call of Palestinians and oppressed people all over the world: To lift up our interconnected struggles and ongoing histories of resistance in our classrooms, find our place and root ourselves firmly in people’s freedom movements, and commit to developing as educators so we can prepare future generations to join us in creating a better world.