A 6th Grade Unit Based on Determined to Stay
By Lyndsey MacKenzie
My sixth grade class was at Vernon School in a Northeast Portland, Oregon, neighborhood that is historically African American. Our school has seen significant gentrification in the past 15 years, so my class was a reflection of what’s happened in the larger neighborhood. Of my 24 students, 30 percent identified as Black or African American; 60 percent as white; and the remaining 10 percent as Pacific Islander or Native American. The majority, 16, identified as boys. Five students were part of the gifted and talented program; six were identified for special education. The class was enthusiastic, active, and socially connected. They loved to show their learning through projects that allowed them to express themselves.
Last year, a colleague from another school in our district and I connected our students through pen pal letters. We thought it could be an important aspect of increasing academic involvement post-pandemic. That led to us talking about our units of study. She mentioned hearing Jody Sokolower speak at a social justice teaching conference about using Detemined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village as a way to introduce Palestine into classrooms.
That interested me, especially because I had the opportunity to travel to Israel when I was 19 or 20. I was partnered with an Israeli at the time; he was living on a kibbutz and I went to visit him. I saw it as a tourist experience; I wasn’t politically engaged. Then, at one point, we traveled to Hebron and went through a checkpoint. I was struck by how easy it was for me as a US citizen to flash my passport and go wherever I wanted without question; I could see how different it was for Palestinians, even to travel within their homeland. That trip unsettled me; it opened my mind and my eyes to the reality of the experience of Palestinian people in this world. When I read Determined to Stay, it was a link back to that experience—a link I wanted to share with my students.
We had just finished studying ancient belief systems, so the students had been exploring what’s now the Arab world as the birthplace of the monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I introduced Determined to Stay as a way to look at what is happening currently in that part of the world.
Studying Palestine within an International Baccalaureate Framework
We’re an International Baccalaureate school, so we were guided by the following inquiry statement and questions:
Statement of inquiry: Power and global interactions make conflict inevitable, but cooperation is possible through a change in perspective
Factual: What is conflict? What are different types of conflict?
Conceptual: How do we manage and solve conflict?
Debatable: To what extent is conflict inevitable and cooperation possible?
I wanted to make sure that all my students, whatever their reading level, felt confident and engaged. So chapter by chapter, I chose an approach, depending on the content. I created slideshows for many of the chapters, as well as graphic organizers that included significant vocabulary, quick writes, content and analysis questions, and fill-in-the blank paragraphs.
For example, for the introduction by Red Nation co-founder Nick Estes, Lower Brule Sioux, I created a slideshow with visuals that were representations of what Estes was speaking to. As I read the chapter aloud to students, I advanced the slides so students could see a visual representation of the content.
Then we read Chapter 1, “A Classroom Falls into a Tunnel,” aloud together, pausing to reflect and take notes. As we read through the chapters, I created discussion questions, prompts and graphic organizers for their learning. I also created daily slideshows that included things that were happening in real time. So, for example, when Shireen Abu Akieh was shot and killed, we had the news channel on and we learned in live time the response of the Israeli government, as well as the response of the Palestinian people and their supporters around the world. Combining reading the book with current news definitely helped the students understand that these were big moments in history, happening right before us.
Each day unfolded with a check-in about a current event, and then we would dive into a chapter. Sometimes that would lead to a provocative question from a student that we would bring to center stage during the next class. Sometimes we read aloud, sometimes students read independently or in small groups.
“He Was Arrested Because He Had a Broken Ruler?”
One of the early chapters in DTS is an interview with 14-year-old Moussa. He describes how his friend was arrested by the Israelis outside his school when they found a broken ruler in his backpack. They said it was a weapon and sentenced him to months of house arrest when he couldn’t leave his home, even to go to school. That story vividly struck the hearts and minds of many students in the room, and it was something that they brought up over and over again. It was something that they could picture, imagine. They had so many questions about how it was possible that he could get in so much trouble for something so innocent. They just couldn’t believe it.
That same week, I showed Secret Hebron: The School Run, about Palestinian children in Hebron climbing across roofs and dashing across streets to avoid Israeli police and get to school. My students were incredulous: “Is this real? They go through all of that just to get to school?” It gave them a sense of appreciation for their own lives. “Here I am,” they were saying to themselves, “trying to avoid going to school and look what they’re risking to get there.” One of these students stressed that in her final reflections: “We need to appreciate our education and value the opportunities that we have because not everyone gets this in the world, and this is exemplified by what we just learned.”
Learning about Moussa and his friend led to us exploring child imprisonment around the world, including in our own community, and to students researching the depths of that reality. Before we read that chapter and did this research, many of them had no idea of the magnitude of the situation.
We talked about the school to prison pipeline, how that operates in schools and how it affects Black and Brown students specifically. It was a rich conversation that connected to real-life experiences that some of the students shared. One Black student in particular talked about being called out at school, being punished in ways that felt punitive and racist.
Making Links to Black Lives Matter
That led to discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of standing up for justice. Students spoke to having marched in the streets here in Portland in the summers of 2020 and 2021. They talked about the importance of fighting for the rights of Black and Brown people in the United States, and how that connects to the experiences of Palestinians and Palestinian youth, and the ways that they were advocating for their rights.
So criminalization of youth in Palestine and here in the US definitely emerged as a major theme. Another theme was the importance of art and creativity in being an activist and an advocate. In the book, youth and their families talk a lot about the importance of the Madaa Creative Center in Silwan, the village that Determined to Stay centers on. The idea that Madaa was a place where Silwani youth could express themselves resonated with my students. They loved learning about hip-hop and rap as art forms that convey meaning that is deep and personal, and can teach history and culture.
Chapter 11, “The City of David: Archeology As A Weapon,” is a heavy chapter with a lot of higher level vocabulary. We carefully broke that chapter down together, and I showed the students videos to bring off the page and to life what we were discussing.
The summative project was an acrostic poem, and I saw students expressing themselves in ways that were academically based and also spoke to their creative powers. I saw students using visual images to represent meaning, and explaining how that visual representation connected to the words they had carefully chosen for their poems. There was a deep connection to art as activism.
For example, one of my students, an African American child who has an Individualized Learning Plan, seemed seriously disengaged with our classroom learning throughout the school year. He had struggled with
academic vocabulary all year. As we began to work on the acrostic poems, he landed on an understanding of settler colonialism in the moment when he and I were conferring with each other. I could almost see his brain making the connections.
He was talking about the word “settler”; he felt it was important to really capture that word in his acrostic poem. He likened it back to the idea of colonialism in America, and the fact of people settling here and the impact that had for Indigenous and Black people in what’s now the United States.
As a Black student, he had a specific and passionate insight into how messed up that can be for people. He said it was evil.
So here was a child who wasn’t connecting with class, and this topic, this book, hooked him. He felt the importance of learning this, discussing it, connecting it back to his own reality as a young Black man growing up in the US. Among so many of the students, there was an opening of hearts and minds to new perspectives.
Centering Palestinian Youth Voices
Perspective was a huge word that we came back to over and over again— the importance of understanding the relevance of perspective. We started off saying these people are good, these people are bad, but perspective is a much more complicated concept.
The book does a great job of centering the perspective of the Palestinian youth—their experiences and their stories. The anecdotes they share are so valuable and important to enriching our understanding of what is truly going on, because if we just turn on the mainstream news, we don’t hear any of that.
One day we compared the titles of two news stories. It was clear just from the titles that one was from an Zionist writer who was coming from a settler, colonialist mindset; and the other was from a Palestinian author who was writing about Palestinian experience.
The students could see right away that if you didn’t know the history or the background, you wouldn’t be able to have an informed opinion. By the end, students were valuing the importance of taking into consideration the reasons why somebody would say that they had a right to bulldoze someone else’s house. What’s the perspective that drives that kind of action? They were able to move beyond an emotional reaction of “That’s awful!” to “I can have an informed conversation about why that is problematic because I’ve learned about these experiences from Palestinian youth and their families.” The text-based evidence was right there.
This year I’m teaching younger children, but when I have a chance to teach this again, I would like the summative activity to be based on an inquiry of the students’ choice. I would still include the acrostic poem, but I would love to see where they would take it next. The work that they were starting to do with “No Child Left in Prison” was incredible, and I would have loved to give them the opportunity to push it to the next level. I think some strong activism and advocacy could come from that.
Because it was our first year back post-COVID, and because of the timing, we didn’t make it the whole way through the book. I wish I had the time so that my struggling readers, the ones who really needed all the scaffolding and classroom support, had the opportunity to stay in small groups with learners at their level to push through and read the entire book together. For them, the guided readings, the videos, and the class discussions were essential to their understanding.
I see the first two sections of the book as driven by an engagement with the historical context and the stories that build our understanding of the why and how this is affecting people. Then, the last sections of the book center on activism and the value of that. So bringing the whole class through the entire book would be an important launching point for larger summatives that focus on responses and activism.
I know that many educators have faced pushback or repression for including Palestine, but I didn’t have any problems like that in my classroom or school community. Furthermore, for the Jewish students in the room, it was mind-opening and deepened their passion for justice.