Asst. Superintendent Chuck Smith told Bd. of Education members about what the district is doing to help students understand and process current events in Ukraine, during the Thursday, March 3 BOE meeting.

At Thursday evening’s (March 3) Board of Education meeting, administrators updated the BOE members about how the district’s teachers are helping students at all levels understand the conflict in Ukraine.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating the news, hearing about the crisis in Europe is something children of all ages likely can’t avoid. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Chuck Smith told the Board that Wilton educators are all working to help their students understand it.

“We can’t, and probably shouldn’t, shield our students from seeing or hearing about the harsh realities of what’s going on in Eastern Europe,” Smith said.

The question for teachers and parents is how to support students in understanding current events unfolding in real time, and which may be disturbing or distressing, and may also involve misinformation or disinformation, Smith said.

Helping students process the news is especially important, given how upsetting the news can be for children and teens, with anxiety already at a high level.

“These must seem like very terrifying times to our students,” Smith explained. “They have experienced so much the past few years with the pandemic and various other social difficulties and problems. And then add to that a war in Europe and talk of potential nuclear conflict. It must seem at least to some of our students like the world is on fire and there’s no safe place. In fact it would be hard to overstate the precariousness of this moment for our students and in fact for all of us.”

Smith said district educators are aware they need to take into account the age and developmental level of the students and what their needs and questions are. He asked the BOE and the community to trust that, in the face of “navigat[ing] big, scary social issues or even local tragedies and crises… our teachers have the knowledge and the various tools, resources, and supports at their disposal to help our students through these difficult times.”

Smith explained how the school is handling the topic with its students.

Reassure about safety

Younger students learn through social studies units focused on local and state government topics, and don’t have the knowledge of foreign affairs. So when news like the Ukrainian/Russian conflict breaks, Smith said the teachers focus on reassuring students that they are safe, and he encourages parents to do so as well.

“That applies to students of all ages, but our approach to this particular age group is very similar to our approach to what happened on Jan 6, 2021. And that is to reassure, discuss issues as they arise, taking care to shepherd the students in and out of discussion safely,” Smith said.

Relying on Tools from Experts to Teach about Hope in Crises

For older students, teachers have been trained to use protocols about how to teach current events as they unfold, from resources like a “breaking news protocol” from a book called The Civically Engaged Classroom or the “Safely In, Safely Out Protocol” from the Anti-Defamation League. These help students identify not only what’s being said but also examine the sources of information they are relying on.

It also helps teachers frame things in a way that’s not hopeless.

“The thing about crises is that they not only illustrate the depths to which humanity can sink, but they can also illustrate the heights to which you can soar — in other words, helping students to see that there is not just darkness, but also light in darkness. By changing the emphasis, focusing on life instead of death, lightness instead of darkness, students will encounter stories of human spirit that can inspire them, especially in difficult times. And this is how we try to approach many challenging topics, including the Holocaust, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion,” Smith explained.

Geopolitics, Curriculum — and what Students Take Personally

While much of the discussion for older students focuses on the geopolitical situation, Smith said teachers sometimes have to navigate just how ready students are to do that — or if they’re focused on the topic in a more personal way.

“I can give you an example. One high school teacher shared with me that her seniors were very concerned about being drafted into the war. And so she felt it was important to try to address that issue first because that was topmost in their mind, before they started talking about history or politics,” Smith said.

It’s also a work in progress to figure out how current events figure into what is currently being taught in the ongoing curriculum.

“As you can imagine, certain social studies units or courses lend themselves more easily to working in these types of discussions, but we encourage teachers to use their professional judgment in deciding whether their current events should take precedence over current curriculum topics,” he said, adding that teachers at Wilton High School and Middlebrook are planning activities to help students process current events in Ukraine through geography, history, the politics of the region, and the conflict chronology.

Media Literacy

One of the key lessons that’s always a focus in Wilton schools is media literacy — how to access and evaluate information. Smith said that’s especially important in this situation, and one of the biggest challenges for teachers and students right now.

“Students are getting some pretty unreliable information on social media, especially TikTok. And it’s just disheartening to see how these platforms are being used, mostly by adults to spread disinformation. But fortunately, our teachers are on top of this and are working hard to make sure students have the knowledge and skills they need to cope effectively with this unfortunate situation,” he said.

Smith is planning to work with the district’s Safe Schools Climate Coordinator Kim Zemo to develop communication to families on how to talk to their students about things like war and what’s happening in Ukraine.

Superintendent Kevin Smith reminded the Board that there are also families in the Wilton community who are either Russian or Ukrainian and have extended families in the region.

“Over the course of this week, we’ve heard a number of stories about close connections. You heard from Chuck thematically this idea of sensitivity to the topic, sensitivity to our kids and their readiness to handle this information. But also sensitivity to our community members who are being directly impacted,” Kevin Smith noted.

GOOD Morning Wilton will have additional resources for the community in the coming days about how to help the Ukrainian people and what’s happening locally.

UPDATE, 10:30 a.m.: The district emailed parents a list of resources for families to help facilitate discussions at home about the conflict.
For Preschool/Elementary Students

For Elementary/Middle School Students

For High School Students

For All Ages

Media Literacy Tools