Studying history to understand the present

The war in Ukraine and history mesh in this Charter School class.


Students at Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School have been learning Russian history through one of their International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Charter School social studies teacher Deidre Brown leads the small group of juniors and seniors, also making an effort so that they can understand the Russian invasion of Ukraine that erupted in February. 

Brown said there was a level of flexibility for the class to choose what area of the world to study. The current class began with the Russian Empire, and will end at the early stages of the Soviet state. During the first year of the history course, the class will also learn about global histories, such as World War I. During the second year, the focus of the class is planned to move from the West to the East, with subjects such as the Chinese Civil War or the Cambodian dictatorship of Pol Pot. 

Brown told The Times the class uses “key concepts of IB history,” which teach students to think critically about history using six main categories of history, among others: changes, continuity, causation, consequences, significance, and perspectives. At the end of the course, the students will make research projects based on a question they had about history. 

“The historical investigations the students are working on starts with their development of a historical question that they will investigate. Students explore primary and secondary resources, which they analyze to determine the source’s origin and purpose, and its value and limitation as a tool for historians trying to answer this historical question,” Brown said.

For example, juniors Amelia Kyburg-Abbott and Nathaniel Weissman ask, “How and to what extent did ‘Dr. Strangelove’ impact the audience’s views on nuclear warfare?” and “How did World War I put an end to cruiser warfare?” respectively.

The class has been using tools to stimulate the classroom discourse and contextualize the current war in Ukraine, such as a map showing Ukraine’s topography, using to see news about the war in real time, and handouts about war crimes and international law (e.g. Geneva Convention, International Criminal Court, etc.). 

“There’s one,” Nathaniel said during the class, pointing to the online map. “Russian troops blocking evacuations.”

“Yeah, preventing evacuations of civilians. Interestingly, the treatment of civilians in war all seems to have gotten worse. Prior to World War I, it was unusual that [militaries] were going after civilian populations. It was considered ‘dishonorable,’” Brown responded. 

This type of exchange makes connections between what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and what has occurred in history. A major topic includes the use of information dissemination and propaganda. Brown said the class has done activities to get through the information about the war and vet it to be true or not, which is particularly hard because of the internet and how easy it is for false information to spread. 

“It’s hardly ever black and white,” Brown said about looking at history. 

The Times asked the students whether the course was helping them understand the situation in Ukraine more than at the start, which was answered with a resounding yes.

“How it seems right now is that Putin is getting crazier by the day, and there’s a larger gap between the leader and the citizens,” junior Greyson Kirk-Linn said, pointing out that “power-hungry people” have hurt innocent lives throughout Russian history.