As residents of a democracy, Americans are routinely invited to weigh in on the policy choices of our government. In recent years, one of those policy questions has been whether to arm Syrian rebels trying to topple the Bashar al-Assad government. Most of us rely on media reports for the evidence we need to make an informed decision on this policy question.
In this activity, students will assume the role of a foreign correspondent, reporting on events in Syria for particular target audiences. By the end of the activity, they'll understand the role that target audience plays in how news is reported, and how their policy positions are influenced by that reporting.
Students will be viewing scenes from the documentary Return to Homs. The film takes viewers on a multi-year ride-along with a small group of Syrian insurgents led by Abdul Basset Saroot, a charismatic, 19-year-old Syrian soccer star. Basset began as a nonviolent protester--a participant in Syria's Arab Spring--seeking an end to the repressive policies of the Assad government. The military's lethal response ultimately led him to take up arms to defend his hometown.
For students, Basset is an older peer. This is likely to interest them and add to their insights about current events in Syria and whether the United States should provide military aid.
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By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Become familiar with the current conflict in Syria
- Write news stories for a particular target audience
- Analyze the ways that target audiences influence the content and style of news reports
- Research and read background information on modern-day Syria
GRADE LEVELS: 9-12
- Film clips from Return to Homs and equipment on which to show them.
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
Two 30-minute activities, each bracketed by homework (before and after).
Video clips provided with this lesson plan are from Return to Homs.
Clip 1a (0:44 min.) begins at 4:25 with street protestors at night and ends at 5:09 after the narrator reports, "We lost him on that very night."
Clip 1b (1:34 min.) begins at 5:42 when Abdul Basset Saroot says, "When I first joined the sit-in..." and ends at 7:16 with a shot from above of street protestors.
The first segment includes footage of a peaceful protestor who was later killed by Syrian security forces. The second segment introduces us to Basset and shows daytime footage of a peaceful protest, including the expression of demands for things such as a no-fly zone.
Clip 2: "The Crossing" (2:35 min.)
The clip begins at 11:30 with a long shot of Homs. It ends at 14:05 with a shot of snipers on the top of a building.
The clip shows the Syrian military blocking a major thoroughfare connecting to key neighborhoods in Homs, Khalidiya and Bayada, and then citizens dismantling the blockade. The military used such blockades to isolate and then cut off resistance and used snipers to shoot at citizens who tried to dismantle or cross the blockades.
Clip 3: "Khalidiya Massacre" (5:00 min.)
The clip begins at 23:35 with the date (Saturday, February 4, 2012) and ends at 28:35 with a rebel running across a courtyard.
The clip includes footage of funerals of civilians killed by Syrian security, shelling, a woman describing being forced from their homes, the end of peaceful protests and a rebel making his way through the interiors of bombed out buildings.
Clip 4a (2:43 min.)
The clip begins at 29:15 with Basset saying, "This is my gun." It ends at 32:08 with the narrator saying, "He told his friends, as if in farewell, 'I love you.'"
Clip 4b (1:12 min.)<br/ >The clip begins at 32:48 with a helicopter flying over Homs, and ends at 34:00 with the narrator saying, "The revolution's armed power started to grow, relying on what rebels plunder from the army and on individual donations from abroad."
Basset explains fighting strategy; Ossama (the cameraman who shot the street protest scene) is seriously injured by a mortar (he ultimately survives); and battle scenes are shown.
Clip 5: "Ossama's Home" (2:00 min.)
The clip begins at 39:25 with Ossama entering the bombed out apartment that used to be his home. It ends at 41:25 with Ossama walking down the stairs.
Basset and Ossama walk through the wreckage of Ossama's family home.
Clip 6: "Basset's Song" (3:00 min.)
The clip starts at 45:15 with Basset beginning his song. It ends at 48:15 with the narrator saying, "The plan to liberate Bayada failed."
Basset's song "calls out" the international community for its inaction. It is followed by footage of rebels rescuing injured and dead fighters.
Assign students to familiarize themselves with the current conflict in Syria by finding answers to these questions:
- Who is fighting against the Syrian government?
- What are the main reasons for the rebellion?
- How does the Assad government justify its actions in the conflict?
- What's special about the role of Homs in the conflict?
See the Resources section for potential sources beyond Wikipedia or Google News.
2. Introducing the Film
As a class, review students' answers to the questions so that everyone has a basic understanding of the Syrian conflict. As time allows, invite students to share which sources provided the best information and why they thought their key sources were credible.
Tell students that they are going to view clips from a documentary--Return to Homs--about one of the rebels leading the fight in Homs. Abdul Basset Saroot was a 19-year-old national soccer star when protests started.
3. Introducing the Assignment
For viewing, put students into the role of journalists assigned to cover the rebellion. Each will be writing a news story based on what they see and hear in the film clips. However, they will be writing for different target audiences. Assign half the students to write their news stories for a target audience that favors arming the rebels, and the other half to write for a target audience that opposes arming the rebels. Remind students that their stories must be factual. They can choose what to include or exclude and how they describe events or people, but they can't just invent things.
4. Viewing the Clips and Writing
There are several ways to use the clips. To get a full picture, all students should watch all clips (just under 20 minutes of footage). Advanced students can write stories based on all six segments. Lower level students might be assigned just one of the clips. And you might use the first clip as an in-class demonstration, working together to transform the clip into a news report.
Show the clips. As time allows, you might briefly pause after each clip to check for comprehension and reaction. Please note: This is war footage. Some of it is graphic and disturbing. You might warn students beforehand and/or send a note home to parents.
As homework, assign students to write their news stories and post them on a class wiki (or any means of sharing, either online or in class) so they can read one another's work. Note that clips are available online, so students can view them again as they craft their stories. You can use the posted stories to assess students' knowledge, writing skills and listening skills.
5. Discussing Results
When all have posted their stories, ask students if they notice any patterns. Can they guess the target audience for each story even without knowing which had been assigned? Did certain facts appear frequently in stories for one target audience and not the other? Were events contextualized differently?
Wrap-up the discussion by asking students what they learned about news reporting. Can something be factual and still be biased? Did any of the students find their opinion of the conflict altered by the assignment? How about their view of media reporting?
- Continue the discussion by guiding a class dialogue about whether the United States should arm the Syrian rebels. Invite students to contact their elected representatives to share their conclusions about what U.S. policy on Syria should be.
- Look more deeply at the students' news reports and discuss what words they used to describe Basset and his men. Are they rebels? Insurgents? Freedom fighters? Radicals? Revolutionaries? Talk about the connotations of various labels and the consequences of using particular words.
- Compare Basset's experience with examples from the literature of war (e.g., The Odyssey, The Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls or Catch-22).
- For several weeks following the lesson, have students track reporting about Syria. Host an informal gathering (e.g., a brown bag lunch) to discuss what they have learned.
- View the full film. Discuss whether the additional context changes the ideas they had after watching the clips. Would they have reported anything differently?
POV: Return to Homs
www.pbs.org/pov/returntohoms/ - The film's site includes a discussion guide with background information and additional activity ideas.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/povdocs/2015/11/media-literacy/ - This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
The Guardian: "Arab Spring: An Interactive Timeline of Middle East Protests"
www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline - The newspaper has compiled a timeline of Arab Spring events and government responses, including events in Syria.
Institute for the Study of War: "The Free Syrian Army"
http://www.understandingwar.org/report/free-syrian-army - In March 2013 this non-partisan public policy research institute focused on the development of U.S. military strategy compiled a report on the history and status of the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
http://syriahr.com/en/ - This Britain-based collective of pro-democracy people in and outside Syria aggregates news stories and reports on human rights in Syria.
U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx - This site provides reports on the Syrian conflict from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
U.S. Department of State: "U.S. Relations With Syria"
http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm - This official U.S. government website offers an overview of U.S.-Syrian relations, including a set of links to additional information on Syria.
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf)
- SL. 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
- SL. 11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
- SL. 11-12.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and a range of formal and informal tasks.
- SL. 11-12.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
- W. 9-10.1, 11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
- SL. 9-10.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.
- SL. 11-12.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.
- W. 9-10.4, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
Content Knowledge: (http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/) a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).
- Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
- Language Arts, Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
- Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.
- Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Dimension 1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries
- D1.5.9-12. Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available and the potential uses of the sources.
Dimension 2: Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools
- D2.Civ.9.9-12. Use appropriate deliberative processes in multiple settings.
- D2.Civ.13.9-12. Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
- D2.Civ.14.9-12. Analyze historical, contemporary and emerging means of changing societies, promoting the common good and protecting rights.
- D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.
- D2.His.7.9-12. Explain how the perspectives of people in the present shape interpretations of the past.
- D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.
Dimension 3: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence
- D3.4.9-12. Refine claims and counterclaims attending to precision, significance and knowledge conveyed through the claim while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both.
Dimension 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Actions
- D4.2.9-12. Construct explanations using sound reasoning, correct sequence (linear or non-linear), examples and details with significant and pertinent information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanation given its purpose (e.g., cause and effect, chronological, procedural, technical).
- D4.4.9-12. Critique the use of claims and evidence in arguments for credibility.
- D4.5.9-12. Critique the use of the reasoning, sequencing and supporting details of explanations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher's Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 250 independent films.