Lesson Plans

Capier: "Fractured Lands" K-12 Lesson Plan and Educational Resources

Border crossing in Ras Jdir near Ben Gardenne. Image by Paolo Pellegrin. Tunisia, 2011.

Black and white image of children in silhoutte from an IDP camp in Iraq.

Children in an IDP camp. Image by Paolo Pellegrin. Iraq, July 2016

Introducing the Lesson:

(Images courtesy of The New York Times Magazine)

In “Fractured Lands,” Scott Anderson explores the modern Middle East through the eyes of six individuals, tracing their lives from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq through the Arab spring, up to the present day. While these people come from different countries, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, their interlinked narratives provide a window into a turbulent region and help the reader understand the macro-narrative of modern Middle Eastern history. Throughout “Fractured Lands,” Anderson raises questions about leadership, governance, identity, dissent and the consequences of history, which enrich our understanding of current events and may also help us better anticipate the future. The article is also accompanied by an incredible virtual reality film from Ben Solomon. Click here to be connected to Solomon’s film.

At the right, the Pulitzer Center's education team has provided a series of detailed comprehension questions corresponding to the different sections within the article. We have also provided the following tools for introducing students to the story and guiding student analysis of the piece:

  1. Pre-Reading Questions
  2. Frameworks for analyzing the full text, or just the introduction, through the lens of history, identity and structural analysis of the text
  3. Discussion Questions
  4. Extension Activities

These resources are aimed at addressing the following learning goals:

  1. Seek deeper and more complex understanding of the historical context that led to current conflict in the Middle East.
  2. Invigorate a curiosity about the conditions of people living in the midst of conflicts.
  3. Evaluate how an author unfolds an analysis of current events in the Middle East, including how points are made and what details are emphasized.
  4. Reflect on the choices that people can exercise in responding to crises of war, threat and violence in the Middle East.
  5. Evaluate the effects of a long-form journalistic work such as this article.

Common Core standards-alignment for these resources are listed in the Educator Notes. For discussion questions and exercises geared toward college-level students, click here.

The Pulitzer Center is proud to support education initiatives connected to this rich and essential piece of reporting through curriculum support and journalist visits. Please contact education@pulitzercenter.org if you would like support connecting “Fractured Lands” to your classroom. 

Warm-up Questions:

Through individual writing, pair discussions or whole-group discussions, guide students in reflecting on the following questions in advance of introducing "Fractured Lands."

  1. When you think of home, what do you imagine? What makes a place a home for you?

  2. When you think of your country, what do you imagine? How connected do you feel to your country? How would you describe the identity of your country?

  3. What makes a strong leader? What do people expect from their leaders?

  4. How do you choose to engage with your government when you disagree with its decisions?

  5. What has been the most singular event of your life? How did this event change your life?

  6. What has been a singular event in your country? What was the impact of that event on you directly?

Exercise: How do you define your identity?

What roles do the following play in how you and your students define your identities? Rank them in order of importance to how you define your identity. (1=most important)

  1. Nationality

  2. Ethnicity

  3. Race

  4. Faith

  5. Gender

  6. Sexual Orientation

  7. Ability

  8. Age

  9. Political affiliation

  10. Family

  11. Career

  12. Socio-economic status

  13. Education

  14. Other (write in) _________

Have students discuss their responses and consider the following: What would you do if your government did not protect the part of your identity that is most important to you? How would you feel if other governments continued to support your government, even if it was not protecting this part of your identity?

Discussion: The History of the Middle East

Assess students’ prior knowledge of the historical events referenced in the piece by having them reflect individually, in small groups, or as a whole group on the following:

  1. When were the following countries established, and how? What are current challenges facing these countries?

  • Iraq

  • Syria

  • Libya

  • Egypt

  1. What has been your country’s relationship with the countries listed above? What is the current relationship between your country and the countries listed above?

  2. What was the Arab Spring, and what has been the impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East? What has been the impact in your community?

  3. What is ISIS, and how was it formed?

  4. Who are the Kurds, and what has their role in the fight against ISIS?

Photo Analysis: Visualizing "Fractured Lands":

Use the following thinking routine developed by Project Zero to guide an analysis of photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin's photos from "Fractured Lands." Use the two below, or click on the “Resources” link to review the full slideshow.

  • What do you see in the photo?

  • What do you think is happening in the photo?

  • What does it make you wonder?

For more resources to use in guiding an analysis of photography, click here.

Introducing the Article "Fractured Lands" by Scott Anderson:

At first glance, Anderson’s piece can appear daunting in its length. However, Anderson’s clear and concise explanation of the history of the Middle East through the eyes of several characters provides incredible opportunities for rich discussion about the human impact of conflict in the Middle East. When teaching this article, there are several ways to approach the story.

  1. We suggest that the introduction should be read and discussed as a class. Some teachers may opt to only teach the introduction, as it provides a strong overview of the piece’s major themes and the historical context of the Middle East. Use the comprehension questions for the “Forward” to the article to guide your discussion.
  2. Ask your students to read the piece section by section over the course of several days. As they read, have students follow along with comprehension questions and be ready to summarize each section according to the thematic guidance provided in the lesson plan. Students can also track where they are in the piece using a map of the region.
    Using a rate of 200 words per minute, we have estimated the time it would take to reach each section:
  • Foreword  (17 minutes)
  • Origins (26 minutes)
  • The Iraq War (35 minutes)
  • Arab Spring (65 minutes)
  • ISIS Rising (35 minutes)
  • Exodus (30 minutes)
  • Epilogue (5 minutes)
  1. After reading the introduction as a class — Break students up into six groups and have each group track one of the characters with the tables provided below. Have the students come together to present the experiences of their chosen characters throughout three chapters of the story and then discuss the whole piece as a class. Students may choose to role-play.
  2. If students are also engaging with The Fight for Fallujah, a virtual reality film connected to “Fractured Lands” from filmmaker Ben C. Solomon, prepare your students by discussing the role that Fallujah is playing in the war between ISIS and the Kurds.  The project “From ‘the Other Iraq’ to Kurdistan” from Pulitzer Center grantees Jenna Krajeski and Sebastian Meyer will be a helpful resource. Comprehension questions connected to Solomon’s film follow the comprehension questions for the article.

Throughout students’ exploration of the article, have them track following guiding questions:

  1. What historical events led to the current situation in the Middle East?
  2. What has been the global and local impact of the invasion in Iraq, the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS?
  3. How do you imagine the future of the Middle East and its many communities?
  4. How does the author use personal narratives to describe historical events? Why do you think he chose these characters? What is the impact?

If your students need additional guidance when engaging with the piece, have them use one or more of the graphic organizers below:

  1. How were these countries/characters influenced by major historical events? As students are reading, ask them to fill out the following chart:
  Laila Majdi Azar Majd Khulood Wakaz
World War I            
Arab Nationalism (secular            
The Invasion of Iraq            
The Arab Spring            
The Rise of ISIS            

2. What is happening with each character at the end of each section? (Origins, The Iraq War, Arab Spring, ISIS Rising, Exodus and the Epilogue) Have students track the characters using the following chart. Students should fill out a new copy of the chart at the end of each section.

*Note: not all characters will be mentioned in each section

  Laila Majdi Azar Majd Khulood Wakaz
What is happening in his/her home country?            
How are they affected?            
What decisions does this person make?            
Predict what comes next.            

3. How is each country explored in the article impacted by major historical events? As you read, track what happened to each country highlighted in this article as a result of the following historical events, according to Anderson’s piece.

*Note: some events may not have as direct of an impact on certain countries as others

  Iraq Syria Libya Egypt
The End of WWI        

The Rise of Arab Nationalism

The Invasion of Iraq        
The Arab Spring        

Discussion Questions:

Use the following questions to guide a discussion about the themes and structure of "Fractured Lands" with your students:

  1. What is sticking with you about the piece? What are your initial reactions? What questions do you still have?

  2. Is there a character you identified with? Who and why? What role did that character play in Anderson’s overall narrative?

  3. What were some of the key points that shaped the way events in the Middle East unfolded? What role did western countries play?  What might have happened if these events had unfolded differently?​

  4. How has reading this article changed and/or affirmed any of your conceptions of the Middle East?

  5. What factors influence people’s decisions to remain in or leave their hometowns? Think about Khulood’s decision to leave Iraq but then to return to Jordan, Majdi’s decision to stay in Libya, and Majd’s decision to seek refuge in Europe. What would you have done if you were in their situations?

  6. When describing her children’s involvement in the protests in Egypt, Laila says, “‘I never tried to dissuade them. Even if I had wanted to — and I probably did at times — I didn’t.” How would you have engaged with the protests that followed the Arab Spring? How would you have responded if you were Laila?

  7. Think about this piece through the lens of leadership—what were the leadership failures and successes? How do the leaders in the story compare with leaders you see in your own lives?

  8. How did Anderson balance storytelling, personal observation, facts and descriptions to tell the story? How did he structure the story, and why do you think he chose this structure? What literary devices did he use to keep the reader engaged?

  9. Why do you think Anderson felt compelled to write this article? Why do you think it is important?

  10. Consider Majdi’s statement in the epilogue: ‘‘Not that it will solve all our problems, but at least with the king we were a nation, we had an identity. Without that identity, we are all just individuals — or at most, members of a tribe.’’ What do you think will happen next in the Middle East, and why? What is your hope for the Middle East, and how can that hope be achieved? What can your role be?

Extension Activities:

Create Visualizations that Use Details from "Fractured Lands" to Articulate the History of the Middle East

1. Using details from "Fractured Lands", create a timeline that reflects the history of the Middle East from the establishment of the countries described in the article through the present.

2. Create a country profile for each of the countries featured in "Fractured Lands." Use the table below and external resources as needed to create your profile.

  Iraq Libya Syria Egypt
Date Established        
Imperial Influence (Britain or France)        


  • After WWI

  • At the time of the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

  • During the Arab Spring

  • After the Arab Spring

  • Today

*Note the sect or ethnic group of each leader

*Note whether the leader is secular or religious


Major Ethnic Groups

Natural Resources?        

Evaluate the History and Future of the Middle East through Writing

Essay 1: Reception of Refugees from the Middle East in Europe

Essay 2: The Experience of a Syrian Refugee

  • Read Joanna Kakissis and Holly Pickett’s story about four refugee families for NPR and compare with Majd’s journey in the piece. The story is also featured in the free Pulitzer Center 2015 E-book Flight From Syria, which features writing and photography from nine journalists who covered Syria from 2011-2015. 

  • Prompt: What are some of the challenges refugees like Majd face in Europe?

Essay 3: Making Hard Choices

  • After reading "Fractured Lands," watch Alexandria Bombach’s film “Afghanistan by Choice.”

  • Prompt: Write an essay about what motivates people to depart from or remain in a war-torn country. What would influence that decision for you?

Essay 4: The Syrian Civil War

  • Read Ben Taub’s piece about the “Assad Files” and then research Assad’s current position in Syria. (Note: this piece has graphic descriptions of torture and may not be appropriate for younger students.)

  • Prompt: What kind of leader is Bashar al Assad? How has he responded to challenges to his authority and what are the consequences of his actions? How do you recommend that leaders from other countries should respond to Assad?

Essay 5: The Kurds

Demonstrate Comprehension and Analysis by Creating Visual Art Inspired by "Fractured Lands"

  • Choose a character from the story and create a 3-5 panel comic that illustrates his/her journey throughout the story. The comic should reflect details and quotations from the story. It could also include an additional panel that reflects an imagined future for the character. Write a statement to accompany your comic that articulates why you chose the images you chose.

  • Create a visual art piece that reflects the personality and experience of a character in the story. Use details from the story to inform what images, colors and textures you use in your piece. Write an artist statement to accompany your piece that uses details from the story to explain the artistic choices you made in creating your piece. Here is an example of how a similar exercise was been executed in a middle school in Arlington Heights.

  • Choose two of the characters from this piece and write a play or short story depicting the two of them meeting for the first time. What might be a circumstance where they would meet? What would they talk about? What might they want, and how could they be working to get what they want in the scene? Be sure to include relevant details from the story in your scene.

Demonstrate Connection to the Characters and Themes in "Fractured Lands" Through Personal Reflection and Plans for Action

  • Using details from the story, write a letter to a local representative outlining what role you think your country should play in supporting refugees that have been displaced by conflict in the Middle East. (A start to this activity could be writing a letter to one of the characters in the piece that reflects what students learned from his/her story.)

  • Research the process that a refugee from Syria would need to go through in order to gain entry to your country. Consider what challenges Syrians face when attempting to enter your country? Create a resource that clearly communicates that process. Be sure to select an audience and purpose for the resource (a Syrian family seeking to enter the country, a government official that could lobby to change the application process, etc.).

  • Using facts, quotations and descriptions from the story, create a campaign that informs your community about the impacts of conflict in the Middle East. Like Anderson, consider how you can use storytelling to connect to your community. As part of your campaign research ways your community supports refugees.

  • Use Anderson’s story as the inspiration for an investigation into a “signature moment” in your community. Conduct research into this signature moment and identify people in your community that have been impacted. Interview those people. Then, use your research and the interviews you conducted to write a short article that uses the stories of your subjects to illustrate the “signature moment’ you selected.

Additional Resources:

These are historical events that are referenced and described throughout the piece. If you are interested in deepening student understanding of these events and their connection to this story, here are some recommended resources. 

Educator Notes: 

This lesson plan is designed as a guide that offers different ways to engage your students in the article "Fractured Lands" by Scott Anderson, published by The New York Times with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Click here for a college-level lesson plan.

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