Lesson Plans

"Fractured Lands" Eighth Grade Global Awareness Lesson Plans

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

A Note to Educators:

This unit plan uses a few elements of the "Fractured Lands" K-12 lesson written by the Pulitzer Center, but also incorporates new warm ups, a digital notebook with comprehension exercises, and several new extension exercises. This lesson was implemented successfully across three 8th grade classes with learners with vastly different needs and abilities. 

(Images courtesy of The New York Times Magazine)

Introducing the Lesson:

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 socio-economic 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.

Below, 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:


These resources are aimed at addressing the following learning goals:

  • Seek deeper and more complex understanding of the historical context that led to current conflict in the Middle East.
  • Invigorate a curiosity about the conditions of people living in the midst of conflicts.
  • Reflect on the choices that people can exercise in responding to crises of war, threat, and violence in the Middle East.
  • Discover evidence of hope, reselience, and courage while reading the article and connect these threads to their own lives and communities.

Section 1. Investigate the world: Students investigate the world beyond their immediate environment:

Warm Up and Pre-assessment:

  1. On large outlines of a map of Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, write everything you know or believe to be true about each of those regions. Consider using black or grey writing instruments. 
  2. Discuss, as a class, prior knowledge of historical and current events that have happened or are currently happening in the Middle East. 
  3. Take ten minutes to search for images on your Chromebooks on Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Discuss what you found with a partner. What new impressions do you have? 
  4. Free write for ten minutes on a conflict you are currently facing in your life. 
    • What is the conflict you are facing?
    • What role does courage play in your current conflict?
    • What role does resiliency play?
    • What role does hope play?
  5. Why is understanding past and current events in the Middle important for students today? How do these regional events connect to current events around the world? 

Pre-Reading Questions and Exercises:

  1. Reflection and Discussion on the themes of "Fractured Lands" through individual writing, pair discussions or whole-group discussions, guide students in reflecting on the following questions in advance of introducing "Fractured Lands."

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

  • 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?

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

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

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

  • 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 and research in small groups 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. The same activity can be utilized from photos in the New York Times Magazine (filter out ahead of time):

  • 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.

  1. Show the Meet the Journalist: Scott Anderson video as an introduction to the article. 
  2. Introduce the digital interactive notebook for students to go through the Preface individually, with a small group or partner, or as a guided experience with the teacher. We found this works best if students can make the choice of their work style each day. Monitor comprehension by responses on the reflection and activity pages. 
  3. Use the following activities to kick off class each day, with the reminder of time being work-time in the digital interactive notebook on the Preface section of Fractured Lands.
  4. As a class collect a list of everything learned and questions students have (from the corresponding pages as a digital notebook). Post in a visible place in the classroom.

Section 2 Recognize Perspectives: Students recognize their own and others' perspectives. 

  1. Students bring in or research a current events happening in the Middle East. Students recognize their own perspectives and and identify influences on that perspective.
  2. Arbitrary borders exercise: Use this activity the day after discussing the arbitrary borders created by Britain and France's mandates to help the students better understand the implications of those actions. Have the students desks rearranged in an "unfair and poorly planned manner" for when students walk into class, as well as a new class seating arrangement. For example, some students should have three desks while others sit on the floor. One might be at the teacher's desk while another has to balance on a stool for the class. This can help solidify a connection to the way that these lands have been under the influence of distant and out-of-touch lawmakers and governments. 
  3. Geopolitical Jenga: This activity can be used many different ways with current events. Collect enough sets of Jenga so there can be four students or less per group. One version is to have students take an area or current event and name the key players. Syria is a good place to start. Each student can be given a role (Assad, rebel groups, the U.S., Russia, etc.) and then takes a turn pulling a block from the Jenga set. As each student pulls a block, that student uses the perspective of their assigned role to name a cause, desire, story, factor, etc, contributing to conflict in Syria. The goal of the game is to see which factor/role finally topples the stack of blocks. A second version of the game is to have students name an event happening in the Middle East as they pull a block. A different event should be named each time by each student as they go around the circle. At the end of the game, each group shares out the event that finally topples the stack and the overall importance of that event in the world. 

  4. The Fight for Fallujah: We had two Virtual Reality setups (The New York Time's VR app and Google Cardboard) and pulled students into the hallway two at a time to watch The Fight for Fallujah. Then, students discussed their very powerful reactions to the film with an adult. A free-write could also be used. Additional resources from the Pulitzer Center: If students are also engaging with The Fight for Fallujah, a virtual reality film connected to “Fractured Lands” from filmmaker Ben 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 helpful resources. Comprehension questions connected to Solomon’s film follow the comprehension questions for the article.

  5. Untangling the confusing politics of the Middle East: Display this diagram from The Atlantic to discuss the complex relationships and situations in the Middle East. Students can act this out, free-write on what they think is going on, or discuss as a whole group. 

Fractured Lands Parts 1-V (pages 21-57). The page numbers correspond to a PDF copy of the article. Contact education@pulitzercenter.org to receive a free PDF of the article for use in your class.

  1.  Using the page the digital interactive notebook students pick a character they feel they can most relate to or are most interested in. Take a class vote to prioritize the characters (depending on time). If you have two adults in the room then you can run two groups simultaneously. The more groups and the more adults, the better. 
  2. Each groups reads their character's story straight the article, leaaving the sections of the other characters unread for the time being. If a group is done early they can go back to the other stories. 
  3. Use rewordify.com to support English Language Learners. This helps simplify the vocabulary so students could follow along as the stories are read to the small group.  
  4. Students listen for evidence of hope, resilience, and courage (from the meet the journalist video).
  5. Students sketch important images and note significant details as they listen to the stories. Pause occasionally to allow students to share their sketches.
  6. After completing each character's story add new learning to the chart of what was learned in the Preface and add to the character boxes in this event log/evidence of learning template.

Fractured Lands Epilogue (page 58) The page numbers correspond to a PDF copy of the article. Contact education@pulitzercenter.org to receive a free PDF of the article for use in your class.

  1. Create a Google doc with three columns. Label the columns: What? So What? Now What? Send to students.
  2. Students read the Epilogue individually. Allow students to use devices to look up unknown words.
  3.  Students fill in the Google document.
  4.  Add new learning to the class chart.
  5. Watch Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart from Democracy Now.
  6. Discuss key points as a class.
  7. How do the main messages connect to life as a middle school student? What difficult decisions do middle school students need to make to be safe, successful, and happy? Free-write and share out. 
  8. In small groups, students fill out this event log/evidence of learning template (this can also be done during the prior activities). Make a copy to send to students.  

Communicate Ideas: Students communicate their ideas effectively with diverse audiences.

Take Action: Students translate their ideas into appropriate actions to improve conditions. 

  1. Tell students that it is important to share what they have learned on this topic for a real audience that will benefit from the information. 
  2. Have students brainstorm:
    1. Who would benefit from the information? Why and how?
    2. What kind of real product could they create to deliver that information to the audience?
    3. How will the final product/s be shared?
  3. Students create an action plan to create and share their product/s. 

**Here is an example our students shared created, then shared on YouTube and Twitter to reach target audiences.***

Post-assessment and conlcusion:

Go back to the pre-assessment outlines of the Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Write, in color, what you now know about those regions. This can include facts, impressions, understandings, and questions

Guiding questions to be used throughout the unit:

Throughout students’ exploration 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?

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. Where did you find evidence of hope, resliency, and courage? How might things have turned out differently without hope, resliency, and courage? Were you inspired to find more hope, reliency, and courage in your own life? Give examples.

  8. 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?




Educator Notes: 

These lesson plans and learning experiences are based on and adapted from the original K-12 lesson plans written by the Pulitzer Center. New pieces written by Faraz Chaudry and Tracy Crowley.

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