Baraboo H.S. teacher Becca Onken (UW ’13) uses Engaging Eurasia Fellowship to meet students’ emotional needs through Central Asian content

UW-Madison alumna Becca Onken ’13 learned how vital it was to balance her students’ emotional and social needs with academic skills and engaging content during the unpredictable school year that was 2020-21.

Baraboo High School teacher Becca Onken (UW ’13).

“My students were anxious, sad, on edge, and lonely. We needed to find the joy,” said the Baraboo High School teacher. “They needed something fun; they needed a win. There’s not much we could control, but I could control my content.”

That 2020-21 academic year, Onken was one of 14 U.S. educators awarded an Engaging Eurasia Teacher Fellowship—an outreach initiative by CREECA and three other Title VI National Resource Centers  (Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at the Ohio State University, and the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh). For the fellowship, teachers deepened their understanding of post-Soviet history and current events through conversations with experts. They developed lessons surrounding the theme of conflict with the support of a fellowship coordinator.

Onken had consulted CREECA assistant director Sarah Linkert to develop a unit on the intersection of gender, religious, and ethnic identities in the Caucasus. But this idea was not meeting the needs of her first-year social studies students. “It wasn’t their jam,” she said.

Instead, they were intrigued by themes of environmentalism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and corrupt regimes. “So, we decided to pivot,” Onken told fellow teachers in the presentation of her unit, playfully admitting that the entirely new topic would take Linkert by surprise.

“We augmented an existing project to meet student needs and cover that Central Asia content,” Onken elaborated. “We picked novels and memoirs set in Central Asia and the Caucasus and paired them with a non-fiction text much more appropriate and accessible for high school students.”

Onken presents her unit at the closing ceremony of the 2020-21 Engaging Eurasia Teacher Fellowship on June 22, 2021.

Onken’s unit encouraged students to explore countries through various resources such as the Calvert Journal before hand-picking a novel such as Days in the Caucasus, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, The Eighth Life, and The Mountain and the Wall—all personal favorites of Onken’s. While building reading stamina was one objective, another productive outcome for students’ social needs was engagement with the content and region away from the computer and with each other in groups over the 16-day unit.

Students additionally honed research skills, referencing the Cultures of the World Series. A new tool for students and scholars on Central Asia and the South Caucasus that Onken will integrate into future adaptions of this lesson is Caspiana from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

For projects, Onken assigned an environmental impact mini-essay and a scaffolded, persuasive paper (with presentation) that integrated skills aligning with the State of Wisconsin Social Studies Standards. Students seemed very engaged in learning and writing about the shrinking Aral Sea, Onken reported. In their final essays, Onken’s students explored the relevance and specificity of a novel’s setting through the lens of current events and geographical themes. And over several days, students deployed time management skills to organize and analyze evidence and craft paragraphs contributing to their argument.

But Onken had to pivot once more as one class wanted to research revolutions, so as a class, they re-wrote the prompt to argue how an uprising created meaningful change, using materials from UC Berkeley’s Office of Resources for International and Area Studies.

Final thoughts from Onken during her Engaging Eurasia lesson plan presentation.

As Onken shared her lesson and lessons learned, she underscored how the emotional and social are inseparable from the academic, especially during such challenging times. “They were given a little bit of agency, which made a world of difference,” Onken reflected.

As one student wrote in a course evaluation, “The content was great. Even though it was depressing, it was interesting. It’s good to know what happened, what is still happening, and what might happen in the future.”

In the 2021-22 academic year, a new cohort of 14 high school and community college educators in the Engaging Eurasia Teaching Fellowship program will explore art and literature from imperial times to the present. As part of a learning community, fellows will examine how different pieces of art and literature reflect not only the rich cultural heritage of the region but the lived experience of its citizens, their aspirations, and their reality.

Becca Onken graduated with a major in History and a certificate in REECAS from UW-Madison, where she also studied Czech. She has taught social studies and English at Baraboo High School since 2018, and she is currently a graduate student in the MSPE (Masters of Science for Professional Educators) program at UW-Madison.

Written by Ryan Goble | Communications Project Assistant | CREECA