Orelia Jonathan

USA and South Sudan, Ph.D Candidate, Education, Concentration in Culture, Institutions, and Society, Harvard University and Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA USA 2022

Teaching Toward Peace?: Teachers Experiences Teaching Secondary School History in South Sudan

Orelia Jonathan

Project Summary

In January 2020, the Ministry of Education in South Sudan unveiled its implementation of the new national curriculum to be taught and enacted in English throughout the nation’s classrooms. Having recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary of independence, the new curriculum marks the first curriculum that the nation has published and implemented since the nation’s formation in 2011. How the narrative of South Sudan’s conflicted past is communicated and taught to young people will profoundly impact that generation’s political and cultural attitudes as well as the country’s emerging nationhood and relative peace. However, understanding the written history curriculum does not give us a full picture of how this history curriculum is taught by teachers in schools across South Sudan.

From my preliminary dissertation research, where I have conducted interviews with members of the South Sudanese government, education stakeholders at local international non-governmental organizations, school leaders, and teachers as well as classroom observations, my research intends to draw together several bodies of knowledge to understand how teachers enact history curricula in conflict and post conflict settings. My research sits at the intersection of literature on education in conflict and post-conflict settings, history education, curriculum studies, and teacher identity and agency. Research on education and conflict has long demonstrated that education is "two-faced" (Bush & Saltarelli, 2000), where education can contribute to cultivating peace or further reproduce or exacerbate a conflict (Davies, 2004). In countries emerging from or amidst violent conflict, research demonstrates that history education is often viewed as a “battleground” on which learning about one’s history can either deepen divisions within a society or contribute to building social cohesion and peace (Smith and Vaux, 2003).

History education, specifically history textbooks, serve as a theater for opposing narratives, interests, and ideas as they seek to educate young generations. The study of history textbooks and the role they play in educating students is not new, as textbooks offer a foundation for building collective identity and shared memory (Carreto, 2011; Williams, 2014). For nations, like South Sudan, that are emerging from conflict, history and civic textbooks present an opportunity for transformation, reconciliation, and peace (Bentrovato, 2017, p. 38-39). And yet, scholarship also suggests that history and civic textbooks can also hinder the process of reconciliation and further reinforce stereotypes, ethnic tensions, and divisions within a society (Bentrovato et al, 2016; Richter 2008; Vickers and Jones, 2007). The use of history textbooks and the implementation of curricula does not happen on its own. Critical to the implementation of new curricula is the role that school leaders and teachers play in enacting that curricula within classroom spaces.

Central to successful implementation of new curriculum are teachers who act as “street-level bureaucrats” (Lipsky, 1980) as they are at the front lines of working with, teaching students, and enacting the curriculum. As “street-level bureaucrats” teachers have “substantial discretion in their execution of their work” (Lipsky, 1980, p.3) and how each individual teacher enacts the curriculum or supplements it with alternative narratives and resources is often informed by their local environment, values and beliefs, and the resources that are available to them. In his analysis of curriculum stability and change, Cuban (1992) distinguishes between three types of curricula. There is an intended curriculum which serves as the official curriculum implemented by the state; the enacted or taught curriculum which are the formal and informal lessons delivered in the classroom by teachers through classroom activities, as well as the learned curriculum which is what students take away from what is taught by teachers.

How teachers enact history curriculum is central to helping students develop a sense of national identity and civic responsibility and yet, teachers within conflict settings often occupy a difficult position. On one hand they are representatives of the state and the institution in which they serve, while on the other, they are members of various religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities in which they may have personal loyalties contradicting the content or profession in which they must teach (Lopes-Cardozo, 2016, p. 331). Within societies seized by political, cultural, and social turmoil, teaching the difficult or violent past can be a critical step towards peacebuilding and teaching young minds about human rights and civic skills (Bellino, 2016). And yet, critically – though this research discusses the importance of teaching history, there is a lack of research on the role of teachers and how they enact the curriculum through classroom practices in conflict settings. I situate my field statement at the intersection of these bodies of research: research on education in conflict which highlights the importance of history education in cultivating peace and social cohesion, and research on the role of teachers in enacting history curriculum.

In my dissertation project, I focus on how secondary school history teachers enact and implement the curriculum within their classrooms and explore the variation between the intended and enacted curriculum. I will examine how educators in societies formerly or currently in conflict enact the curriculum in their classroom and how they approach the topic of war and violence. My dissertation fieldwork in located in Juba, South Sudan, where the government is in its first years of rolling out its first national history curriculum written by South Sudanese for South Sudanese since independence in 2011. Due to South Sudan's longstanding history and legacy of conflict, South Sudan is a fascinating case and region in which to examine the role of teachers in teaching history. Because resources are scarce within the country, many teachers, like Julius, are left to their own devices regarding the pedagogical decisions they make in teaching history. This is complicated by the striking statistic that 70% of teachers in South Sudan have never received any formal training in teaching (UNICEF Education Briefing, 2019). As such, as teachers approach history teaching, they must draw on their own resources and individual experiences to inform their teaching practice. My intention is to conduct a comparative case study (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017) drawing on data from two different schools.


Orelia Jonathan is a fifth-year doctoral student concentrating in Culture, Institutions, and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests focus on whether education contributes to or alleviates conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on history education. Her dissertation project explores how teachers navigate teaching history in conflict settings with a specific focus on teacher’s lived experiences and how they draw on their personal experiences of the conflict to enact the history curriculum in their classrooms. In this work, she examines whether the new South Sudanese history curriculum and the teaching of this curriculum contributes to peacebuilding in South Sudan. To do this work she is currently conducting a comparative case study across schools in South Sudan.

At Harvard, she has taught a wide range of courses from Education in Armed Conflict to Introduction to Qualitative Methods and the History of Higher Education. In addition, she served on the Editorial Board for the Harvard Educational Review for two years as the Content and Manuscripts Editor. She currently works as a research assistant for the Harvard Legacy of Slavery initiative for the subcommittee on curriculum writing normative case studies for the project. She is also a current Graduate Student Associate and affiliate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

Prior to her doctoral work, Orelia taught history at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. She has also spent summers teaching English to and working with Chinese students in Shenzhen, China who plan on attending independent schools in the United States; she continues to teach students virtually in her free time. She holds a MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA in History and African-American Studies from Wesleyan University. Beyond school, she is an identical twin, enjoys running, teaching yoga and creating community around fitness.

The Foundation acknowledges that Orelia Jonathan has successfully completed her project.