Social Studies

U.S. Teachers Find ‘Teachable Moment’ in Egyptian Protests

By Michelle D. Anderson — February 11, 2011 6 min read
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Before tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters made history this week by breaking President Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long grip on power, many of Michele Pellam’s students at Boston’s Brighton High School only associated the North African nation with pharaohs, pyramids, and mummies. Now, in class discussions fed by news of the uprising on the other side of the globe, her pupils are getting a deeper look at the complex political tensions of modern-day Egyptian society.

Ms. Pellam, a history teacher, is one of many K-12 teachers nationwide who saw a teachable moment in the protests that have swept through Egypt, Tunisia, and other North African and Middle Eastern nations in recent weeks. In Boston; Cambridge, Mass.; and Falls Church, Va., among other places, teachers are weaving discussions of the uprisings into social studies and history lessons in an effort to expand students’ understanding.

“The stereotypes that they had disappeared,” Ms. Pellam said of students taking part in those current-events discussions. “Having one discussion can completely change their frame of mind.”

Nationwide, American students in both public and private schools don’t generally learn enough about the Middle East, though some teachers have managed to make it a part of the curriculum in a meaningful way, according to Alex Barna, the outreach co-ordinator for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

Based on his experiences with teachers in the greater Chicago area, such studies tend to be approached with “the United States at the center” or in relation to a major historical event such as the Gulf War. Or, noted another expert, Paul Beran, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, the topic becomes entwined with lessons on religion, particularly Islam.

“There’s this notion that if students have studied Islam, they’ve studied the Middle East,” he said.

The massive demonstrations that began in Egypt on Jan. 25 and led to Mr. Mubarak’s resignation 18 days later are giving teachers across the country a chance to present their lessons on that part of the world in a new light.

Like some other teachers seizing on the chance to relate the news to classroom studies, Ms. Pellam is no stranger to Egyptian studies. She participated in “Egypt as a Teachable Moment,” a webinar produced by the Harvard center on Feb. 7. There, she talked about methods to discuss the demonstrations in Egypt while connecting the lessons to Massachusetts’ history standards.

Last spring, Ms. Pellam traveled to Egypt with the Harvard Egypt Forum, a 12-month program for advanced K-12 teachers. Upon her return, she organized the first of what she calls “Egypt Day,” in which students learn about contemporary Egypt. She planned to do a similar event this year but moved up the lessons when the street protests began last month.

“They are so open-minded, and they are eager to learn about different cultures,” Pellam said of her students.

In her U.S. History I course, students have been connecting the uprising to historical events, such as the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Boston Tea Party. In her U.S. History II course, she asked students to analyze America’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa. Her students have also compared economic stability in Egypt to that in the United States by comparing unemployment rates in both nations.

In Cambridge, Julie Craven, a 7th and 8th grade humanities teacher at King Open School, a public K-8 school, is also drawing from her experiences. Ms. Craven trekked to Egypt last summer through a five-week Fulbright study tour of Egypt and Tanzania led by scholars from Harvard University and Boston University. She currently teaches a class in which a semester is devoted to the Middle East and North Africa.

For that course, students must complete a group architecture project in which they select a country to study throughout the semester. One component of the project is to research and follow current news events in their selected nation. Ms. Craven has used Egypt as a model. She describes the discussions of the Egyptian protests in her class as an ongoing conversation in which current events are integrated into course content, rather than discussed as “a separate event.”

She also has enhanced the geography unit of the course by asking students to think about the connections among the Middle East’s geography, U.S. interests in the region, and “the range of complex policy decisions facing both the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries.” Newspaper articles are used as a starting point for those discussions so that students can ask questions, she said.

“They’re moved by what is going on in Egypt,” Ms. Craven said. She has found that, regardless of students’ achievement levels or other differences, they all seem to be engaged and interested in learning about the Egyptian situation. “That’s not typical. That speaks to the power of this event,” Ms. Craven said.

At Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, Va., Pam Wilkie, an instructor for The Academically Advanced Program—also known as TAAP—relied on free, in-depth, prepared lessons provided by university scholars to ground her classroom discussions about Egypt. Her selection was a lesson plan developed by the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program, an academic outreach initiative by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

While the Choices program’s lessons are targeted toward high school students, Ms. Wilkie said the plan was useful for her middle school students and has saved her time.

Like Ms. Pellam’s class in Boston, hers is looking at the portion of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that says, when a government becomes destructive, it is the right of people to abolish it.

The 2,000-student school district, located in a suburb of Washington, has seen a small surge of students from Egypt enrolling in recent weeks. According to Marybeth Connelly, of Falls Church Schools’ community outreach division, about 30 students from Egypt have entered the system since the uprising began, presumably fleeing the unrest in that nation.

While the incoming students are adding a unique perspective to the discussions, Ms. Wilkie said many of the students in her classes were already familiar with the political tensions in Egypt. She attributes that to the high number of families in the community with parents employed by the U.S. Department of State. Those students travel frequently with their families, rotating in and out of the school on a regular basis.

“We have a pretty savvy group of students,” she said.

Susan Graseck, founding director of the Choices program, said the website featuring the lesson plan has had about 9,700 visitors since the materials on Egypt were released on Feb. 3. The group plans to update its lesson plan on the Egyptian uprising with new videos soon.

Ms. Graseck, who established the program in 1988, said she has seen an increasing interest in international and global topics in the past 10 years, but not necessarily an interest in Middle Eastern and North African nations.

The Choices curriculum is used in about one third of U.S. schools, according to Ms. Graseck. The lessons often come with background readings, primary sources, an overview of policy options, student-centered activities, and role-play exercises, according to the website. The purpose of the curricular program is to make complex international issues understandable and meaningful to high school students.

“We’re not providing answers with this curriculum,” Ms. Graseck said. “It’s a topic that they really need to understand. The Middle East has so much to do with us.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week

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