Before tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters made history this month 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. This month, in class discussions fed by news of the uprising on the other side of the globe, her classes got 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 her students. “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 meaningful part of the curriculum, according to Alex Barna, the outreach coordinator for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.
Based on his experiences with Chicago-area teachers, 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, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, the topic arises solely in teaching about 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 ended 18 days later with Mr. Mubarak’s resignation may have given teachers across the country a chance to present their lessons on that part of the world in a new light.
Getting a Grounding
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 Mr. Beran’s center at Harvard on Feb. 7. She discussed ways to address the demonstrations in Egypt while connecting to Massachusetts’ history standards.
Last spring, Ms. Pellam traveled to Egypt with the Harvard Egypt Forum, a 12-month program for K-12 teachers. Upon her return, she organized her first “Egypt Day” so that students could learn about contemporary Egypt. She planned a similar event this year but moved up the lesson when the street protests erupted.
In her U.S. History 1 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 2 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 with that in the United States by comparing unemployment rates in both nations.
Part of the Program
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 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 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 help kick off those discussions, 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 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, or TAAP, relied on free, prepared lessons provided by university scholars to ground her classroom discussions about Egypt. She used 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 to 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, hers is looking at the part 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 Washington suburb, 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.
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 ties to 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, the 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.
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 the Middle East and North Africa.
The Choices curriculum is used in about one-third of U.S. high 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.
“It’s a topic that they really need to understand,” Ms. Graseck said. “The Middle East has so much to do with us.”
Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students to tackle complex issues in fundamentally different ways 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 as U.S. Teachers Seize ‘Teachable Moments’ in Egypt’s Revolution