As events in Libya continue to explode and the Middle East as a region seems to beginning a phase of historical turmoil and change we may well reflect on how this all beginning to play out in the classroom. To answer the question as to how are teachers responding to all this we now have Education Week's most recent article "U.S. Teachers Find 'Teachable Moment' in Egyptian Protests" to turn to. While Michelle Anderson's piece is timely enough, it only provides us with a glimpse of what might be happening in classrooms across the US -- not yet a full enough pictureto draw any major conclusions. One theme seems to be the effort by teachers to connect the American revolution with the events in Egypt. The article makes us also very aware that the teaching of Middle East history is pretty sporadic. Anderson's reporting is also limited by the narrow range of quite privileged teachers she interviewed-- just those few who managed to attend a recent Harvard Forum with many who had had the additional benefit of having been widely traveled in the region. What most teachers seem to be doing was "connecting the uprising to historical events, such as the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Boston Tea Party." These kinds of lessons as valuable as they are in connecting students to the current events are probably the kinds of lessons that are going on throughout the US--in one shape or form --related to of course grade level and subject--one would hope across thousands of classrooms in the US. What is clearly of more value is whether teachers are able to use the event to sustain an interest in the Middle East and help connect them to more issues. How to do that? There do not seem any clear pathways at the moment --but it would be a missed opportunity if we were not able to take the further everyone's clear fascination with seeing the revolutionary events unfold in such stark detail on their TV sets. That kind of thing does not happen as they say every day or every generation. Getting to those deeper issues related to sustainable pathways and understanding further how cultural and media issues affect our understanding is of course a more complicated challenge. On a more optimistic note the task, as Anderson is careful to note, is made easier by sites like Brown University's Choices Program with the goal to "make complex international issues understandable and meaningful to high school students." Interestingly their offerings are not defined by grade level or subject area--the approach is simple and clear--the heading is "Teaching with the News" and the site just provides a range of tools from a very simple graphic organizer that helps students just recall key points from the video and other materials supplied to more challenging assignments. What is interesting and could be a valuable research strategy is what teachers want to do with the more advanced materials supplied --there is one for example that provides a series of interesting photos from the demonstration. Just deconstructing one would be a valuable experience (take the one below for example from a collection organized as a PowerPoint slide show on the resource page referenced above):
I suggest you expand the size of the picture by clicking on it to get a better view.
It does not seem at first blush we need a lot of cultural information to interpret the picture or do we?
1. What is the the cultural meaning of a woman dressed in a hijab protesting the government--(as the wikipedia entry on hijab indicates, in the colonial struggles in the past the hijab was a symbol of resistance not as it is often interpreted today in non Arab countries an indication of female subjugation?) Is this woman telling us something by wearing a hijab ? If so what is that message?
2. From the way that the sign seems so spontaneous using the remnants of an old ripped cardboard box- written with haste--was it something she decided to do on the spur of the moment or was this a more planned type of communication?
3. To what extent is the fashionable western style purse that hangs from her shoulder a clue to her more affluent life style and aspirations?
4. What is the significance of those black gloves? The way the gloves appear stretched over her skin suggest that these gloves are made of latex does this offer any clues? Perhaps after all this is a deeply religious woman who wants to ensure that every part of her skin is covered? or is so unused to street life that she is afraid of being contaminated from touching this very ragged piece of cardboard?
5. Who are the signs for? For Western eyes clearly --but notice too how she stands apart from the crowd. By firmly holding her sign up she reinforces the idea that she is keen to be observed and is aware that she needs to provide a different message for both of the cardboard folds--as they appear at different angles as if she is posing for a particular aerial mounted camera.
Where can you go to get information to help with this activity --surely libraries and the internet can help--but a key source would be people--people from the country itself who can help us understand more completely how common it might be to have a woman in full hibja protest in public? What is the risk to her? How representative is she of all women in Egypt or just certain segments? Students must themselves become like journalists and try to ferret this information out. It is the type of research that lends itself to the Web 2.0 tools that I refer to in my book Global Education: Using Technology to Bring the World to Your Students. These types of explorations maybe as important as connecting US historical events because they engage learners and as they do sharpen their cultural, media and visual literacy.
It takes some effort to organize but not a huge amount and once you do it the first time you may never look back. Liberation (particularly from a way of doing business that no longer makes any sense) comes in many forms.