By Lorne Swarthout, Berkeley Carroll School, New York, NY
What would it have been like to study Russian history in 1917 or Israeli history in 1948 or Cuban history in 1959? It would have been exciting! And confusing!
At least that’s what my Modern Middle East history class discovered as we dove into a study of Egyptian history in the midst of the Tahrir Square uprising in February 2011. Our one-semester elective for 10th graders began in mid-January. We spent the next six weeks with one eye on the CNN breaking news and one eye on our textbooks. It was very exciting, a little bit ragged, and certainly unforgettable. Some day, hopefully, these students will be able to say that they watched as Egypt threw off an authoritarian regime and became a democratic state.
In past years I have begun this class with a long unit on the origins of Islamic civilization in the Middle East. Later in the course we would get to Egypt. This year I tore up the old syllabus in order to get straight to Egypt. I decided to take a more country-centric approach. We would learn all about Egypt, and then follow the loose ends and half-told stories later in the course as we zeroed in on Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and Iran. I was also determined to use some new technology to try to make a very complex national narrative more accessible to 15 year olds.
In order to get this new class comfortable with the region and its geography, we began with a week of reading about the current Middle East. And we made big maps. The articles focused on the challenges that young people face in getting an education, getting a job, finding a spouse, and expressing their faith in a rapidly changing, religiously turbulent world. Each day as we discussed unemployment of college grads or travails of young wives we checked in on the events in Egypt. Photos and videos of the protestors in Tahrir Square put real faces on our abstract lessons. Meanwhile, the days of map-making let the new class bond as the seven teams discovered rivers and coastlines and oil fields and cities.
On February 2nd, the day after President Mubarak announced he would not run for re-election, we began talking about Egyptian history. Rather arbitrarily we started with Napoleon and Mehmet Ali, two very influential 19th-century military men, neither of whom were Egyptians. They helped us learn about the importance of Egypt’s position in the Mediterranean/Asian/African worlds, about its agricultural abundance, about its unique population distribution and about its long history of military rulers. It was especially interesting to compare Mehmet Ali’s dreams of reform and resurgence with the aspirations of the young people who were interviewed by Richard Engel (NBC) and Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times).
We continued our trek through Egyptian history, learning next about Ismail, the Suez Canal, and the coming of British colonialism. The authentic voice of the Egyptian people is first heard loud and clear in the 1919 Revolution led by Saad Zaghul and the Wafd. That voice becomes a lot less clear during the interwar period as King and Wafd and British play three-corner catch (or even “keep-away”) with the Egyptian political system. The arrival of Nasser on the Egyptian—and world—stage is a momentous turning point. For the first time Egypt has an authentically Egyptian president. For the first time it is truly independent of colonial interference. Or is it? The Cold War ensnares Egypt despite Nasser’s ambition to find a Third Way, and futile wars with Israel drain precious resources and high hopes.
Following defeat in 1967 and (political) victory in 1973, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, strikes a peace deal with Israel at Camp David. Religious hard-liners who are furious at this bargain assassinate Sadat, setting the stage for the long twilight of the Mubarak years. That was the trajectory of our history study over four weeks. Part of one week was devoted to reading Naguib Mahfouz short stories and discussing the environmental challenges to the Nile basin. The twin goals were to make the history as complete as possible (given the time available and the reading level of my students) and to raise significant questions about Egyptian politics and society that would help us understand what we were seeing live on Al Jazeera English every night from the center of Cairo.
I tried to direct the students to the essential questions with daily homework assignments using Google docs. This is a new wrinkle, something I had never tried before, which was quite successful. I created an assignment sheet with readings (mostly from Goldschmidt) and one or two leading questions. I shared this assignment sheet with each student and asked them to copy it into a Google doc of their own. As they answered the reading questions every night they created one easily retrievable study guide. And, since they shared the document (and editing rights) with me, it also meant that I could easily check their answers and add my comments using the “Insert/Comment” feature.
This homework “in the cloud” provided an immediate access point to the lesson when I put the answers of one or two students up on the screen for us all to read together. This not only shifted some of the teaching to the students themselves, it also encouraged laggards to have their homework complete by the beginning of class. One of the concluding assessments for this unit was to take one of these essential questions as the prompt for a short analytical essay.
An additional assignment was to create a poster pulling together key events in Egyptian history under specific topics, Egypt and Islam, Egypt and democracy, Egypt and the Arab world, etc. Poster making was certainly a throwback activity for such a tech savvy class, rather like a GPS in a ’57 Chevy, but it was something students were familiar with and they took to it with a will. For two days the room was abuzz with paste and scissors and sharpies and little pictures of Nasser. One of the most valuable parts of these posters (which now line the walls of our classroom) I owe to a colleague. She suggested that each poster, just like a good essay, should have a thesis statement. The creation and wording of these statements forced serious thinking by the team members and was a big topic of conversation when they explained their posters to the class.
On the afternoon of March 2, the last day of our Egypt unit, I went up to Columbia University for a special program on the Egyptian revolt. There was a standing room only crowd for the panel of academic notables. Earlier in the day there had been a rumor that Mubarak was going to step down. Suddenly a whisper went down the line, “He’s not leaving!” The old man was not yet ready to leave the stage. Our panel had one more imponderable to ponder. But not for long. The next day as I passed back student essays we watched a clip of ecstatic crowds in the center of Cairo. They were celebrating the end of the Mubarak era and, hopefully, the beginning of a new democratic chapter in Egyptian history. It was a momentous month for Egypt and a remarkable learning experience for some 10th grade history students.
List of sources/resources for classroom use: