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Teaching A Changing Middle East

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Students at Washington International School in Northwest D.C., have been gathering in the library during lunch period and in between classes to learn about the latest developments in the Middle East.
Sonali Kumar
Students at Washington International School in Northwest D.C., have been gathering in the library during lunch period and in between classes to learn about the latest developments in the Middle East.

Georgetown University freshman Yomna Sarhan has her eyes fixed on her Facebook page, where she's constantly updating her profile with the latest news from Egypt.

"I told my Facebook friends, I said I'm going to be very obnoxious for the next few weeks. So feel free to hide the posts. Defriend me. Whatever. If you don't care about what's going on," she says.

Sarhan grew up in Cairo and moved to Northern Virginia when she was 9. But she's still in touch with her friends in Egypt.

And she's done her best to support them by participating in protests outside the Egyptian Embassy.

And she's become a key conduit for information on Georgetown's campus.

"Everything I learn about the Middle East is through Yomna," says Sarhan's friend, Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson. "Someone will come up to Yomna and say, 'Hey, what's happening in Egypt?' And then that's the start right there, that's a whole 15-minute speech going on about Egypt and what's happening."

Sarhan used to think she'd study economics in college, and take a quiet policy job after graduation. Now she's not so sure.

"If you'd asked me literally maybe a day before all this stuff was going on, I would have said I hate politics. I don't like them. I don't want to be involved in them. But this has really kind of given me a wakeup call...This is politics. This is what's happening," Sarhan says.

And she's not the only one altering plans because of the transformations taking place overseas. At Washington International School, a private school in Northwest D.C., students have been watching Al Jazeera in the library during lunch. Seniors taking economics classes are studying the effects of the unrest on oil prices. And the sixth-graders are discussing dictatorships.

"We've been learning like just all the problems there. And how they're trying to fix it. And how they can fix it," says Claire Ochieng, a sixth-grader at Washington International.

She was studying former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for a while, and now she's moved on to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"I think that he should just decide to back down because there's so much killing and unnecessary jailing of people," Ochieng says.

She says it's upsetting to learn about what's going on in Libya.

"I just don't really like to see people dying for no good reason," Ochieng says.

But she says it's important for teachers to talk about what's happening.

Rita Adhikari teaches history to Ochieng and her classmates. They're studying ancient Rome, but Adhikari says she's tried to draw connections to current events.

"For homework, they have to listen to the news, they have to bring pictures...We're planning to do a bulletin board where we have all what's happening now in the Middle East with what was happening in the past in Rome," she says.

She says watching the events unfold in the Middle East has helped students understand the history of the Roman republic.

"It makes it much more real and much more meaningful and also much more nuanced, which is something that's very difficult for teachers to get sixth-graders to see," Adhikari says.

But she says it also gives students insight into the nature of history.

"That made them think, ask, question, debate...that by itself is a good thing. Because most of the time they see things in black and white: this is what happened and that is what happened. And I think when they compare it with what is happening and they don't have easy answers, I think that's a very good lesson in history as they grow older," Adhikari says.

As students at Washington International School use current events as a way to understand history, students at the University of Maryland are discussing what it all means for the future.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the university. He says there's always something interesting happening in the Middle East. But this, he says, is different.

"Obviously, what's happening now is extraordinary. It's historic. It's big. No one can ignore it," he says.

Telhami just returned from a trip to Egypt and Tunisia. And he's eager to share what he learned with his students.

"As you can see, I'm back alive. In fact, I've never been more alive," he says.

He tells his students about the people he met, and the things they told him.

"One young woman said, 'I'm prepared to die...Because I'm already dead...I want what I don't have, and as far as I'm concerned, when I don't have my freedom to do what I want, to say what I want, I'm not alive,'" he says.

As Telhami speaks, students sit rapt, asking for predictions about which regimes will fall next. Junior Sehar Sabir says she's grateful that Telhami has been willing to carve out class time to discuss current events.

"Rather than following the syllabus that was originally prepared for us, every week the topic is changing. We're talking about a new country. First week it was Egypt and now we're talking about Libya and Bahrain. It's very interesting to see these topics and to study them as they're basically evolving over night," she says.

And, every week, Sabir leaves class feeling a little more hopeful.

"I'm so excited. And I'm just so optimistic. And I'm so happy for everything that's going on for the fight for democracy and the fight for freedom. It's giving me such a great hope I guess on what the power of citizens' voice can do," she says.

An Arabic major with a minor in international development, Sabir says she'd hoped to help build democracy movements abroad after graduation.

"I've always [wanted] to go into this field because I really want to help fix things...Even though it's ruining my career goals, it's awesome to see how they're doing it themselves. They're fixing it themselves," she says.

Telhami says he's been impressed by his students' passion for the material. And he thinks the nature of the revolutions -- the youth of the demonstrators and the role of the Internet -- has made it easier for students to identify with the people they're studying.

"To see that their aspirations are not different from theirs. To see that they're using instruments very similar to the instruments our students use. All of that really enables them to relate," he says.

Telhami says those very elements have caused him to rethink some of his views of the region.

"I think what we're witnessing is a major historic change in the region. Possibly the greatest public empowerment since the end of World War I. And I think it is a function of this information revolution that's with us to stay. And therefor, the public voice is going to be heard in ways that we have not witnessed in the past," he says.

And so, he says, even for the people who've studied the region for years, it remains a teachable moment.

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