Teaching the Middle East: A New Online Resource for Educators

Wendy Ennes, Associate Head of Public Education and Project Director of Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

middle east mapTeaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators was created by the Oriental Institute, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and eCUIP, Digital Library Project with high school and college World History teachers in mind. In our work with local educators, high school teachers tell us how difficult it can be to make sense of historical and current events in the Middle East and link those events to required curriculum. The political unrest currently reverberating across Northern Africa and the Middle East is no exception. High school World History teacher Mike Shea of Kenwood Academy in Chicago observes, “Two typical curriculum problems in teaching World History are finding concrete ways to link different curriculum units together and finding excellent but concise readings on topical issues.

The Teaching the Middle East resource helps teachers do both. Within one well-designed, user-friendly interface, Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators presents scholarly perspectives, downloadable imagery, related links from across the Internet, textual resources, as well as selections from the Oriental Institute Museum’s own collection of Middle Eastern art and artifacts in a clear and logical online format. Because typical World History teachers are generalists, Teaching the Middle East allows a teacher to "brush up" very quickly using scholarship from an institution that leads in the field of Middle Eastern studies. Moreover, from a "use in the classroom" perspective, a teacher can assign students to use the website or make copies of any of the individual "essays" as readings for a thoughtful classroom reading-discussion format. On a higher secondary level (honors or AP), these readings provide the basis for the DBQ (Document Based Question) format.

Throughout the development of the site, we worked with a focus group of eight Chicago-area high school educators who designed the guiding questions and lesson plans. The focus group wanted an online resource that could be used in the classroom, one that wasn’t afraid to tackle stereotypes, current attitudes, and difficult questions — all housed within an interface that was clear and easy to use. University of Chicago scholars, research associates, and staff and then developed a structure for the content of nine unique topics divided into eighteen learning modules. Four topic areas that make up the “Foundations” section of the resource lay the groundwork for understanding the region: 1) The Geography of the Middle East; 2) The Origins of Civilization; 3) The Golden Age of Islam; and 4) The Middle East as Net Exporter of Religion.

The next five topic areas are housed in the “Historical Perspectives” section of the Web, where fourteen different modules that outline Middle Eastern history from ancient to modern times can be found. Modules are loosely organized in a chronological fashion around the history of regions prior to the development of Islam, and from the rise of Islam onwards. The five topic areas and the fourteen modules are:

1) Writing and Literature

2) Rulership and Justice

3) The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

4) Empires to Nation-States

5) The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Each module provides users with the greatest flexibility for formulating classroom lessons and all follow the same blueprint: scholarly essays introduce historical themes, ideas, and concepts for each topic. Framing the Issues details key issues and concepts in greater depth; Examining Stereotypes consider timely and controversial issues; Image Resource Banks offer alternative views and copyright-free images for educational use; Learning Resources provides ready access to maps, books, websites, films, blogs, interactives, and more. In the Classroom Connections section, Lesson Plans developed by our focus group educators directly connect these materials to curriculum.

It is easy for any educator coming to the resource to build and design his or her own curriculum, all the while guided by the overarching perspectives of the essays written by experts in the field. By approaching the instructional design of each module as groupings of “tools” or resources, the site offers a teacher control in shaping the content and using appropriate support material for their lessons.

Teacher Mike Shea explains how he uses the site. “My particular favorites are in the "Image Resource Banks" from all of the modules! They are the most concrete connections students will likely have in experiencing the historic Middle East. Furthermore, the 21st-century student is unquestionably visual, and each module has superb images to allow the student to engage on a personal level. This resource is what I "poach" from most because history is indeed a story, and I've found that images inspire that story. When images are paired with real scholarship the story of the Middle East become a vibrant and dynamic subject. I use images from the resource in my Middle East unit in a PowerPoint format and by encouraging students to engage with the images in a discussion; usually the results are some profound questions and observations directly relating to the image or the content of the unit. To help answer students’ questions that always arise, the teacher can read the short readings from the site ahead of time and be well prepared.”

Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators was first publicly launched here on EDSITEment as a free resource in late 2010. We welcome your feedback. Please tell us if the resource is doing its job—helping teachers and students discover the great currents of continuity and change in Middle Eastern history.

It is our hope that this resource will also help users understand that the rich cultural diversity of the Middle East contradicts the stereotypes that can sometimes cloud our perceptions of this region. Academically rigorous, thoughtful, and stimulating, Teaching the Middle East offers new ways of seeing and understanding by bridging cultural divides and illuminating how our shared human concerns cross oceans, time, and cultures.