A dramatic Thursday = great questions

Just before my last class of the day on Thursday, I learned that President Mubarak was scheduled to speak soon.  Around 2 p.m. (the class runs from 1:35-3:10), our class learned that Mubarak was supposed to speak at 3 p.m. (10 p.m. Cairo time).  So we monitored a live feed from Tahrir Square on the Washington Post’s website as we did other things, like take a Greek map quiz…

As it turned out, the speech did not happen until after 3:15, and my students were gone by then.  But during our class, the front pages of various newspapers all indicated that something big was about to happen — probably Mubarak saying he’d step down.  Here’s a sampling…

From the L.A. Times:

From the Washington Post:

From the New York Times:

And from NPR:

Given these headlines, we were expecting something big… and the biggest demand — the one the crowd had been clamoring for — was that Mubarak would step down.  And then we noticed that NPR reported that Mubarak would be speaking at 3 p.m.

What happened next was very cool.  My students — faced with a real-life situation that would potentially unfold at the end of that very history class — started to ask the sorts of questions that it’s hard to get them to ask about people who lived 2500 years ago in ancient Greece.

They wanted to know where Mubarak was speaking from (thanks, Puj).  He clearly was not going to show up in Tahrir Square — that wouldn’t be safe — so would his speech be broadcast from his palace?  Does he have more than one palace?

They wanted to know what would happen if Mubarak left… where would he go?  I mentioned that another of my students found out that Mubarak was worth about 40 billion dollars, and that some of the people in Egypt believe he obtained a good bit of that money illegally, and that it belongs to the Egyptian people.  Those people would like to see Mubarak put on trial and held accountable — not simply allowed to leave and live the remaining years of his life in exile (he’s 82 years old).

Students asked if I thought Mubarak would announce that he was leaving office, and I said I thought he would — largely based on the CIA intelligence as reported in the Washington Post:

I mean how could a U.S. intelligence report possibly be wrong?  😉  But then as we thought more about it, I remembered hearing on NPR that under the Egyptian constitution, if Mubarak steps down, then a new election has to take place in 60 days.  That would mean elections in early April, as opposed to the scheduled elections in September.  And while it will be a scramble to do an election with organized political parties in seven months, it would be a bigger scramble to try in two months.

So maybe he’s not stepping down…

One of my astute students, Nisha, asked: “Who rules for the 60 days between Mubarak’s stepping down and the new elections?”  What a great question!  It shows that she’s really thinking about how the process would work.  This isn’t for a grade, and it’s not material to be spit back on a test — students were really curious about what was going on in their world!

As we started to think a bit more about what it would be like to be living through this experience in Egypt (I wondered out loud what Egyptian schools would be like — are they even meeting?), another of my students, Lauren, mentioned that she had been following a series of accounts from a teenage blogger in Cairo who has been at home with her family for the past few weeks.  So she was pretty sure school was not going on for most Egyptian students.

After class, Lauren shared the link to that blog post with me and this is a powerful first-person account of what’s going on in Egypt.

Here’s an excerpt:

… on Friday night [Jan 28], the news turned from an action movie to a horror movie. There was a tank on the Nile. A tank outside my home. There were gunshots being fired all over—even in my neighborhood, which is on the outskirts of the city—and it was basically a warzone.

A children’s cancer hospital was attacked. The Egyptian museum was attacked. Supermarkets were looted and burned to the ground. A giant department store a few miles away from my house was also cleaned out completely (no mean feat, it was enormous) and then burned down as well.

Everyone had one question: Where are the police?

Gone, apparently.

So basically, by the time the president spoke that Friday night, tempers were wearing thin. People were scared. People were asking where the police had gone. People wanted the president to step down so things would calm down. At home, we’d gathered all our weaponry (a wooden baseball bat, a taser, pepper spray, and a gun but no bullets) and sat tensely in front of the television.

After hundreds of thousands came out to protest, and a civil war practically broke out, the president came on TV two hours too late and said what? Nothing. Just more empty promises. I mean, we were asking him to take responsibility and go. Instead, he took responsibility and everyone else went. He sacked the government (a start, except he rehired most of them later anyway) and hired a vice president (about time. Thirty years to hire a vice president).

The general feeling at home? Disappointment. A lot of yelling at the TV. And then panic set in as we realized that we still weren’t safe. And just like that, Egyptian citizens went into war mode.

How cool that my students are teaching me things about the developing situation in Egypt!  When I emailed Lauren to thank her and to tell her I’d read installments 1 and 4 (there a total of five so far), she followed up with an email, letting me know that “If you haven’t read #2 already, the last 3 paragraphs or so are very moving.” 

So now my students are giving me assignments to read 🙂

And she’s right — they are moving.  I’ll end this post with the last few paragraphs from the second installment, which looks like this online (you really should check out these posts).

Why is it that the whole class reads what the teacher chooses all the time?  Why can’t we make it so that we share ownership for learning?  The resulting learning community would be guided largely by the adults (that’s why teachers get the big bucks, after all — they know some stuff), but open to significant input from students.  It’s amazing when I get a glimpse of what my students read and think about — and it’s sad how little of what they care passionately about makes it into the curriculum at school.  Why is that?

When something BIG — like the events in Egypt — disrupts the regular course of events, we get a glimpse of what might be possible in education if we listened more to students.

Anyway, here’s the last part of the second installment from Cairo (thanks again Lauren!):

So, Saturday night found us in the exact same position as Friday night: panicking with our baseball bats close by (but this time we decided to watch the Pink Panther instead of an action movie; we’d learned our lesson). We were a bit more wary, a bit calmer. The surrealism of the whole ordeal had taken its toll on us. We’d be watching the news and thinking, Oh my God, is this Egypt? It looks so chaotic—it looks like a warzone!

And it’s strange, because you see that sort of thing in Iraq and Tunisia, but you never think it could happen to you. And we were quite scared. I mean, Cairo isn’t the greatest (God, our traffic) but it has a certain appeal. We liked Cairo. Starting Friday, we suddenly understood the concept of patriotism. Of loving your country. Of being proud of your people. We didn’t want Egypt to go up in flames. But it was. Countless local TV shows begged the people to stop wrecking it—”If you love Egypt, don’t destroy Egypt!”—but the truth is, the protestors weren’t responsible for it. The people who came out on Tuesday, the 25th of January—and even Friday morning, the now-famous Day of Rage that sparked the whole thing—they were good people. They were protesting in the name of positive change, and they were mainly upper and middle-class people, people not just outraged because of police brutality, or rigged elections, or a corrupt government, but also empathizing with the tens of millions in Egypt who are under the poverty line, the people who are unable to protest for themselves, whose main focus is just getting enough food to get them to the next day. So don’t let anyone tell you the riots in Egypt started out because of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the CIA, or restless trouble-makers.

There’s a reason what happened on January 25th has shaken the world: before that day, everyone (particularly the government) thought that the Egyptian people were beaten. They thought they were too lazy to do anything. They thought that our generation, the “Facebook kids,” were good-for-nothing brats. And maybe it’s the idealism of youth, you know? Maybe it’s the fact that we hadn’t gone through enough to be as depressed and oppressed as all the adults were. But the fact is, in eight days, a bunch of kids managed to overthrow what had taken thirty years to build. And it’s not because they were backed by hidden political agendas. It’s because it was the first clean, peaceful revolution Egypt has seen in decades. Nobody could make sense of it because nobody saw it coming. Nobody thought it would last! They didn’t think those people marching down the street had the heart or the determination to last more than a couple days, especially with police beating them up.

And yet, what started as a protest organized by young people turned into a riot that the whole country joined, and then it became a revolution. It became history. It just goes to show you: don’t shut people up for thirty years, because God knows what’ll happen when they all start yelling at you at the same time.

And irony of ironies: it was organized on Facebook.

History in the making – and in real time.

Oh, and just for posterity: Mubarak did not step down Thursday night, though the drama did make for an engaging class. 

Here are the headlines from late Thursday afternoon that I screen captured after my class ended but before I drove home:

From the Washington Post:

From the New York Times:

And despite urgings that they go home, the protestors have not gone anywhere… and they seem pretty upset that Mubarak has not left.  Here’s Friday morning’s take from the New York Times (Feb 11, 2011):

I just clicked on that headline about the “Huge Friday Protest Planned” and here’s what I learned — there may be violence in the Square soon, because after Friday’s noon prayers (see below), the weekend begins, and that’s when people have planned big demonstrations.

As I write this post, it’s coming up on 5 a.m. in North Carolina, which means it’s about noon in Cairo.

To be continued…

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to A dramatic Thursday = great questions

  1. tabras says:

    Thank you for this post – it really demonstrates the power of the connected world now and how engaging it can be when we have access to real-time information. It was also great to read how the students became so engaged and began to drive the learning – wow!! What a great response!!

  2. Diogenes says:

    Wonderful teaching that captures students attention so they run with the ball. A great example of the Latin origin of our English word “education”, so essential and so often absent in teaching today.

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