What’s going on in Syria? (part 1)

Note: to be fair to the title of this blog, I learned a TON yesterday at an all-day presentation by Will Richardson at Durham Academy (thanks to the kind folks at DA for letting me sit in). I am still processing the many many pages of notes I took on that presentation, and will blog about some of what I learned from Will’s presentation in the coming days.

Today, I’m writing a bit about Syria, a topic I wrote about back on July 31, in a posting titled Killings in Syria. The killings are still going on. It amazes me that this story is not getting more prominent discussion.

Here’s a mention of the story in the Washington Post:

But the most prominent story in the Post’s online edition — at least early on Friday morning — is the basketball fight in China between Georgetown and a Chinese team:

I don’t know about you, but my eyes are drawn to the big picture of the players fighting. I’m also concerned about the market plunge, but that’s not where my eye goes when I look at the Post.

The economy is the visual focal point of the Wall Street Journal’s front page, which makes sense since the Journal reports primarily on economic issues (but then again, what’s NOT an economic issue?)

Why, according to the Washington Post, is a basketball brawl more important than the killing and torture going on in Syria? And why, according to both the Post the Wall Street Journal, is the Syria story not so important?

I’ll leave those media questions out there as I deconstruct the first few paragraphs of the Wall Street Journal’s article about Syria:

Now, let’s take those first few paragraphs apart one by one so a sixth grader can understand what’s going on here:

The U.S. and its European allies on Thursday called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and outlined a broad campaign to force him from power by targeting his regime’s finances, including an embargo on Damascus’s oil sales.

WHAT IS AN embargo?

With Mr. Assad’s forces engaged in a lethal crackdown on dissent, President Barack Obama, in coordination with the leaders of the U.K., France, Germany and the European Union, said Mr. Assad had squandered his opportunity to liberalize Syria’s political system and predicted his government’s collapse is now inevitable.

Now, depending on who my sixth graders were (I’d know them well because at the school I plan to open in 2013, there will only be 20 students), we’d spend more or less time defining those vocabulary words in purple. Throughout the year, we would build vocabulary by reading quality journalism from sources such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post.

Let’s define “liberalize.” The sentence is:

Mr. Assad had squandered his opportunity to liberalize Syria’s political system and predicted his government’s collapse is now inevitable.

A more liberal political system would be one where more people had more power and/or more rights. From a sixth grade perspective, if Bobby’s parents are more liberal, they allow him  to stay up late and eat all sorts of sweets before dinner.

Here’s what dictionary.com has to say:

So we can presume that Syria’s government is not that way. In fact, Syria’s government seems to be killing its people who are rising up against the state.

Before we get too judgmental, the United States was born out of resistance to colonial oppression (or so the story goes). If you are the British Empire, and you have people who want to overthrow your government — say, by dumping tea in the harbor — you have to figure out how to stay in power. In the case of the U.S., the colonists happened to win (it also helped that they were an ocean away from Britain’s power base).

Now, the situation is Syria today seems to be different — the people protesting injustice in Syria seem to be peacefully protesting, and the government is still mowing them down and torturing them.

Because Mr. Assad (and let’s find a picture of him, so that it’s easier for sixth graders to picture him) squandered his opportunity to liberalize his government, and because he’s killing the people in his country who are protesting, world leaders are calling for him to step down.

(note: the context for this story is the revolutions sweeping the Middle East — before we went further, we’d want to make sure sixth grade students had an idea of what happened in Egypt to topple president Mubarak)

Okay, let’s get back into the Wall Street Journal article — here are the next three paragraphs:

The unified Western campaign to dislodge Mr. Assad marks an escalation of previous condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria, and paralleled increasingly tough positions against Syria by leading Arab and Muslim countries, in particular Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are seen as having the most leverage over Damascus.

In a political sense “leverage” means power. The US has less leverage in Syria than Turkey and Saudi Arabia because they trade more with Syria than the US does. If the US decides to set up an embargo, Syria does not care that much because trade with the US represents only a tiny fraction of its economy — 2.4 percent, according to this source I just found when I searched for Syria’s trade partners:

[By the way, who is teaching students how to construct intelligent web searches so that they get the results they are looking for? How did I know to include the word “percent” in that search?]

Moving on to the next paragraphs:

“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Mr. Obama said. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That’s pretty clear, I think — President Obama said Assad has to step down because he’s not leading a democratic transition, which implies that he’s not a popularly elected leader. And indeed, he took over from his father.

Okay, so there were nominal elections, but if the guy ran unopposed, that says something about the political process. “Vote for me, or don’t vote at all… Yay, I win!!”

Late Thursday, activists in Syria reported security forces opening fire on protesters marching after the evening prayers in the suburbs of the capital Damascus and in Homs, while dozens of people were detained in home raids or random arrests in Damascus and Aleppo, a regime stronghold.

Okay, so now we have to look up Damascus, Homs and Aleppo to see where troops opened fire.

How do you get sixth graders to empathize with what “opening fire” means? The government opened fire outside of Damascus (the capital) and in Home, and the government also broke into people’s houses and arrested people on the street — presumably people tied to protests against the government.

We would also have to review Ramadan (see my blog post from July 30 — Learning about Islam) to see what these evening prayers are all about…

But now our curiosity is piqued, and we are ready to ask some questions about Syria.

If you want to ask questions that will shape my next posting about Syria, please visit this cool site that I learned about from Will Richardson’s presentation yesterday. It’s called “Today’s Meet” and it lets people have a virtual meeting. Will showed it as a way to have a backchannel chat, but I’m trying to adapt it to see if it helps me interface with my massive (read: 20 people tops) online following 😉

More to come on Syria — and on the economy and on Will’s talk. What a complicated world we live in — it will take some time to explore these topics. But through our exploration of these topics each morning, we’ll learn all sorts of skills in research and geography and empathy. And we’ll learn in an engaging way that students care about, because we’ll often discuss topics that students select.

P.S.  The story is now prominently featured on the front of the global edition of the New York Times (as of noon Friday)


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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