What do 6th graders want to know about Libya? Ask them!

I designed and will soon be teaching a class called The World in Which We Live.  The class will consist of a group of middle school students who want to learn more about the world, using current events as a spring board to deeper explorations.

It’s a constructivist class, meaning that we will learn about things in the world that students are interested in learning about. We will read online news articles from a variety of sources and use the news as a springboard to all sorts of inter-disciplinary explorations.

I knew that at some point we would discuss the US Presidential election, since that’s sure to be “big news” until November 6. I also thought we’d talk about who wins the Nobel Peace Prize, because that prize is scheduled to be awarded on Oct 12.

Before I planned too much else, I wanted to find out from the students what they are interested in learning. So I emailed them (or rather, their parents) and asked.

Some of them have already emailed me back and indicated that they want to learn about these topics:

  • Environmental issues
  • Taiwan
  • Why the USSR broke apart
  • Drought
  • The war in Syria
  • China
  • Global Warming
  • The United Nations

That’s a good list to start with!

Well, now we have a new topic — the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, on September 11, 2012.

Do sixth graders even know what an ambassador does? I suppose I’d need to ask them in order to find out…

Much of what we do in our class will depend, as it should, on the students and where each of them are in their understanding about the world.  Since we’ve not met yet, it’s hard for me to predict what questions they might have and what background information they have.

I’ll provide some basic information below, but let’s try something different — I will ask the students in my class to read this blog post to the end and have them (or rather, their parents) record their questions and comments on this shared Google Doc I just made, called Questions about Libya.

Other readers of this blog are welcome to add questions to the document as well. We’ll see what we get when we crowd-source our questions, and I’ll follow up early next week by addressing a few of the questions students pose about Libya. This approach seems to make more sense than to address the questions I think the students might have — especially since I’ve not met them yet.

Here are some basics about Libya:

Libya is a country in North Africa that had been ruled for 34 years by Muammar Gaddafi (click to read the Wikipedia article about him), until a civil war broke out in 2011. The people who rebelled against Gaddafi’s government succeeded in removing him from power and also killed him (here’s an account from the BBC about how Gaddafi was killed).

Here’s a map of Libya from Lonely Planet:

And here are some pictures of Gaddafi, who had been the face of Libya for 30+ years:

People in Libya are trying to figure out who’s in charge of the country in the aftermath of the recent civil war.

In the words of Wikipedia:

Libya is currently undergoing political reconstruction, and is governed under an interim constitution drawn up by the National Transitional Council (NTC).[7][8] Elections to a General National Congress were held on 7 July 2012, and the NTC handed power to the newly elected assembly on 8 August.[9] The assembly has the responsibility of forming a constituent assembly to draft a permanent constitution for Libya, which will then be put to a referendum.

[Note: when we read something like that in class, we will make sure everyone knew such words/phrases as “interim” and “constituent assembly” and “referendum.” Once we unpack that paragraph, we can have a discussion about the leadership in Libya.]

Because Libya does not yet have an established government (it’s still sorting things out after its civil war), its protection of Ambassador Stevens was not as strong as it could have been.

Killing a US ambassador is a big deal. A US ambassador represents the United States and how that person is treated says a lot about the relationship between the host country and the US. We’re watching right now as the US figures out how to respond.

For example, here’s the lead story in the online version of Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

As you can surmise from that front page, there have also been protests in Egypt (and Yemen).

Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, has criticized President Obama’s handling of the situation, and in response, Gov. Romney has been criticized for turning a tragedy into a political opportunity — a quick web search can get students up to speed on the presidential politics of the situation:

Ambassador Stevens was killed when a group of Libyan protesters attacked the U.S. consulate in the city of Benghazi (see map below — it’s in the north of the country on the Mediterranean Sea).

The attackers were reportedly upset by a film, made in the US but not by the US government, that insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

Do students know what a Prophet is?  Have they studied Muhammad? Do they know that there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, depending on who’s doing the counting?

For more context, do students know that the world’s population is more than 7 billion people, and that the US represents less than 4.5% of that population?

When you start paying attention and diving deeply into an event such as the one unfolding right now in Libya (and Egypt and Yemen), you get into lots of issues. And that’s a good thing — because we want to try to figure out as much as we can about … drum roll please … The World in Which We Live.

It should be a great class. In many ways, this class is a pilot of what morning sessions will be like at Triangle Learning Community middle school, opening in the fall of 2013.

For students in the class, please visit the shared Google Doc, Questions about Libya, record your questions, and stay tuned for an update, based on the questions you folks (and others who may visit) place on that document.

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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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