Make time for Egypt

Thoughtful young people want to understand what’s going on in Egypt right now — but it feels like there’s no time to help them during a traditional school curriculum. A basic understanding of what’s going on in Egypt would require students to learn about the “Arab Spring” — a worthy goal, in my opinion — as well as become familiar with terms such as “coup” (pronounced like the word a bird makes — “coo”) and “Muslim Brotherhood.” It would take several weeks, if not a month, to start to unpack Egypt in a thoughtful and meaningful way that students would remember.

When will students or teachers possibly have time to think about what’s happening in Egypt in addition to covering the curriculum we’ve crafted for them? Let’s come back to that question at the end of this blog post…

My last two blog posts, titled What’s going on in Egypt? and Getting deeper into Egypt are my attempts to bring curious young people up to speed — assuming they are bright and capable, but that this is their first time following world events in a serious way.

I decided this morning to look for a good resource to help young people understand the basics of Egypt. I did a Google search for “Egypt Explained” and that search turned up some excellent results:

egypt explained

The first piece, from CNN, titled Egypt Explained: 6 key questions is a solid starting point.

I would have students read that piece, as well as the piece from the Huffington Post, which has largely the same information, but contains a superb slide show of 91 images.

Here are the first two images, along with the captions:


Egyptian army soldiers take their positions on top and next to their armored vehicles while guarding an entrance to Tahrir square, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)


Egyptian government employees clean up outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, in the center of the largest protest camp of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, that was cleared by security forces, in the district of Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

After students read these pieces, I’d have them pose questions on a shared Google Document and we would take the conversation in a direction that made sense, given what students know about Egypt and guided by the questions they are asking (if any students or teachers or anyone interested in world events wants to play along, I’ve set up a real live Google Document about Egypt that you can edit — please visit and add your questions/comments/thoughts there — we’ll see what happens…)

The third resource I would recommend for students who want to get serious about understanding Egypt is this superb 7-minute video made by Hank Green on July 5, 2013, just a few days after the Egyptian military took Morsi out of power:

Hank Green is not an “academic,” but he is articulate and well-read. He and and his brother John Green make entertaining videos that do a nice job of summarizing world events (and other topics as well).  I learned about the brothers two and a half years ago from one of my 9th grade students at Cary Academy named Lauren, who shared some of the videos the Greens made about Egypt with our class. Few students had time to watch the videos, but I did — they are quality. They don’t replace a teacher, but they are informative and pique student interest.

As you can see from the statistics below, the video I’ve recommended above already has half a million views — and it got 400,000 of those views within the first week of its publication on YouTube —


As fans of the musical Rent know, there are 525,600 minutes in a year, which means that this video, with 525,000 views has been watched for the equivalent of one year for every minute someone has watched it.  Apparently, most people watch for about 4 minutes (more than half the video), which translates to a total of four years that people from around the world have spent learning about Egypt from Hank Green.

Hank Green is a quality teacher, in large part because he’s articulate and funny and has personality, but also because he does not talk down to his audience.  He assumes they know very little about Egypt, but that they are smart and can handle him jumping right in to analyze what he says are the four major groups in Egypt — 1) the old regime, 2) the Muslim Brotherhood, 3) the Egyptian military, and 4) millions of “young, disenfranchised, largely unemployed activist people who want a revolutionary liberal Egypt [and who have organizational tools that include cell phones and the internet].”

Think about that for a moment — what teacher has 525,000 students learning from them by choice? This is a new world we live in. Why restrict students to the old world where they could only get information from their teacher.

When my former student, Lauren, first introduced me to the Green brothers, I was teaching a 9th grade “world history” survey class. I mentioned the events unfolding in Egypt, because I thought it was important to do so — but we did not have time in our curriculum to unpack Egypt in any sort of depth.

I recognized, though, from the questions that students asked when I brought up Egypt, that a number of students wanted to learn more about Egypt, so I offered to try to explain events in Egypt at an optional early-morning session.

At 7 a.m. on a Friday morning in February 2011, a group of 19 teenage students showed up in my classroom to learn about Egypt; a few of them were not even students I taught — they just heard about the session from friends and got up early because they wanted to learn (okay, some of them may have been enticed by the promise of donuts, too).

Here’s a blog entry from that early-morning session, just a few days before President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office.

The key here is that students wanted to learn about Egypt, but “the curriculum” prevented us from doing so in any depth.

Here’s a comment left on my blog from that blog post from 2.5 years ago:

Applied history! Hear hear!
Three cheers for you, sir. It’s great to hear of a history teacher who’s interested in connecting the stuff we’re “supposed to be learning” with real-world relevance, in an academic world where exactly the opposite is encouraged. Teaching things of relevance to the current world is a politically and academically taboo, because such topics “create conflict.” Such teaching could lead students to realize they can interfere with the everyday business of world, threatening the security of “the way things are done.” Modern education is about distraction and disengagement, not enlightenment and empowerment to create real change. Students are locked into a classroom being bored stiff learning about dead nations, and meanwhile, outside, the world is on fire.

The idea that students are “locked into a classroom being bored stiff” resonates with me.

It’s less that they are bored stiff — many talented teachers do make classes fascinating — but it’s more that the students and the teachers are locked into a curriculum that we think we have to follow.

The current situation in Egypt presents AMAZING opportunities for learning.

For instance, a “coup” is when a government is overthrown. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

coup, a putsch, or an overthrow, is the sudden deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to depose the extant government and replace it with another body, civil or military. A coup d’état is considered successful when the usurpers establish their dominance. When the coup neither fails completely nor succeeds, a civil war is a likely consequence.

Normally, a coup is an abstract concept — but one is happening NOW in Egypt. President Morsi was elected just over a year ago to serve a four-year term, and because lots of people protested, the military decided to remove him from office.

Could that happen in the United States? If people were upset about President Obama, and mass protests happened, would the military step in and remove him? Probably not — at least not in today’s world. The US is far more stable than Egypt. An interesting question to pursue with students is why such a coup in the US is unimaginable.

If we back up a century and a half, to the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, that’s a time when half the country (the Southern half) was so upset that they decided not to stage a coup, but to leave the union. A civil war — or rather, from a U.S. perspective, The Civil War — was the result.

If students have not yet studied the U.S. Civil War, now would be a great chance to find out what they know about it and to make sure they get the basics so that they are capable of making some basic comparisons.

Okay, let’s come back to that question in bold from the start of this blog post:

When will students or teachers possibly have time to think about what’s happening in Egypt in addition to covering the curriculum we’ve crafted for them?

The answer is never. You can’t do both.

What I’m wondering is why we insist on forcing that choice on students and teachers. Why do we blindly adhere to a pre-crafted curriculum when one of the more remarkable learning opportunities is unfolding in front of our eyes? Why not stop the regularly scheduled program and take time to harness student interest in world events? When Powerball’s jackpot goes above $400 million, for example, that would be a great time to have students learn about statistics and probability (click here for my recent blog post about that topic, titled Powerball Math).

If we allowed interested students to work for a month or so to figure out what’s going on in Egypt, and then present their findings at the end of the month by making a website and some videos of the sort that the Green Brothers make, can you imagine all they would learn — about politics and religion and history and geography and math and communication skills? Imagine Skyping with students in Egypt. Imagine all that’s possible.

And now, sadly, we return you to your regularly pre-scheduled classes…


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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