Abandon your curriculum: Unpack Syria (and the Arab Spring)

Students want to learn about events in Syria. They are fascinated with what’s going on.

Here’s proof: My friend Mike Harris took time on Wednesday to talk about Syria with his 6th grade students. After each class, Mike’s students posed a series of great questions on a shared Google Doc, which I answered to the best of my ability (click the link for a read-only version of the shared document where I’m collaborating with Mike and his students — so far they are up to 15 questions).

The first question they asked was “what is guerilla warfare?”

I love that they misspelled guerrilla 🙂

And I love that they actually asked the question and wanted to learn — sixth graders are awesome!

Here’s my response, in italics:

This is one you could look up — but since I’m here…

Guerra, for those of you taking Spanish, means “war.”

Guerrilla (there are two “r”s) is a “little” war.

Let’s say I am fighting against you, but you are 100 people with guns, and I am four people with knives — if I run at you, you will kill me and my friends.  So we will be sneaky and strike at you when you are sleeping and then retreat.  We will fight an unconventional little war, or a guerrilla war.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines guerrilla warfare:

Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants such as armed civilians (or “irregulars”) use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to dominate a larger and less-mobile traditional army, or strike a vulnerable target, and withdraw almost immediately.

It is quite cool that Mike took a whole class period to engage with his students about what’s going on in Syria. I’m not sure what he told them — but it clearly got them thinking, as evidenced by their engaging questions — especially the one about child soldiers in Syria.

But it is also sad that Mike could take only one day to look at Syria. He plans to set aside part of a day for follow-up next week, but he can’t devote anything like five days in a row to Syria — or at least he feels like that would be too great of a deviation from the curriculum.

As I’ve written before, you need more than one period and a follow-up to unpack something as complex as Syria. You need more like a month.

Here’s the tail end of a post I wrote a few weeks ago — this was before the chemical weapons were unleashed in Damascus.  The post is called Make time for Egypt:

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?

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, 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…

Syria is arguably a more compelling story than Egypt, because the US is pondering the use of military force in Syria. You could even connect the two places as part of a unit that explores the overall “Arab Spring” puzzle.

So why not set aside a month to unpack the Arab Spring?  This is not a rhetorical question.

At the school I’m opening next year, Triangle Learning Community, we will have the flexibility to do what I think all schools should have the flexibility to do: devote a month to learning about a compelling world issue if one presents itself.

By “devote a month” I do not mean dropping math and reading and focusing just on Syria for 6 hours a day, but I do mean spending an hour per day on the topic, reading the news along the way, answering student questions, following the Congressional debates that will be coming up, and concluding with a culminating project that shows what the students learned — about politics and religion and history and geography and math and communication skills (yes, math — how much does a cruise missile cost? what percent of the US military budget for 2013 will an intervention in Syria represent?)

I don’t think it’s that hard of an argument to make that we are living through a phenomenal pair of “teachable moments” in Egypt’s crackdown on protesters (killing 700+ and injuring 4000+) and Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons and the imminent US military response in Syria.

As I noted in my last blog post, a top 12th grade student knew next to nothing about the Arab Spring. This is at Cary Academy — one of the top college prep schools around. The student simply had not been asked to engage with the Arab Spring by any of his classes this year or last year.

Getting back to sixth graders and their questions — my friend Mike is a phenomenal teacher and person, and his students are fortunate to get to work with him this year. He’s igniting in them a passion for social studies, and he’s the kind of teacher who models “life-long learning” by taking time — after a full day of teaching — to find parking over at UNC (no small feat) and attend a 90-minute panel discussion about Syria.

But Mike and his students are trapped in the world of the pre-scheduled curriculum. They should be allowed to — as the title of this post says — abandon their curriculum to unpack the Arab Spring.

As an aside, it’s fascinating to me that students today have the world at their fingertips and don’t think to look up something like “guerrilla warfare” on their own.

Maybe they do think about it, but Mike’s school is not 1:1, so not every student has immediate access to the internet. But when I taught 9th graders at Cary Academy (2007-2011) it took a Herculean effort to get students to look things up for themselves — and every one of those students had his/her own personal school-issued laptop computer.

We live in a world where a student who wonders about a “guerilla war” can learn about the term at the click of a mouse (or the tap of an iPhone).

But students have been conditioned to do only what they will be graded on — I got asked all the time “is this going to be on the test?” when we connected current events to 9th grade history — and that makes it hard for students to take ownership for their learning.

Because teachers are trapped in pre-ordained curricula, our students will know a little bit about things on the curriculum, such as the Louisiana Purchase (enough, anyway, to pass a test about it), but next to nothing about the Arab Spring or current events in Syria.

In today’s world, you can Google “Louisiana Purchase” (or “guerilla warfare”) — what we need to teach students is how to engage deeply with a topic they care about.

In my next blog post, I’ll unpack another of the questions Mike’s students asked — and it’s a great question — but it’s also one that would take several days (at least) to unpack in some depth:

Why does Syria have the political boundaries it has?

For a preview, see my response to question #6 in the Google Document that contains the student questions.

Postscript: Another teacher in the Triangle has made a superb resource to help her students engage with Syria — she’s agreed to let me link to her document, called The World Is Watching Syria. Feel free to use it with your students.

And for Mike’s students, who may have trouble accessing the Google Doc, here’s a link to a PDF of the questions you asked.

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 Abandon your curriculum: Unpack Syria (and the Arab Spring)

  1. glichtman says:

    Looking for ways I could comment and contribute (I am both a history and current events guy) and really could not. Great job by Mike, and love the student questions! Will try to add a comment or two.

  2. boadams1 says:

    I agree, Steve. Both structurally and logistically, school should be a group of people nimble and agile enough to go where the learning needs to take us — as citizens of our country and world.

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