Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators is a new Web site created by three University of Chicago partners: the Oriental Institute, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the eCUIP Digital Library Project.
The goal of Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators is to provide teachers of ancient and modern Middle Eastern history and cultures with a rich, reliable, and easily accessible online resource that draws upon sound humanities scholarship to help build student understanding of the Middle East. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the project draws upon the unparalleled expertise of renowned scholars from the University of Chicago, the archaeological resources of a world-famous research facility and its museum as well as the inherent flexibility and strengths of the Internet.
Originally founded in 1919 to study “the Orient,” the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is an internationally recognized center for archaeological excavations, text-based studies, and the teaching of ancient Middle Eastern history. Within the Oriental Institute is a world-renowned museum that houses a major collection of artifacts from ancient Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel, Egypt, Nubia, and early Islamic societies. It was a natural choice for the Public Education Office of the Oriental Institute to partner and develop this project with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and the eCUIP Digital Library Project. Since 1965, the mandate of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) has been to coordinate, stimulate, and encourage academic, extracurricular, and outreach activities relating to the study of North Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia, and the Islamic World. The eCUIP Digital Library Project, an initiative of the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project, was chosen to create the Web site because of their expertise in developing high-quality digital resources for the K-12 educational community.
In our ongoing outreach work with local educators, both the Oriental Institute and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies have often heard high school teachers tell us how difficult it is to unravel and make sense of events in the Middle East. World history teachers across the United States face the same instructional challenges and wonder which resources they should trust to help shed light on the cultures, issues, and politics of this diverse and complex region.
In 2005, in an effort to understand what high school educators use and need when teaching the history and culture of the Middle East, we gathered together a focus group of six high school educators for an informal discussion with University of Chicago faculty and Oriental Institute and CMES staff. These teachers came from both public and private school systems, representing a broad cross-section of educational environments throughout the Chicago area. In the discussions that ensued, the teachers provided us with a list of themes and issues they felt should be addressed within an educator-friendly online resource. Later, in 2007, once NEH funding had been received, many of these same teachers became members of our Teacher Advisory Board for the project.
Those early conversations with teachers indicated that they and their colleagues are often “at sea” when the time comes to examine and discuss the history of the Middle East. The textbooks they use do not supply rich and detailed perspectives on the Middle East from ancient through to contemporary times. These textbooks also do not provide materials that approach the history of this region in meaningful ways, such as examining cause and effect or comparing and contrasting events, cultures, and religions. While the Internet offers a wide range of information sources on the Middle East, our teacher focus group also saw many of these resources as disparate, offering only piecemeal viewpoints instead of an approach that identified key themes of the region from ancient history through to modern times. Upon closer scrutiny, we also came to realize that very few Internet sites about the history and cultures of the Middle East provide ready access to a wide range of resources such as essays, art, books, papers, primary sources, and multimedia resources. Engaging students to appreciate and understand history is a challenge many history and global studies teachers face. It is also because of this we needed to create a trustworthy resource with access to a wide variety of material that supported students’ diverse learning styles.
Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for High School Educators was first publicly unveiled this past November 2010 at the Midwest World History Conference at Loyola University in Chicago. The resource benefited significantly from the observations and comments of educators in attendance. While the scope of the project was originally intended for high school users, college-level teachers attending the conference emphasized the project’s relevance for students in higher education and suggested expanding the project to include a wider and academically centered audience. Because of this feedback, we decided to re-title the resource, Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators.
Within one well-designed, user-friendly interface, Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators presents scholarly perspectives, visual imagery, textual resources, Internet links, and selections from the Oriental Institute Museum’s major collection of Middle Eastern art and artifacts. In an effort to address the teacher focus group requests, participants from the three University of Chicago partner organizations suggested ways the content for an online resource of this depth and breadth could be organized in a clear and logical online format. With this format in mind, University of Chicago scholars who were identified to participate in the project decided upon nine topic areas that would address educator needs while highlighting faculty strengths.
Teaching the Middle East divides these nine topic areas into eighteen learning modules. Each module is organized to provide users with the greatest flexibility when creating classroom lessons and follows the same blueprint: scholarly essays that introduce historical themes, ideas, and concepts for each topic; Framing the Issues details key issues and concepts in greater depth; Examining Stereotypes considers timely and controversial issues; Image Resource Banks offers alternative views and fifteen copyright-free images per module for educational use; and Learning Resources provides ready access to primary sources, suggested readings, maps, books, web sites, films, blogs, interactives and more. Finally, the Classroom Connections section provides Lesson Plans developed by the eight members of our Teacher Advisory Board that directly connect these materials to curriculum. The overall instructional design of Teaching the Middle East: A Resource for Educators is intended to be flexible so that any educator coming to the resource can build and design their own curriculum as they see fit – all the while guided by the overarching perspectives of the faculty essays. By approaching the instructional design of each module as groupings of “tools” or resources, the site offers a teacher control in chunking the content and using appropriate support material for their lessons.
The first four topic areas make up the “Foundations” section of the resource. These topics lay the fundamental groundwork for understanding the region: 1) The Geography of the Middle East by Geoff Emberling, former Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum; 2) The Origins of Civilization by Gil Stein, the Director of the Oriental Institute; 3) The Golden Age of Islam by Wadad Kadi, Avalon Foundation Distinguished Service Professor of Islamic Studies, Emerita; and 4) The Middle East as Net Exporter of Religion by Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
The next five topic areas are housed in the “Historical Perspectives” section of the Web site. Here one can find fourteen different modules that outline Middle Eastern history from ancient to modern times. Modules are loosely organized in a chronological fashion around the history of regions prior to the development of Islam, and from the rise of Islam onwards. The five topic areas and the fourteen modules are:
1) Writing and Literature
• Before Islam by Christopher Woods, Associate Professor of Sumerology
• Islamic Period by Michael Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature
2) Rulership and Justice
• Before Islam by Jennie Meyers, Research Associate
• Islamic Period by John Woods, Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Alexander Barna, Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Middle East Studies
3) The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender
• Overview by Geoff Emberling, former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum
• Before Islam: Egypt by Janet H. Johnson, Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor of Egyptology
• Before Islam: Mesopotamia by Jennie Meyers, Research Associate
• Islamic Period: Diversity and Pluralism by Orit Bashkin, Assistant Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History
• Islamic Period: The Concept of Ethnicity by Martin Stokes, Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford University and former Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago
4) Empires to Nation-States
• Before Islam by Geoff Emberling, former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum
• Late Antiquity by Walter E. Kaegi, Professor of History, University of Chicago)
• Islamic Period by A. Holly Shissler, Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History, and Erin L. Glade, Ph.D. candidate
5) The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes
• Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century by Matthew W. Stolper, Professor of Assyriology and the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies
• Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries by John Woods, Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Alexander Barna, Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Middle East Studies
Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Geoff Emberling, former Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum; and Orit Bashkin, Assistant Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Chicago, served as the Faculty Review Board for all faculty-produced content. This assured continuity, clarity, and also integration of themes that were important to members of our Teacher Advisory Board.
Eight accomplished high school educators and administrators from the Chicago Public Schools as well as regional private and suburban schools were chosen to sit on the project’s Teacher Advisory Board. Members of the advisory board included: Maryhelen Matijevic (Mount Carmel High School), Howard Wright (Hinsdale South High School), Farhat Khan (Roosevelt High School), Michael C. Shea (Kenwood Academy High School), Lisa Perez (Department of Libraries, Chicago Public Schools), Peter M. Scheidler (Kenwood Academy High School), Blake Noel (Bronzeville Scholastic Institute), and Laura Wangerin (Latin School of Chicago). Board members tested and evaluated the usability of the Web site. They also developed two lesson plans for each module as well as guiding questions that help to model the many ways teachers can use the resource.
Teaching the Middle East: A Resource Educators is a rich online resource intended to provide educators with in-depth information that has been written and assembled by many of the best scholars in the field of Middle Eastern studies. When used in the classroom, the resources’ modules, research tools, images, lesson plans, and guiding questions help teachers and their students discover the great currents of continuity and change throughout Middle Eastern history. It is our hope that this resource will also help users understand how the rich cultural diversity of the Middle East contradicts the stereotypes that can sometimes cloud our perceptions of this region. Academically rigorous, thoughtful, and stimulating, Teaching the Middle East seeks to offer new ways of seeing and understanding by crossing cultural divides and illuminating how our shared human concerns cross oceans, time, and cultures.
(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 2, Spring 2011.