The following story was reported during The Student Journalist Program’s five-day Summer Newsroom Workshop in August, 2016.
Stephen Bennett and Megan Geissler felt the same way: With images of violence and warfare dominating coverage of the Middle East, young Americans were getting a limited view of the region.
Their solution? Create a workshop to help local teachers address what they believe is a complex issue.
Bennett and Geissler, who are both outreach coordinators for Middle East-focused programs, envisioned a workshop that would dispel misconceptions. Geissler, who works at the Middle East Policy Council’s Teach Mideast program, said the goal was to start a dialogue about different perspectives of the region.
“The reason I felt responsible was to demonstrate that there is much more depth and nuance to the culture,” she said
The pair’s workshop, which they called “Teaching the Middle East: Through Art, Music, and Culture,” was designed for K-12 educators in the D.C. metro area. The program, held on Aug. 10 at George Washington University, featured collegiate scholars whose speeches incorporated music and art from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Afghanistan.
From Lebanese pop music videos to Middle Eastern rap, teachers were immersed in the artistry and modern culture of the multi-faceted region. The Lebanese music video, “Ma Sar,” in particular married both eastern and western culture; its lead singer, Haifa Wehbe, danced in fitted clothing while elements of traditional Arabic percussion played in the background.
“[Music] shows commonalities in artistic expression. Most people think that there isn’t room or space for artistry and creativity [in the Middle East], when in fact there so many rich cultural modes of life taking place there,” said Bennett, who works at the George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.
The music resonated with Elisabeth Palmer, an art history teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington. She said the melodies are an effective way to connect the Middle East with her students in the classroom.
“It’s all about pulling interest [with students]. Music, hip hop, and social inequality are great entry points. If I can relate it back to those things, there is a greater understanding,” said Palmer.
Mariel Vallano, a teacher at Brightwood Education Campus in Northwest Washington, was intrigued by the emphasis on art. Vallano’s students from El Salvador and Ethiopia are in the process of developing English language skills, and she said the workshop’s hands-on lesson of Islamic art-inspired geometric figures can help her match her students’ learning styles.
“Things like this can really raise their self-esteem,” said Vallano.
As presidential candidates in November’s upcoming election talk about major issues related to the Middle East, Geissler said she wants to emphasize how essential it is for teachers and students to further their knowledge of the region.
“In talks about the election … immigration, terrorism in America, and our security... have such a significant part of our national debate, and yet are not taught in schools,” she said. “People don’t really understand the differences between the terms Middle East versus Islam versus Arab.”
Geissler said she believes this misunderstanding impacts young students across the nation. Middle Eastern immigration to the U.S. has risen in recent years, and she said it’s important to educate students through teachers.
“These are people who will be the future policy makers,” she added. “They are our country. In a globalized society, it’s important that young people grow up with a greater understanding of what’s going on.”