Each April, eight to ten primary school teachers from around the U.S. travel to Egypt as part of the CMES Outreach Center's Egypt Forum program. Currently in its fifth year, the Egypt Forum is a professional development program for K-12 educators designed to build leadership skills, engage teachers in Middle East studies through firsthand experience, and assist them in applying their learning in their classrooms, schools, and communities.
Modeled on the academic approach to inquiry at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Egypt Forum places a premium on challenging teaching professionals to reflect and build on their own work and share their expertise as educators with fellow participants. Because of its relatively small cohort the Egypt Forum is able to facilitate a customized course of study for each program fellow that answers the needs of his or her specific classroom. Participants define concrete goals for applying their learning to their classroom environment, and work with program director Paul Beran to find the resources and approaches that will address their particular subject of study.
Brooke Forrelli, who teaches World History I to ninth-graders at Lexington High School, applied to the Egypt Forum with two goals in mind: to expand the scope of her unit on Islam, and to better incorporate events currently unfolding in the Arab world into her history course. Forrelli sees an understanding of the universality of Islam and the diversity of the Islamic world as a crucial component of her students' cultural literacy. Often, their understanding of modern Islam comes primarily from media and pop culture stereotypes. "My challenge is to find resources and ways to help students recognize these stereotypes and then move beyond them," she says.
The Egypt Forum begins each year in early December. Over the next four months, prior to travelling to Egypt in April, program fellows meet at Harvard and engage in independent study with the support of the program director. During this period they work to become "Egypt literate," gaining a solid grasp of broad issues and themes of Egyptian culture and history, as well as specific background on their individual subject of study. At two day-long seminars at Harvard, fellows turn in assignments, engage with Harvard faculty, and discuss their individual projects.
In mid-April, spring break period for most K-12 teachers, the group travels to Egypt. The ten-day trip provides an opportunity for fellows to experience Egyptian culture and society firsthand, and to learn about the country's politics, literature, and history on location. Stationed in Cairo, fellows engage with the city's people and culture through walking tours, cultural events, museum forays, and school visits. Lectures on architecture, history, religion, science, and literature are delivered on site in Cairo neighborhoods by local professors, researchers, conservationists, and other experts. Fellows also travel to Alexandria and spend a day with a high school in Tanta, a town midway between Cairo and Alexandria.
Last April's trip, which came on the heels of the January 25, 2011 revolution, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity according to Beran. "The euphoria of events in Egypt was still tangible, but there was also a realization from the people we met that the daily problems that many Egyptians faced still needed to be solved," Beran remembers. "Touring Tahrir Square and then meeting with faculty from Cairo University underscored this duality. It put into perspective the enormity of the events that had taken place and were still unfolding, and the need for us all to continue learning."
Amy Sanders, a fellow in last year's Egypt Forum, especially valued the opportunity to talk to Egyptian adults and youth about the protest movements and their hopes for their country. Sanders says, "My favorite day—if it's possible to choose one—was a day spent with Egyptian high school students as they related their revolutionary activities and peppered us with questions about democracy. Their earnestness and willingness to work for positive change gave me great hope for the country's future."
Upon returning from Egypt, fellows commence the third phase of the Egypt Forum, which is to apply their learning to their classrooms, schools, and communities. The group meets twice more and participants submit updates on their subjects of study. Working independently or together, the fellows craft new lesson plans, professional development tools, and student activities. During the school year, the Outreach Center supports fellows in these activities with small grants, consulting, and other resources.
Sanders, who teaches a Middle Eastern Studies seminar to high school juniors and seniors at Yarmouth High School, used the Egypt Forum to develop new curriculum materials about Egypt and the Arab Spring for the class. One of two lesson plans Sanders developed after returning is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian game Senet. In the game, students choose one of four countries—Libya, Egypt, Syria, or Bahrain—and draw cards to read about a protest movement, governmental response, or response by the international community. Sanders chose the interactive game format as a way to engage students with the material regardless of their prior understanding, and to facilitate comparison of the movements in various countries. A colleague of Sanders' who used the Senet game in her tenth-grade Modern World History classes reported that it helped students with almost no prior knowledge of the Arab spring understand what had happened and why. "One student, seemingly unaware of events in Egypt over the past year, became absorbed in the game," Sanders relates. "When he read on a card that President Mubarak had stepped down, he called out to the class, accentuated with a fist pump, 'Hey, everybody! Mubarak resigned!'" The lesson plan, and a second one on street art, is available for download on the Outreach Center website for teachers to use in their own classrooms.
After four years, the Egypt Forum has an alumni base of nearly 40 teachers working in New England, as well as around the country and world. Egypt Forum alums have gone on to take on new leadership positions, win awards, present at their schools and at national conferences, and pursue graduate level study in Middle East studies and education leadership.
Rona Mattocks, an alumna of the 2009–10 Egypt Forum, teaches at Brimmer & May School in Newton, MA. After completing the program, she gave a formal presentation on Egypt to the school's faculty, and became a resource on the Middle East for her colleagues, who she says "often come to her with questions about Middle East issues and media reports." Mattocks also piloted the school's first course on Middle East studies, "The United States, the Middle East, and North Africa: Cultures and Viewpoints," which introduces the history, demography, and culture of six Middle Eastern countries as well as U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Egypt Forum fellows will next be in Egypt in April 2013. Travel to Egypt was postponed for 2012 due to considerations of security, but Beran visited the country in April to meet with program partners. "For those of us fortunate enough to study Egypt over the years, the post-revolutionary time since February 2011 has provided a new chapter from which to learn. The ongoing political and economic discussions that I saw will provide a rich opportunity for engagement next spring," Beran reports.
This year's fellows will continue independent and group study of Egypt throughout the coming year in preparation for next year's trip. Forrelli is looking forward to the coming year and the April 2013 trip as an opportunity to gain better insight into post-revolution Egypt. "With the political uprisings in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East," Forrelli says, "I feel that students have a rare opportunity to watch history unfold. By studying the political uprisings, I want students to have a clear understanding of these events and help make connections between the uprisings and broader themes in history such as political legitimacy and the role of the international community."