The following post was written by Faraz Chaudry, who teaches Global Awareness at Holmes Middle School in Wheeling, IL. Chaudry and Community Consolidated School District 21 Information Literacy Specialist Tracy Crowley designed and facilitated a unit plan that guides middle school students through an analysis of “Fractured Lands,” Scott Anderson’s 41,000-word story in The New York Times Magazine examining the unraveling of the modern Middle East. The unit plan also utilizes images by Paolo Pellegrin and Ben C. Solomon’s virtual reality film “The Fight for Fallujah.” Below, Chaudry describes his experience facilitating the unit for his nearly 20 students and links to resources he developed with Crowley to support the unit. Click here to read more about Scott Anderson’s visit to Chaudry’s class in November 2016. Click here to view the short film students created at the conclusion of the unit to synthesize what they learned.
The ever-expanding reach of globalization means that conflicts around the world are almost never isolated events. The effects can be far-reaching and devastating. We have seen this first hand in the Arab Spring, and in the subsequent events. From the relatively small nation of Tunisia, waves of protests spread throughout the Middle East. These demonstrations then sparked the Civil War in Syria, leading to a worldwide refugee and humanitarian crisis. At first, hope was offered to those seeking refuge in certain European nations, but as the pendulum swings, neo-nationalist sentiments have created a pushback against these Arab migrants.
These events have led to an extreme political polarization not only on foreign soil, but here in the U.S. The hope and promise of globalization connecting the world have dissolved within a strong potion of fear and mistrust. “Fractured Lands” is an extremely powerful tool in counteracting these biases, especially in the classroom. By following the personal narrative of six Middle Eastern citizens, the story clearly establishes that the subjects are, above all, human, with all of the corresponding hopes and desires for a safe and fulfilling life. This is important for the students to understand and experience, as it may help to counteract the rhetoric that saturates many forms of media and social networks.
Our environment is an 8th grade exploratory (related arts; specials) Global Awareness class at Holmes Middle School in District 21, Wheeling, Illinois. The area served is an interesting economic and ethnic enclave of Chicago’s northwest suburbs with a mainly Hispanic population. This results in an above-average 23% student population of English Language Learners, with almost 95% speaking a first language other than English. The exploratory framework of a Global Awareness elective may have provided an unusual venue for a unit on “Fractured Lands” as it is not a core class, but also not within the purview of the arts. However, the array of contemporary issues discussed in the story made it relevant to any current events or social studies-related setting.
In implementing this lesson, it was important to understand the students’ prior knowledge and level of reading comprehension. The New York Times often employs language above college-level reading, so careful modifications had to be made to convey the full meaning of the piece. In our class this was accomplished by creating an “interactive notebook” (directions here) on Google Slides, in which the Preface of the article was broken down by paragraph.
The Preface to “Fractured Lands” provides historical context regarding the formation of the modern Middle East. For this reason, it was important to present it in its entirety. To scaffold the reading for middle school students, each sentence was carefully scrutinized. Difficult words were either replaced with simpler synonyms, or hyperlinked to a Learner’s Dictionary definition. The paragraphs were then individually followed by connecting activities that probed the students to engage in and critically analyze what they had just read. These activities ranged from prompts that asked the students to form follow-up questions based on the reading to inferential queries that gauged their grasp of the concepts.
To further emphasize the impact of the historical events described in the story, we devised lesson openers to create simple metaphors for the manner in which these countries were formed, and for how their governments toppled following the Arab Spring revolutions. These hands-on activities were important to counteract the high amount of reading and writing. One example was creating a new, seemingly arbitrary seating chart for the students in which some had access to multiple desks and work spaces, while others were relegated to small spaces on the floor or tables on the periphery. This is analogous to the European powers dividing the Middle East based on their own interests after WWI, and not on the will, or even the ethnic makeup of the groups that resided therein. We also played “geopolitical Jenga,” which guided students in playing Jenga with the understanding that the pieces removed from the tower showed the growing instability within a country and its government, finally leading to the collapse of the structure. The students named and discussed events that were critical to the start of the Arab Spring with each piece they pulled.
Perhaps the most impactful activity was provided by Ben C. Solomon’s interactive video “The Fight for Fallujah,” which we viewed on the The New York Times Virtual Reality App. For this 360° experience, which was published alongside “Fractured Lands”, we utilized Google Cardboard VR Sets and our own personal devices, which required District approval. We were only able to use two VR sets at a time, but the approximately nine-minute video took the students on an immersive tour of the war zones in Iraq, ISIS holding cells, and the seemingly endless rows of tents in refugee camps. The students found this to be very eye-opening and powerful as it provided visual support to all of the readings. Their feedback from the video was stunning. One student stated, “This is a perfect example of how people have to live their everyday lives. I think it’s brutal because they have to live in camps and can’t live in homes and have to search really hard for what they need on a daily basis. VR helped me visualize what life is really like there, feel all the destruction, and feel for the civilians and how miserable the situation is.”
The main bulk of the article “Fractured Lands” goes rather in depth into the individual experiences of its six Middle Eastern subjects. To lighten the workload and add an element of ownership, the students chose which character’s story they would like to follow. Our students decided on Azar Mirkhan, a Kurdish Pesh Merga fighter, and Majd Ibrahim, a college student from Syria. We consolidated their stories from the segmented presentation of the article into a linear form. While reading aloud together, the students used the visual note-taking strategy "Sketchnoting" to add an element of visual understanding. The "sketchnotes" showed illustrations of the character’s formative moments, dates, and personal experiences during the Arab Spring. We also adjusted the reading level using Rewordify.com to offer a modified version. This allowed us to streamline the remainder of the article while still providing complete narratives.
In the political uncertainty of this time, we must provide students with a global viewpoint that emphasizes the need for citizens around the world to enjoy the basic human rights that we may take for granted. Employing this article in the classroom is no simple task, and requires many components to coalesce in order to convey this message. If done properly, however, the true goal of Global Awareness is accomplished in that the students are able to understand that the people of these regions are not simply religious zealots bent on conquering the Arab world, or that violence and military intervention are not always a valid solution. Our students were able to engage and make connections to their own lives by viewing the experiences of these characters through the lenses of hope, resilience, and courage. These unifying themes are present throughout “Fractured Lands,” through which we hear the firsthand accounts of those who persevered through revolutions and turmoil. By humanizing the individuals of these lands, the students recognized that the subjects of the story simply desired to live in the safety and security that the students themselves have come to expect.
“I really felt the learning. I felt how bad it is there. I didn’t realize what it was really like,” said Nicole, an 8th grader at Holmes, while participating in the “Fractured Land”s unit.
"I think it changed how I think [about] what we are learning because it changed my heart to see how the people are living,” added Andrea. “I can feel more what it is like to be them and I think about them more.”
The unit plan described above concluded with a student-produced short film synthesizing what students learned from the unit. For support using “Fractured Lands” in your classroom, email firstname.lastname@example.org.