How can I help students experience a Palestinian refugee camp while in a classroom 5700 miles away?
Early this summer I led 17 students and two fellow faculty members to Israel and Palestine. There we met with folks who held many different perspectives on the conflict. No one would be surprised to hear that the students learned more in this time than they would have learned in the equivalent time in our home classroom. Nonetheless, there are lessons I have taken back from this experience that will definitely benefit my classroom. What follows are some initial thoughts.
Opportunity to powerfully envision the question
On our first day, we went to the Haram al Sharif. There we saw a religious Jew, against the rules of both the site and the law, come up with a prayer book and begin praying. Immediately, many Palestinians gathered around him and started chanting, “God is Great.” My students promptly had questions and opinions: shouldn’t he be able to pray wherever he wants? What is he trying to do by praying up here, a place that looks like a Muslim holy place? Are the police around him protecting him, allowing him to be up here? Or are they trying to escort him out? The religious history and political significance of the spot, as well as the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immediately became highly relevant.
I plan on raising this specific encounter in my classroom. I will provide the students with some photos, and a tiny bit of background, followed by a description of the incident. Then I will ask: what questions does this raise for you? More broadly, I take from this idea the model of beginning from a highly relevant, charged moment to lead into a more in depth discussion.
Direct dialogue with those involved
One afternoon, a community leader guided us through a Palestinian refugee camp. He himself had had a close relative killed in the fighting, and was (nevertheless? Or therefore?) committed to a just and peaceful solution to the situation. Driving from 1948 Israel to the West Bank, seeing the camp and hearing from him, the students gained a much more resilient understanding of what it means for Palestinians to be refugees.
I will replicate three aspects of this experience in my classroom. Most directly, we will speak through videoconference with the representative or someone he recommends. Second, we will “see the camp” through seeing images, video and narrative. The most difficult aspect to capture will be an understanding of the distance, or lack thereof, from the places where the refugees had lived to where they live now. This I will accomplish through a combination of examining maps, viewing photos and videos of the checkpoints, and reading a written narrative of the old days.
Inspirational bonding with each other related to the topic
This is probably the most difficult aspect of educational travel to re-create in a classroom setting, and I will not attempt to do so directly. Our trip, however, has moved me to think more carefully about building those connections in the classroom. I will reemphasize my use of group projects aimed at solving real problems. For example, a new parent is the former ambassador to Jordan and the current ambassador to Iraq. I will ask my class to produce a report together that we will send to him, making recommendations for how to handle Islamic State (ISIS). This work will pull us together through working toward a shared goal.
These are just some of the teaching approaches inspired by my trip this summer. I am immensely grateful to all the donors who supported the students, and to St. Andrew’s for its generous support of my own ability to lead us to explore Israel and Palestine.