By Graham Holland. Graham teaches history in the MB middle school. “I am privileged to work with this age group, where students are beginning to think critically about the world,” he says.
Teachers don’t know everything. It’s a well-guarded secret. Sometimes you are faced with the difficult task of helping your students make sense of something that you yourself don’t fully understand. Take ISIS, for example, or the so-called “Islamic State.” This group has been all over the news in recent months, and they have grabbed headlines both for their shocking brutality and for the fact that they have literally redrawn the map of the Middle East. Who they are, what they want, and how to stop them have become critical questions for governments around the world and have sparked debates around dinner tables and water coolers throughout America — and in our eighth grade history class.
It just so happens that, at the same time that ISIS has been demanding the world’s attention, our eighth graders have been in the midst of a unit on the Middle East. As we head towards spring break, they are gearing up to debate the question of what role the United States should play in the region. As my colleague and fellow middle-school history teacher, Jon Gold, and I sat down to reflect on how our students would prepare for this question, we realized that it would be impossible, or at least inauthentic, to ask them to debate America’s role in the Middle East without talking about ISIS. But how well did we, or could we, understand ISIS ourselves?
In March the Atlantic Monthly published a much-discussed piece by Graeme Wood entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The essay was certainly illuminating to me. After reading it, I felt that I understood ISIS and its motivations much more clearly than I had before. I imagined that the folks over at the State Department might be reading and discussing the article as well, and that it might even inform our nation’s strategy in dealing with them. I felt that I finally understood the topic. But it wasn’t long before Jon emailed me a new series of articles on ISIS (he’s good like that). These were critiques of the Wood article, many penned by prominent Muslims who viewed his analysis as overly simplistic or flawed. Reading these left me with a new sense of uncertainty. While this was unsettling, it was a great reminder that in this complex world, there are seldom any easy answers. Things are messy.
Accepting, and even welcoming, this “messiness” is an essential part of our eighth grade history course. We try to teach our students that nothing is black and white, that cause and effect is a complex web that connects the past with our lives today in more ways than we can count. When it comes to difficult topics, there is always another perspective to consider, another side of the story. This lack of clarity is not always comfortable for our students. A world of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys is certainly easier to grasp. But the cognitive shift that takes place as they grapple with these complexities is a critical step on the path to becoming serious critical thinkers, even “expert” thinkers.
In the end, we decided to talk about ISIS, and I am sure that our upcoming debate will be much richer for it. The students read an article from the Guardian, watched a brief video from the Times, and analyzed a set of political cartoons. We talked in class about what they had learned, and they had had a lot of questions, just like me. They are struggling to understand this group and what their impact on the world will be. I am too. We are embracing our uncertainty together.
Students recently held a Harkness discussion on ISIS and were observed by members of the CHOICES curriculum team from Brown University. “I was so impressed by the quality of the Harkness discussion on the U.S. role in the Middle East,” says Andy Blackadar (left), director of curriculum development for the Choices Program at Brown and research associate at the Watson Institute for International Studies. “MB students were thoughtful about the many complex issues at play and used their knowledge of history to help formulate their thoughts about the present. The respectful and inclusive way that they interact with each other is truly special.”