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Image of poet Mustafa as he's walking through the village

As you picked up the newspaper or logged on to a news site this morning, you almost certainly saw the term "Middle East," probably detailing a crisis. Most readers understand that the term refers to the countries of southwestern Asia and North Africa. However, stop for a minute to think about the unspoken connotation of the term "Middle East." East of what? Of Europe, of course, and eventually, of the United States. The very term connotes a European/American stance.

Dispelling Stereotypes

How can you (and your students) learn to think about this region a little differently? One way is certainly through literature. Literature classes today are more inclusive than in the past: Asian, African, and Latin American selections now appear in our world literature classes, while we read Asian American, African American, Latino, and Native American stories in our American lit classes. Why aren't we learning more about the region that we call the Middle East?

Our first step is dispelling stereotypes. We Americans tend to equate the Middle Eastern region with Arabic people and the Islamic religion. However, not all Muslims are from that area. The nation with the greatest Muslim population is actually Indonesia. Not all Arabs are Muslim. Some are Christian and Jewish. Not all Muslims are Arabic. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, only about 20 percent of Muslims are from the Arabic-speaking world. How many of your students (or their parents) know that Iran is not an Arab nation? Your social studies students would be well served by learning about this religious and demographic complexity.

But dispelling stereotypes is not enough. Step two is identifying literature that either originates in this region or is written by immigrants from this region. Finding these works to use in your survey classes is not always easy, but the effort is important.

Teaching Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

The Prophet, a work by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, is very accessible for students. Born in Lebanon, educated in Lebanon, Boston, and Paris, Gibran led a truly multicultural life. Although he wrote his most important work in English, he also wrote in Arabic. His drawing and paintings also reflect both Arabic and Western influences. The Prophet, a collection of 26 poetic essays well-known in the 1960s and 1970s, is eminently suited for today's high school classrooms. Much more about Gibran, including a biography and a photo gallery of his paintings, can be found at the Gibran National Committee's website. A new paperback edition of The Prophet will be available from Random House this fall.

Do some of your students have helicopter parents who don't know how to give their adolescent room to grow and learn independence? Gibran's poem "On Childhood" calls children "living arrows" sent forth from the parent's bow. The bow can no longer control the arrow's flight once it is released:

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts . . .

Adolescent hormones acting up? Help your students think more healthily about the nature of real love with Gibran’s poem "On Marriage," where he reflects on the need for two people in love to be strong and independent beings:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup . . .
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone . . .

(Your lovestruck students may prefer his sensuous poem "On Love," however!)

For students engaged in competitive academics and feeling great stress, try his poem "On Work," which gives dignity and purpose to work of all kinds:

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.

Visualizing the Poetry

One appealing way to introduce your students to Gibran is to have them see the new film, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. The animated framing story tells of an imprisoned painter and writer named Mustafa (played by Liam Neeson) who is released from house arrest and sent into exile by an oppressive government. As he walks from his house to the port city, villagers seek his advice, and he responds with poems. Following him and listening to them is a mischievous little girl. The truly remarkable aspect of the film is that each of the eight poems he recites on his journey is interpreted by a different gifted animator in his or her own style. These animators come from all over the world, creating a truly multicultural film.

A complete set of lesson plans for teaching about Gibran himself, his visual art, and the eight poems featured in this film can be downloaded for free. More information about the film, including a trailer and stills, may also be found at the same site. The download includes two PowerPoint slideshows with images from the film for analysis, plus slides of Gibran’s own drawings and paintings. Lessons are suitable for middle and high school classes in English, social studies, art, and art history classes.

How have you used poetry and other literature to teach your students about other regions and cultures? Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

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Cy Valencia's picture

Thank you for this article Eileen, I just want to ask, is the animated video available commercially?

Eileen Mattingly's picture
Eileen Mattingly
Director of Education for Journeys in Film

So sorry, I didn't see this earlier, Cy. The film is just starting to make its way around theaters now. I think the DVD will be released in December.

e-abel's picture

As a student teacher specialising in English, this is a very useful resource to draw on. Although I'm training for the primary years, I can see gifted and talented young people in KS2 really benefiting from this sort of input with the right support.

I'm ashamed to say I haven't actually taught any poetry in my placement experiences over three years thus far. I feel that this sort of poetry will engage the children much more effectively than many other genres which feel outdated and irrelevant or otherwise at times silly which can somewhat distracting from the literary aspect.

I want children's learning to be meaningful, by providing them with literature that provides an insight into a different culture such as this, I think this will be achieved to an extent, particularly if taking a cross-curricular view when learning about different places.

Although I haven't had experience in a particularly diverse, multicultural school as of yet, I feel like using resources such as this might be a useful way to dispel misconceptions other students and even maybe their parents might have about their foreign peers.

Eileen Mattingly's picture
Eileen Mattingly
Director of Education for Journeys in Film

Dear e-abel, I was very interested in your comments about using poetry with younger children. I only taught children in that age group for two years and that was part-time; almost all of my 40-plus years of teaching were in middle and high school. So you've already probably had more experience than me! But from what I remember my students were very responsive to poetry and you could use a poem as a jumping-off point for many interesting classroom activities.

If you are looking for more multicultural and interdisciplinary activities, Journeys in Film has a number of curricula for films that open up other cultures to your students. That's really why we started it! I particularly like Children of Heaven, which is about a nine-year-old boy in Iran and his younger sister. If you search for my other blogs on Edutopia, you will find a discussion of some of them. Everything's free to download. We try to write lessons with new teachers in mind. and we hope that some of the activities can be re-purposed to work with other films.

As for not working yet at a multicultural school, all of our students need to grow up open to other cultures. that will be a necessity in the world they will live in.

Good luck! I hope you find your teaching career to be as satisfying and just as much fun as mine was.

Eileen

e-abel's picture

Definitely, Eileen! I love the idea of using poetry as a starting point, especially one with such rich cross-curricular links!

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