An Introduction to the Middle East for Third Graders
By Christina Lagerwerff
I know that I want to teach my students about the Middle East. It’s not in the third-grade standards, and the pressure to achieve the requisite reading and math scores is high, but many of them may never learn about the Middle East otherwise. I want to peak their curiosity, build schema around the Middle East that center human lives, and encourage a worldview that we are part of a global human family. I also believe that my kids deserve to know whose lives and lands we spend trillions of dollars destroying.
I fit lessons about the Middle East into the nooks and crannies of our day. One reason that works is because I grant a fair amount of time to geography as part of our social studies curriculum. I take full advantage of the first few weeks of the school year when it’s not expected that we’ve started the curriculum yet, to create a critical foundation that we can hook into all year. We talk about the problems in the world we worry about, the world we wish to see, and learn foundational map skills, including that maps have perspectives and can tell stories. Even though I lament not having more time to teach history and culture, I think orienting kids to where cities, countries, and geographical features are on the globe helps ground and contextualize all the other information they will learn about these places. And having a teacher make the choice to center specific places in the classroom encourages interest in them and sends the message that they are important.
So, for example, the desks in my room are grouped into tables, and I label each table geographically. I hang a sign with the name and a map of the geographic area from the ceiling over each table. At the start of the year, we study maps and continents, and each table is named after a continent: North America, South America, Africa, and Eurasia.Every couple of months, when we start a new unit, I change the signs. When we begin learning about the Taino people of the Caribbean, I change the tables to the four largest Caribbean islands: Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. In January, when we start our physics unit, I change the countries to four Middle Eastern countries.
The kids get so excited when they come in on the day I’ve changed their countries, and it’s sweet to see them working together, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar names. Every time I call tables to line up or to come to the carpet, the kids hear the name of their country. After hearing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine six or seven times a day, they can pronounce each word. Soon I start to hear the names of the four countries used casually around the room—“Can Afghanistan get their markers yet?”—and other teachers who come into the room start using them, too.
When we start learning about the Middle East, they label every Middle Eastern country on a blank map. I don’t necessarily expect the location and name of each country to stick, but I do want them to become familiar with the region. I leave little map riddles waiting for them on their desks when they arrive in the morning:
I am a country in the Middle East. I border Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I am very small, and if you lived here, you might go to the beach for vacation.
I have a class set of desk-sized Peters Equal Area Projection Maps, and I leave those on their desks, too, so they can answer the riddles. If they correctly figure out Kuwait, I tell them to write their own riddle for a friend.
However, there is one group that cannot find their country on a map, not even the Peters Equal Area Projection Map. That country is Palestine. Shortly after we label our maps, I do a separate lesson about Palestine.
Why teach Palestine?
Teachers, of course, should do their own research, but my research has taught me this: The state of Israel was created—largely with the funding and political backing of Britain—as a European colony designated as a home for the Jewish people. As far back as the 1917 Balfour Declaration, England promised it to Zionist leaders. The Zionists called it “a land without a people for a people without a land.” It was, of course, not a land without a people. Palestine was home to millions of people: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. As Israel declared independence in 1948, they forcibly removed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands. The Palestinians call this the Nakba (the catastrophe). Since then, the removal has continued, amounting to nothing less than ethnic cleansing.
Today, millions of displaced Palestinians around the globe are fighting for their right to return to their homeland. However, Jews from around the world—citizens of Russia, the US, people who have never set foot in Israel— are welcomed “home” to Israel at any time. Palestinians inPalestine live under a brutal military occupation that is largely funded by the 3.8 billion dollars that the US gives Israel yearly, more money than we give to any other country in the world. Palestinian homes are bulldozed, children are arrested in the middle of the night, and acts of peaceful resistance are met with snipers and bombs.
Do all human beings have the right to exist? This is the question of Palestine, and how we answer it is central to how we answer all other questions of refugees, immigration, and borders. Where I live, in a town that is constantly decrying the presence of panhandlers, where more than one of my kids every year is homeless or hungry, this question is relevant to every single one of my students.
What’s Appropriate in Third Grade?
So where to start with third-graders? When I do this study again, I will start with a discussion of who is allowed in different spaces in our own town: in stores, on the sidewalks, or in houses. But what I have started with in the past is maps, since they tell a powerful story of colonization and displacement. I show four maps of Palestine: 1947 (before the Nakba) 1948 (the year of the Nakba, when 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homes and lands), 1967, and 2000. Since the maps show how Palestine “shrinks,” the kids ask where the people go. I have a slide ready: There are 6 million Palestinians who cannot go home.
This year, after we talk about how Palestinians continue to be forced from their homes, we look at what it’s like for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. I show the students footage of Palestinian children in Hebron scurrying to school on rooftops to avoid Israeli soldiers (Secret Hebron: The School Run, see Resources at the end of this article). I show only the first few minutes, which document the Palestinian kids on their way to school. We discuss how Israel controls the aquifer under the West Bank and all access—including food, water, medical supplies—to Gaza. We also talk about the Israeli tactic of bulldozing houses to seize land.
My students have many questions and they are indignant. It’s not hard to make children indignant, though. My task is to get them to make connections.
Jennifer asks, “So Israel is like a fake country?”
I can see that Henry is trying to work something out. “Wait,” he asks, “are their bodies illegal?”
I ask him what he means. It’s hard for him to explain, so he just repeats the question. Henry has made a connection that most adults don’t: If the food, water, and shelter of a group of humans is controlled to the point that they can no longer survive in a place, are the occupiers saying that those bodies are “illegal,” that they have no right to exist?
I try to answer Henry: “What do you think? Is the Israeli government trying to tell Palestinians they are illegal? That they have no right to live in Hebron or Gaza or the West Bank?”
I decide to use the word “colonization” to describe what they are seeing because it’s politically accurate and it connects to our other social studies units. When I ask them if they’ve seen other maps like this, they remember very similar maps illustrating what happened to Indigenous lands in the United States; we studied those maps during our first social studies unit of year. 
Several students say, “Israel should give Palestine its land back.”
Then they make the connection back to the maps of the United States: “And they should give the land back to the Native Americans.”
“Who is ‘they’?” I ask.
“The Spaniards,” several students respond, but then they hesitate. Because actually, it’s us. And I’m not sure what to do at this point. I want to be careful not to lead them to the divisive idea that it’s us or them, but that we can strive for a world where there is justice for Indigenous people and where all people’s needs are met. It’s a lot to think about, even for an adult. I ask more questions: What Native Americans lived and still live on the land where we live now. How can we be fair to them today? Ultimately, my goal is to encourage more thinking about their questions, not to generate a pat answer.
In order to breathe some life into other countries of the Middle East, I use picture books. This year I started with Suzane Del Rizzo’s My Beautiful Birds. The child in this book flees the bombing of his city and walks with his family to a refugee camp. His distress manifests itself in his concern for the pigeons he took care of back home. Did they survive the bombing? There is hope in the end when he sees new birds flying overhead who remind him of his birds back home. The book never mentions Syria, but it says in the afterward that it is based on the experiences of Syrians fleeing their homes. When one of my students asks, “Why isthere a war in Syria?” I honestly don’t know how to answer. I tell him it’s an important question, although in reality, my own ignorance prevents me from shedding more light on the subject. The question goes on the poster in our room for questions without easy answers. The topic goes on my list of things to research.
Then we read Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra. This book is based on a true story of a librarian in Basra, Iraq, who manages to save most of the books in the library by hiding them in her home. I love using the book because saving books from burning is a rich topic at any grade level and it portrays Iraqis as intelligent, literate people taking collective action. However, the book talks about war and bombs dropped without ever mentioning the US. It would be a great text for a critical literacy unit on silences in literature. However, in this still-developing unit and my limited timeframe, I simply tell my kids that it was the US dropping bombs. In my own reflections afterward, I note that the US as aggressor is often absent from children’s books that are ultimately about US imperialism.
The Librarian of Basra lines up perfectly with a multiplication lesson. I invent a diagram of the librarian’s house with a variety of different-sized rooms. I tell the kids that she had stacks of books in each room. For each room, I tell them how many stacks and how many books in each stack. They then get to work calculating how many books are stacked in each room and then, for some of them, how many books in the house. The numbers are ones I manufacture, of course, but it’s a way to carry on the story and to make the kids part of it.
Al-Kwarismi’s Magic Function Machine
I also incorporate bits of history that show how people from the Middle East have contributed to our collective knowledge. When we get to the section of the math curriculum on function boxes, I introduce “Al-Kwarismi’sAl-Jabr Function Machine.” My box is literally a shoebox covered in tissue paper that says “Al-Kwarismi’s Al-Jabr Function Machine” on the side. There are slits on either end labeled “input” and “output.” I tell the kids that al-jabr means algebra in Arabic, and that they are learning advanced mathematics and a word in Arabic. Using the box just takes a little bit of drama. I pretend I’m putting a number in the box, press an imaginary button, make the machine do some mechanical jerking and sighing, and pretend that it has spit the number out. On the board, we record the numbers that go in and the numbers that come out so the kids can figure out what the function is. I tell them that the father of algebra, Mohamed ibn Musa Al-Kwarismi, was from Baghdad, Iraq. “That’s where we live!” exclaim the kids at the Iraq table.
These are all small things. None of them feel like enough, but there are so many “have-to’s” and so little time.
Although what I teach is comparable to a lot of Eurocentric social studies curriculum, I still get raised eyebrows. Sometimes I’m told that these topics aren’t “developmentally appropriate.” However, my kids have given me no indication of this. They are incredibly caring and thirsty for information. I think the actual truth is that most adults in this country are numb to the horrors of war and occupation and, consciously or unconsciously, believe the dominant narratives: The people we bomb are less human than we are and/or somehow they deserve it.
I seriously question which topics are covered and not covered in the standards and which children are sheltered when we say “developmentally appropriate.” For me, the total silence in the elementary school curriculum about so many parts of the world—including Africa and Asia, as well as the Middle East—is part and parcel of the white supremacist narrative that too often has a devastating impact on the development of Black and Brown children. One of my teachers once said, “We must humanize the world so that it becomes impossible to pull the trigger.” This is my goal.
For the Classroom:
Addasi, Maha (2017). The White Nights of Ramadan. Illustrated by Ned Gannon. Boyds Mill Press.
Baillie, Donna, director(2003). Secret Hebron: The School Run. 28 minutes. Journeyman Pictures.
Del Rizzo, Suzanne (2017). My Beautiful Birds. Pajama Press
Nye, Naomi Shihab (1997). Sitti’s Secrets. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Aladdin Picture Books.
Rumford, James (2008). Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad. Roaring Brook Press.
Williams, Karen Lynn and Khadra Mohammed (2007). Four Feet Two Sandals. Illustrated by Doug Chaykra. Eerdmans.
Winter, Jeanette (2005). The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. HMH Books for Young Readers.
Lyons, Jonathan (2010).The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. Bloomsbury Press.
Teresi, Dick (2003). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya. Fourth Edition. Simon & Schuster.
Calling the continent Eurasia is a political choice. The arbitrary divide between Europe and Asia is a cultural and historical construct rooted in European supremacy. Also, when you teach third graders that a continent is a giant plate of land, Eurasia makes a whole lot more sense.
During our “All Maps Tell a Story” in the beginning of the year, we explore the different stories that a map can tell about a place. Two of the maps we look at are a traditional map of the United States showing the 50 states and a map of the United States that depicts Indigenous land over time.
Function boxes are also called “in and out boxes.” Numbers change by an unknown function when they go in the box (e.g., multiply by 7 or subtract 2) and the kids have to figure out what “happens” to the numbers inside the box. Each round you put numbers in until the kids figure out the function and can test it. The function changes after each round.