A Multiple Narratives Approach
By Samia Shoman
NOTE: See “Independence or Catastrophe? Teaching Palestine Through Multiple Perspectives” for Dr. Shoman’s description of how this curriculum looks in the classroom.
A few years ago, one of my former students shared an essay she wrote for her college applications with me. Here is part of what she wrote:
I was assigned a Palestinian history teacher when I entered high school, and I quickly came to realize that there was more to being Jewish than I knew. Through our Palestine-Israel unit, I was exposed to perspectives that made clear that Jews share responsibility for the conflict in the Middle East. This epiphany not only challenged my perception of Jews as perfect, it also made me curious to learn more. Instead of assuming my tolerance of other religions, I became motivated to understand the diversity around me. I decided to make high school the grounds for my investigations. I sought out people with different backgrounds and cultures from my own. My closest friend is Iraqi. By asking questions, thinking twice, and listening attentively to other people’s opinions, I have been able to shed some of my ignorance. The experience has been liberating.
As a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, it has been a challenge to teach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—not because I am Palestinian, but because this is not a conflict or war of equal powers, yet as educators we are asked to ensure a “balanced” curriculum that is equal to both sides. No matter what I have done to ensure that all sides are represented, there are some people who can never get past the fact that I am a Palestinian. I have been accused of using biased materials. The accusations did not come from my students or their families, but from an outside organization. Because of these accusations, my curriculum has been vetted by numerous outside sources at the request of our district and county office of education. Although I was confident in the curriculum and am a veteran teacher, this scrutiny caused me a great deal of stress, anxiety, and frustration. There were times when I sat in a bathroom stall at work and cried, times when I understood that what was happening was a microcosm of the greater conflict, and times when I was so inspired by the thoughtfulness of my students as they wrestled with the history and reality of the conflict that I forgot about everything that was happening to me.
Why a Multiple Narratives Approach?
I teach Palestinian-Israeli history from a multiple narratives approach. Because this approach relies on students’ critical analysis of original sources representing many points of view, I have been successful in building my students’ content knowledge about the area and their ability to thinking critically at the same time that I have successfully defended my curriculum from concerted Zionist attacks.
I recommend this approach to other teachers who are in situations where they are vulnerable to similar politically motivated scrutiny. It challenges students to learn historical content, synthesize content, and develop critical analysis skills. In addition, it invites students to come to their own conclusions given the content they have learned, which helps avoid controversy and criticism. It allows educators opportunities to teach students both historical content and important historical thinking skills.
The rationale behind multiple narratives is the attempt to balance the idea of history as a discipline based on facts with the idea of history as a collection of human experiences and memories based on a person’s own perspective. Students are presented with historical facts and also exposed to various Palestinian and Israeli perspectives and narratives about those events. The idea is to keep students open to outcomes. Although there are definitely historical facts I expect students to learn, I don’t dictate conclusions. The multiple narratives approach creates opportunities for students to synthesize the facts with different perspectives and narratives, and come to a truth or multiple truths about the conflict.
Although this often challenges students with close ties to the region or strong opinions, my experience is that they grow as much or more than other students. For example, here’s an excerpt from a thank you letter one of my 10th graders wrote several years ago:
You have inspired me in so many ways and broadened my perspective immensely, especially when learning about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Going to a Jewish school for nine years, I didn’t even know Palestinians refer to Israel’s independence as the catastrophe and I was shocked to hear this. I really am glad, though, that I learned a lot more about the conflict from multiple perspectives. This unit taught me about the other side I had never learned about and showed me how no one is innocent and both sides need to make sacrifices to move forward. I will not stand by as either side abuses people’s basic rights. One of the most important things I will take away from your class is that in the end we are all human and despite our differences we all deserve our natural rights and be treated with dignity.
Teaching about this conflict can be done. And more importantly, a justice-based approach can be used. As challenging as this can be, the reward is seeing students flourish as they think, question, and engage. They will come in to talk between classes and during your off periods because they are so perplexed by the situation, and you will feel validated that you have instilled a sense of urgency and humanity in them. The potential for high levels of student engagement, processing, and ability to draw their own conclusions about one of the most critical and controversial situations in the world should inspire and motivate educators to teach about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Introduction to the Unit Outline
Before beginning the Palestine/Israel unit, I dedicate 1-2 days to reviewing the geography and political landscape of the MENA region. The first day consists of completing and reviewing a survey on the Middle East. Then the students generate questions on the Middle East and people from the region. Throughout the unit, I address the questions (usually 2-3 a day). Students are always encouraged to offer their own answers to the questions; some questions we can’t answer. I ask students to complete maps of the MENA countries. We discuss and take notes on the difference between and overlap of Arabs and people from the Middle East. This is followed by a lesson on common perceptions and myths associated with the Middle East and Arab world.
Then I take a couple of days to set context and introduce the multiple narrative pedagogy through which we will study the conflict. When the students understand the approach, we go straight into the historical content.
The lessons presented are outlined in simple form and include the materials I used. All of these lessons can be adjusted or supplemented with additional or different readings and multimedia presentations. As you make additions and revisions, choose material that will lend itself to the multiple narratives approach. It has been a few years since I have been in the classroom teaching this unit, so you will probably want to update materials for the current situation, as well as topics that have been highlighted recently, such as Jerusalem (2018). I encourage educators to address this issue, as well as others, as they use parts or all of this unit.
I use as many primary sources documents, sources, and media as possible.
There are two final assessments for the unit: The first involves preparing for a United Nations conference on resolving the conflict; the second asks students to create a product (writing, art, music, etc.) that reflects their understanding and/or reactions to the unit. The conference assignment is academic in nature and is not a debate. The truth assignment is open-ended and allows students an opportunity to express conclusions and feelings about the unit. The student work is hung up in class for other students to see.
Following is a potential lesson outline with lesson topics and materials. Like all teachers, I continually review, renew, and update materials based on the current situation and exposure to new documents and ideas. Too frequently, certain lessons go untaught due to time restrictions. Please use and/or modify any materials you think might be helpful. You might want to adapt materials you already use to this framework of multiple narratives.
You can download an outline of this unit with links to all materials here:
Please note: Videos that are too big for download can be accessed by links that go directly to their sites. You can download them from there.