Curriculum gives kids the big picture of Israels past

More than 1,000 American teachers now have access to a curriculum that the S.F based Jewish Community Relations Council introduced two years ago to counteract anti-Israel biases in 10th-grade world history books.

"Before we introduced `Israel and Syria: Windows on Nationalism,' I would receive calls from parents and teachers complaining that they didn't have any materials [with which] to teach about Israel," says Jackie Berman, education specialist for the JCRC. "Now when we get those calls, I am happy because I have something of value to give them."

The state framework for 10th-grade world history classes mandates the study of at least one of four regions that are not considered part of Western civilization. The Middle East is one of those areas, but because of limited time and resources teachers often skip it or rush through it, says Judith Jarman, head of the world history department at Fresno High School. The lessons in "Israel and Syria: Windows on Nationalism" provide teachers with well-organized background materials and activities involving class participation.

Jarman, who is also the modern world history curriculum chairperson for the Fresno Unified School District, was so impressed when she first received the materials that she immediately started distributing them to colleagues in her school and district.

"I just give them to any teacher I think might be able to use them, especially new teachers, and they are so happy," says Jarman.

"Some teachers think that because it comes from the Jewish community the lessons will be slanted in Israel's favor," she says. "But when they read them, they discover the materials are factual and allow teachers and students to draw their own conclusions."

Funded by grants from the Koret Foundation and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the curriculum is a recommended resource in the state's course model.

However, the individual school districts and teachers decide whether they will use the curriculum, says Diane Brooks, administrator of history and social sciences for the California Department of Education.

"The materials support the history and social science framework on nationalism in the Middle East for the 10th grade," Brooks says. "They encourage students to use analytical skills to form reasonable, sound decisions about some controversial issues."

Jarman agrees. "The lessons encourage students to work in groups, solve problems, read a play and actively think about the issues."

Sandra Shure, who teaches modern world history at SanFrancisco's Lowell High School, agrees.

"It's more fun to read a play than a chapter in a textbook," she says. Shure, who plans to use the materials this spring, says the curriculum gives students the whole picture.

The curriculum, which includes 36 lessons on subjects ranging from history and geography to conflict and culture, is also praised for its broad base of information.

"Because the lessons are so complete," Jarman says, "teachers can either use the whole thing or pick and choose what they need."

Amy Kumpf, world history teacher at Vintage High School in Napa, used the alphabets and recipes for her Middle East culture day. She also used the history readings to teach her students about diaspora. "It was hard to find consistent information about diaspora," Kumpf says. "But you can take a reading from the binder and build a lesson around that."

Although the lessons are specific to Israel and Syria, Berman says, they lend themselves to understanding nationalism in other nations as well.

"Israel and Syria are two different nations with two different societies and senses of nationalism. Teachers can transfer that understanding to other examples of nationalism like the former republic of Yugoslavia."

With the help of Jarman and other JCRCs in the state, Berman distributes the materials through workshops at social studies conventions and conferences, attracting anywhere from 30 to 75 teachers at a time.

During a typical workshop, Berman gives a demonstration of the curriculum by teaching a sample lesson using some of the materials.

"So far the response has been all positive," she says.

When introducing teachers to a new curriculum, "the most effective way is empowering one teacher at a time," she says. "In turn, they will use it and share it with other teachers."