The five major senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste provide creative and memorable opportunities for engaging students of all ages. On March 18, 2021, Barbara Petzen, director of training initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, led educators in innovative ways to understand the diversity of the historical and contemporary Middle East. The session explored and demonstrated a variety of sensory approaches, adaptable to in-person or virtual learning environments. 

“Not solely words on a page,” Petzen described Middle Eastern history and culture. They are “lived experiences that can be taught using each of our senses.” She encouraged teachers to use sensory activities to learn about and empathize with people of the past and present, to ask questions, and to think imaginatively. Petzen began with a visual analysis of Nighttime in a City, a 16th-century miniature painting by Persian artist Mir Sayyid Ali. She invited attendees to imagine themselves journeying through the Persian city depicted in this piece of art. Petzen described and interpreted the imagery of the night sky, animals, and inhabitants, all the while instructing about how to engage with the artistic portrayal. Diverging from textbook paragraphs, this exercise led teachers in strategies to teach and learn about the social, economic, and cultural life in early modern and urban Persia. 

Petzen then turned to utilizing the senses of taste and smell. Using Google Maps to mark the origins of spices which have become commonplace flavorings in our food, Petzen placed waypoint pins on specific countries and regions located along historic trade routes. She encouraged teachers to consider with students the multiple purposes -- cooking, medicine, or incense burning? -- of spices across time and place. To engage the sense of hearing, educators then compared a segment of African-American folk music to a muezzin’s call to prayer, identifying the integration of sounds into the former.

The creation of an interactive museum exhibit concluded the session’s activities. In breakout rooms, teachers engaged with a variety of sensory objects representing all three major religious traditions of the Middle East and North Africa. Together they thematically connected the objects within their curated collections. 

Petzen helped one teacher to “look for ways that go beyond the text when introducing students to new material. Creating a more tangible sense of a new world for students may help them find different ways ‘in’ to a new subject and illustrate a more complete picture of something they think they know about.“

“How to Teach about the Middle East—and Get it Right!” offers five interactive sessions, between January and May 2021, featuring resources and strategies for teaching about the region relevant to both in-person and virtual teaching. The program is a collaboration between the Duke–UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, both National Resource Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Recordings of each session, as they become available, can be found here.