The 2020-201 MENA-SEA Teacher Program kicked off its first session virtually on Saturday, September 12, with historical overviews of the Middle East and North Africa, and of Southeast Asia by Professors Juan Cole and Webb Keane respectively.

Eight new teachers have joined the second iteration of the program. Though hailing from various towns in the “mitten” state, they all share passion and dedication to soaking up what the program has to offer and bringing the lessons back to their students and colleagues.

Susan Bertoni of North Farmington High School applied to the program for the “series of opportunities to deepen my body of knowledge about Muslim communities around the world.” She, her students, and colleagues will “benefit from the wider perspectives offered from Southeast Asian and North African Muslims, adding this multiplicity to their “collective body of knowledge about the religions, culture, and politics of the Muslim world.” She elaborates on the importance of these wider perspectives, especially in the classroom: “As a liaison for bilingual students and co-teacher, I am able to engage in dialogue with both students and staff about other cultures and religions, both formally and informally. Non-Muslim students are curious about Islam; Muslim students are often but not always shy to speak about their religion. Within my role as co-teacher, I have often been witness to - and sometimes have participated in - what I call ‘breakthrough moments’ in which misconceptions about culture and religion are cleared up through spontaneous conversations among peers.”

Similarly, Amy Frontier, an English teacher at Pioneer High School, hopes that the MENA-SEA Teacher Program will “equip me with even more resources and ideas so that students can learn about the rich diversity the world has to offer.” She regularly seeks “resources, ideas, and themes that I can integrate into my classroom teaching.” She begins each of her Contemporary World Literature classes with students analyzing and discussing themes related to an image of an event from somewhere in the world. Besides the content knowledge and tools, Frontier also looks forward from the program “to meeting and collaborating with colleagues, as I find that working with other teachers is an extremely valuable and enriching experience.”

Ross Newman teaches history at Monroe High School. He too welcomes “becoming part of the MENA-SEA learning community,” for, he anticipates, it will give way to “an entirely new avenue of deeper and more meaningful learning in the classroom.” “The challenge I grapple with as an educator, especially in the district I call home,” says Newman, “is how to impress upon my students that an entire world exists beyond their city and county borders. … Becoming a responsible global citizen requires curriculum embedded with cultural diversity. Depth in understanding global cultures is the foundation for understanding the dynamics of our ever-changing world today.”

Barbara Gazda’s goal from the MENA-SEA Teacher Program is to return to her AP Comparative Government and Politics class at Hartland High School with more knowledge and resources to enrich her students' understanding of the world beyond their predominantly white and Christian county. Additionally, Gazda and a school colleague are designing a class focused on social justice. “I believe that the information from this program will prove invaluable to me as we develop this new class. We are hoping that it will help instill a new sense of understanding within the school community which could then go into the community at large.”

Working in a homogeneous environment, Kymberli A. Wregglesworth wants to expand her students’ curriculum. “I live and teach in a community that is not diverse racially, ethnically, or religiously. My students are generally exposed to only people who look like them, talk like them, and worship like them. This will not be the case, however, when they go out into the wider world, and I feel that it is my responsibility as their teacher to expose them to as much diversity as possible, even within the confines of our remote, rural community.” Wregglesworth teaches world history and world cultures at Onaway Secondary School, and is excited about her own personal and professional growth. This program will “connect me with experts in cultural diversity, fellow like-minded educators, and offer the possibility of travel to locations I have not yet experienced.” 

The field of education is “constantly changing,” says Susan Syme. “And in my desire to continue to be an engaging, highly-effective teacher, I need to continue to grow personally and professionally.” Unlike Wregglesworth and Gazda, she teaches in the highly diverse community of Troy and wants to be better prepared to meet the needs of her students: “Troy is truly an international community. The more I know and understand about the cultures in the homes of my students, the better I can address their educational and social-emotional needs.”

As the K-12 Social Studies consultant for the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, David Hales seeks to support the multiple constituents in his district. “Demographically, Wayne County is one of the most, if not the most, diverse county in the state of Michigan culturally, racially, religiously and economically. In addition, immigrants make up almost 10% of the population of Wayne County, many coming from the regions of the Middle East, North African, and Southeast Asia. … [The MENA-SEA Teacher Program] will help me to both deepen my own knowledge as well as help me to better serve the schools and communities that I support in Wayne County by becoming better aware of the educational resources and opportunities available for teachers and students.” At the heart of Hales’ work is sharing his experiences and knowledge with his colleagues, which he greatly looks forward to during this year. 

Although the majority of the nine sessions will be carried out over Zoom this year, Karen Leland Libby believes the program will “revitalize educators, especially in these challenging times.” Libby teaches humanities at Interlochen Arts Academy. Her students are largely immersed in the arts which, with “depth, creativity, and passion” facilitate topical understandings. She is eager to gain knowledge and resources in this program to design a curriculum “that offers my students avenues for connection with people of the Middle East, Southeast Asia or Arab Americans through experiencing their artistic, intellectual and religious traditions.” Libby also touches on the importance of forging connections and creating a sense of community: “In...a time of deep uncertainty in all of our lives, one thing remains clear for me: the value of being in an educational community with others to forge a more peaceful and secure world.”

“[Every] opportunity we can create to influence a student’s global perspective,” Gazda says, “is one step closer to a more compassionate and understanding adult.” The MENA-SEA Teacher Program is proud to provide these teachers with such opportunities throughout the academic year. The program meets once a month on a Saturday; the next session will be on October 31st -- Halloween! -- and will address the diversity of Islam in the two geographic regions.