Starkville K-12 teachers travel to Israel, Jordan with MSU program

June 13, 2017 10:28:23 AM

Cristina Carreon - [email protected]


Four Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District teachers, as well as Mississippi State University students and professors, are traveling in the Middle East for an educational archeology trip offered through the Fulbright-Hays grant awarded last year. 


Kate McClellan, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at MSU, most recently worked in the Middle East in 2014 and is leading this tour through Jordan for two weeks. 


"This group has done some background reading on Middle Eastern history, culture, society and politics as part of the program, and they will hear a number of scholarly lectures throughout the trip," McClellan said. 


James Hardin, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at MSU, will lead the tour through Israel for 2 1/2 weeks. Hardin was unavailable for comment. 


The group began its journey in Israel on Thursday and will go to Jordan on June 26. Participants will return home on July 10. 


Twelve participants, including four MSU students and six total K-12 teachers, will meet with local archaeologists, museum staff and scholars on the tour, learning basic phrases in Hebrew and Arabic and sharing their experiences through blogging and lesson-plan activities. 


Specifically, group members will observe an archaeological dig at Khirbet Summeily in Israel and end the trip with a Jordanian cooking class, McClellan said. 


Anna Price teaches first-grade at Sudduth Elementary. She taught Hardin's daughter and heard about the program through Hardin's wife.  


"I've always internally struggled with mission work. So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to see if I like being in another country," she said. 


Ronda Stroud, a second-grade teacher at Ward Stewart Elementary, was skeptical about joining the program after hearing about it from Price. But after a long talk, Stroud's boyfriend convinced her to go. 


"He said, 'you'd be an idiot not to try it,'" she said. 


Kellie Gartman, a first-grade teacher at Sudduth, filled a spot for a teacher who had dropped out of the trip. She, her husband and 6-year-old daughter postponed a Disney vacation so Gartman could visit the Holy Land. 


SHS high school teacher Ashia Gandy, along with Choctaw County teacher Cody Rader and West Point teacher Caroline Pochop, also took the trip. 


Collective memory 


The group is studying "collective memory" and how it can be used to solve issues with disputed areas like contested land, buildings, monuments or documents. 


"We have the same thing going on in our country, especially between the U.S. government and Native Americans. What better way to understand this than to be in a place that has been around for so many centuries?" Gartman said. 


The W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and The American Center of Oriental Research in Jordan will be base points for the group.  


"At both of these institutions, they will get the chance to see how American research centers operate in the Middle East, including their involvement in important archaeological work in both of these countries," McClellan said. 


They hope to visit a Bedouin high school and possibly a Middle Eastern elementary school. They will also be present during the Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Fitr, which happens at the end of Ramadan when fasting is over. 


"It will end on a celebration. It's going to be chaotic in the streets. There's going to be rockets," Price said. 


Masada, an ancient, natural fortress in the Judean Desert said to have seen a mass suicide of Jews in response to Roman occupation in the First Jewish-Roman War, is another stop on the trip that includes visits to the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Ancient cities like Petra and Amann are also on the agenda. The group will also visit Feynan Ecolodge, a mountain-top hotel without electricity in Jordan. 




Bringing lessons home 


Changing demographics in the student population at MSU and SOCSD is one factor behind this trip to the Middle East.  


"For the longest time in our district, we had a large Asian population with children from China and Korea. ... Suddenly, we are starting to see more Arab and Middle Eastern students coming in," Gartman said. 


Stroud experienced a language barrier with two Middle Eastern students in her class. 


"I had two students, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Iraq ... one spoke English and the other did not, so for the first two weeks, he cried all day because the communication was not there," Stroud said. 


Gartman hopes to bring in a local Middle Eastern family to talk to her first graders, making a meal and having the kids help. Price hopes knowledge gained from the trip will make its way into her lesson plans. 


The group could encounter issues of terrorism, war, and internal conflict firsthand on the journey. During an MSU archaeological dig in 2014, Hardin led a group through southern Israel, cutting it short due to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students in West Bank. 


"The stigma of these places is so negative. I think that us going there, hopefully, will help us change our students' attitudes about these places. So they know it's not always about war," Price said. 


The teachers hope to change perceptions about the Middle East through their work as educators in the Starkville school district.  


"It's fear of the unknown. They may not believe like we do. But their basic needs and feelings are the same. We've got to teach our children not to hate them because their different," Gartman said.