Islam in the Classroom: Teachers and parents alike are unsure about the topic, but it’s never been more important
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Recommended Books on Islam for K-12
Islam proved a tough subject for Coco Huguet when she went looking for resources to use with a fifth-grade global history class at the Hewitt School five years ago. “I looked all over the Internet for teaching material on [Islam] and couldn’t find anything,” says the English and history teacher at the all-girls school on New York’s Upper East Side. “Up until a few years ago, there was very little, especially for younger kids.”
But this fall, Huguet’s students will read the novels The Breadwinner (Groundwood, 2001) by Deborah Ellis and Andrew Clements’s Extra Credit (Atheneum, 2009), along with a National Geographic history reference, The Islamic World (2005)—as part of an attempt to enhance student understanding of the religion from an academic viewpoint and also provide a deeper context to the concerns permeating today’s headlines. “This year they’re going to be more aware,” says Huguet. “Some of these issues, especially Afghanistan and the division you see about the Mosque are coming to a head.”
Between recent threats by a Florida pastor to burn the Quran, our nation’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan, and protests at the planned site for Park 51, an Islamic community center and mosque set to be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site, the topic of Islam is a tricky one, especially in K–12 schools, say many educators.
For starters, it can be difficult to find appropriate materials to bring into media centers and classrooms. And then, parents can object to Islam being taught to their children, as protest groups across the Internet can attest. Of all major religious groups in the United States, Muslims trigger the most feelings of prejudice among Americans, according to a poll released in January by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. More than four in 10 Americans, or 43 percent, admitted to feeling at least “a little” prejudice against Muslims—as compared to 18 percent feeling similarly toward Christians, and 14 and 13 percent toward Jews and Buddhists respectively. And just 37 percent of Americans say they even know a Muslim American personally, according to a recent Time-Abt SRBI poll, with 46 percent believing that Islam actually supports the idea of its followers bringing harm to nonbelievers.
This prejudice can play out when organizations hear of Islamic culture being taught in schools, as Linda Tubach discovered when she launched a weekend professional development course for Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) teachers four years ago. “The Anti-Defamation League sent observers for a couple of years, and one person objected because [the class] was on the Jewish Sabbath,” says the retired high school social studies teacher, who runs the program through the interfaith group Fellowship of Reconciliation, which offers teachers salary point credit for the two-day course. “But that’s subsided, and our last class had no observers. People just seem to accept it at this point, and we feel very good about that.”
Participating teachers travel to the Helen Bernstein Professional Development Center in downtown Los Angeles to create lesson plans and review Internet sites for use in K–12 classes. They’re also treated to Middle Eastern luncheons and dancing. But the goal of the class is for educators to learn how to encourage questions and dialogue among K–12 students, specifically on the subject of Islam.
In a recent session, Tubach had two teachers role play—one assuming the role of an Israeli and the other a Palestinian—acting out a historic event from different viewpoints. The hope is that by addressing real history and potential stereotyping together, teachers will treat the subject matter with more confidence in a classroom setting. “People worry about backlash when they take on these issues,” says Tubach. “But we found you can handle that successfully if you design a class that meets high standards.”
But few students have an opportunity to take a class on world religions—let alone Islam. With budget cuts fairly standard across U.S. school districts, electives beyond the standard English, science, history, and mathematics courses are pretty limited. “Our school can’t afford to have more exotic classes because we’re already cutting back on others,” says Mithi Hossain, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan. “We did have a college-level course on Arabic after school. But that’s a language. And it was cut.”
Hossain, who serves as vice president of Stuy’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), is very passionate about her Muslim identity. She’s worn a hijab since the fifth grade and wishes more students at her school—beyond MSA’s 25 members—understood details about Islam. While elementary school is a little early to introduce the topic, she says, she believes that certainly high school students should be educated in the nuances of world religions. “When you’re going out into the world, you can’t rely on stereotypes to make decisions,” she says. “I believe school is the right place to learn about these subjects like Islam, as long as it’s not biased. I know that’s a very difficult thing to do. But if it’s coming from a teacher who is well educated and not from a Muslim background, then sometimes it’s more acceptable. Sometimes people are more willing to hear from a person with a different background than what they’re teaching.”
Knowing how to craft such a lesson is key. For teachers who don’t have access to professional development programs like Tubach’s, guidance on how to structure lesson plans is available online. New York’s Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has a “Teachable Moment” section on its site, which covers subjects from “Engaging the Muslim World” to a fairly topical one called “NYC Muslim Community Center: Why There? Why Not?”, which includes tips on how to guide a student discussion on U.S. and Muslim relations.
Schools across the country have accessed these lessons and have also been helped directly by Tala Manassah, deputy executive director of the Morningside Center, who believes that a properly constructed course can be effective in combating stereotypes. “You want to approach this from a historical side so they have some context,” says Manassah. “Because some of this squawking that goes on with controversial issues comes from ignorance.”
Nancy Gallin might concur. The history department chair at the Hewitt School for the past 15 years occasionally encounters queries from students that give her pause. “You’ll get the odd questions like, ‘Are Catholics Christians?’” she says.
But her students are taught about Islam through multiple disciplines and over many years to help stem that lack of knowledge. In the eighth grade, students learn how the Quran figures as a document of religious law, while ninth graders study the Crusades and the extension of Islam into Europe. By 10th grade, they’re prepared to examine the religion within a more current context. “My general approach is to note similarities between today and history,” says Gallin. “Because of the Muslim Community Center, I’ll talk this year about the fact that xenophobia goes back to the Alien and Sedition Acts [of 1798]. And I’ll connect that to the point that even though we live in a country with such an eclectic culture, some people think they’re more real of an American than others.”
Yet even a well-prepared teacher can watch a spirited conversation among students about burqas and the Five Pillars of Islam dissolve into a heated argument or even cross into proselytizing. Knowing not just how to present material, but how students may even respond, can make the difference.
Diane Moore helped pilot an online program, launched this fall through Harvard Divinity School, to turn public school teachers into peer scholars who can then teach the topic of Islam to fellow educators.
“One of the main things we’ll be working with is not just content, but how do you teach about [Islam] and what you should be attentive to,” says Moore, a professor of the Practice in Religious Studies and Education, and director of the Program in Religious Studies and Education at Harvard. “Content knowledge is not insignificant, but it is the how of teaching religion that is really critical. How do you introduce the subject to your students when they have their own misperceptions? So part of it is anticipating what your students already think about this.”
That kind of teaching may be imperative in helping teachers overcome concerns that prevent them from even broaching the topic of Islam or Muslims in class—even if they believe these are subjects that could be helpful for their students. “There’s a real consensus that public schools need to teach more about religious diversity and aren’t doing a better job because so many teachers are afraid of touching the topic with a 10-foot pole,” says Henry Goldschmidt, program associate with the Interfaith Center of New York, which runs professional development courses for teachers every summer.
For the two dozen or so educators who come for the weeklong program in New York, the Interfaith Center offers visits with community religious leaders including those from the Jewish, Santería, and Christian faiths, lectures from academic experts, and even field trips to different houses of worship—outings K–12 teachers can arrange for their own classes. The hope is that teachers will see religion as more a base of lived traditions and not just historical doctrines—and in that way make the subject more accessible and alive to K–12 students.
“That’s one of the reasons K–12 curriculum is reduced to historical facts and dates,” says Goldschmidt. “It’s simpler for students and teachers to get their hands around that. But while they may be able to recite the Ten Commandments, they may not have any understanding of the lives of Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews living in America today.”
But that’s not going to be the issue with Gallin’s students at Hewitt this fall. Every Thursday morning, the school holds a town meeting—usually filled with reminders for children to bring in permission slips, or about parent conferences. However, Gallin says she’s going to use the time to keep the school community more aware of the current issues surrounding Islam.
“I’m going to call people’s attention to what’s going on in downtown New York, in particular, with Islam,” she says. “I think if we’re assuming these young women are going to be citizens of the world, they should know what’s happening around them.”
Lauren Barack is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Resources for Teaching About Islam
Luckily, you can find a lot more material online today than in recent years. Many organizations offer K-12 curricular guides, and while it's still a challenge to find content for younger grades, these re-sources are a good place to start:
Ten multimedia lessons for grades 4-8 about Islamic holidays, traditions, and cultures, from Ramadan to the Quran.
Children's Book Study Guides: The Librarian of Basra and Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
A way to introduce the Iraq war to younger children by discussing the Library of Basra that burned.
Information on Islam
Woodland Junior School, Kent, England
Offers simple history questions for younger students complete with photographs and a multi-faith cal-endar.
Extra Credit study guide
Guidance for teachers to help students discuss the story of two sixth graders, a young girl in Illinois and a boy in Afghanistan, who become pen pals.
Geometry and Islam
A student activity that incorporates Islamic textiles and architecture.
Teaching on Controversial Issues:
Guidelines for Teachers
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
A teacher guide to presenting complicated and potentially controversial subjects.
NYC Muslim Community Center: Why there? Why not?
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
Background regarding the proposed mosque and community center, with guidelines for conducting a discussion with students.
Islam, Empire of Faith
PBS Educational Resources
The first of five lessons aimed at students in grades 6-12.
The World of Islam
National Geographic story on Islam, with links to online forums, bibliographies, Muslim organiza-tions, and a digital Quran.