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Published in Print: April 24, 2002, as Student-Teacher Says Islam Lessons Cost Him Internship

Student-Teacher Says Islam Lessons Cost Him Internship

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A student-teacher in Maine has been dismissed from his internship at a high school after students and parents contended that a unit he prepared for a world history class stepped over the line between informing students about Islam and advocating the faith.

Stephen Kent Jones, a student in the graduate teaching program at the University of Maine in Orono, was told to leave Old Town High School last month, midway through his internship, amid complaints that the content of his lessons and his instructional approach were inappropriate.

While the history and culture of the Middle East and Islam, the region's dominant religion, have taken on a larger role in the curriculum since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, they have not lost their potential for controversy. Mr. Jones, 34, said he believed he could present the topic objectively by having students read and compare passages from the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible.

"I knew about the subject matter's [controversial nature], and I knew it should pass through as many eyes as possible," he said in an interview this month.

Officials in the 1,100-student Old Town school district, where he was fulfilling his student-teaching requirement, approved the unit, and Mr. Jones' advisers in the graduate teaching program rewarded his work with an A.

University officials would not discuss specific information about Mr. Jones or his dismissal, citing student-privacy laws, but stated that when a district raises concerns about a student-teacher, the intern is generally reassigned.

"We definitely see our student-teachers as guests in those cooperating schools," said Robert A. Cobb, the university's dean of education. "There have been occasions where if it doesn't appear to be in the best interest of the student-teacher or in the best interest of the K-12 students for the student-teacher to remain in that setting, we will reassign them."

Mr. Cobb said, however, that reassignments occur infrequently.

District officials did not return phone calls or e-mail messages seeking comment on the matter.

But Martin Clark, the teacher assigned to supervise Mr. Jones, told the Bangor Daily News that he had received many complaints about the student-teacher's "long, rambling lectures with no point," and that the lectures seemed to have "a strong religious angle." He added that Mr. Jones refused to "tone down" his lesson after the veteran teacher told him of the complaints.

The student-teacher, however, maintains that his mentor had nothing but praise for his work.

Student Complaints

Nick Perkins, a student in one of the three classes to which Mr. Jones was assigned, has said he was offended by some of the student-teacher's lessons.

"Mr. Jones said he thought he was ousted because of his curriculum," Mr. Perkins and a classmate wrote in a letter to the Bangor newspaper. "While his curriculum was controversial, we were open to learning about Islamic culture. We found his teaching methods to be offensive and degrading."

The student-teacher, for example, chastised students on several occasions, Mr. Perkins said in an interview, when their responses to a question soliciting opinions did not seem to match Mr. Jones' own view. And the intern seemed to mock students' own religious beliefs, the sophomore added.

Mr. Jones said he had no intention of promoting any religion. He was merely trying to engage his students in an intellectual discussion, he said, and encourage them to think critically about a complex subject. He attributes the students' complaints to their misperceptions about Muslims, whom his students initially described as terrorists and extremists, he said.

The students were also uncomfortable with the discussion-based teaching method Mr. Jones was experimenting with, according to the student-teacher.

While still stinging from his dismissal, Mr. Jones said what troubled him most was the lack of support from those who had previously praised his work.

"I was completely abandoned by everybody," he said. "I was told I have no rights in this matter."

Fewer Rights

Student-teachers do not enjoy the contractual rights of certified teachers, according to Christie A. Morrison, a future middle school teacher who is on leave from Michigan State University to serve as the chairwoman of the National Education Association's student program.

Mr. Jones has not been reassigned to an internship in another school.

Meanwhile, he is appealing the university's decision not to put its reasons for the dismissal in writing. He was able to apply his credits from the graduate program to a degree in independent study and expects to graduate from the university next month.

The prospective teacher said he hopes to land a position in a hard-to-staff school, perhaps in an urban district, where administrators might be more likely to overlook his lack of a complete internship experience.

Vol. 21, Issue 32, Page 10

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