Teaching Arabic in Iowa

By Elizabeth Rich — January 02, 2008 1 min read
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Beyond the caucuses, life continues in Iowa with surprising irregularity. Thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Federal Language Acquisition Program, 230 elementary students in Kalona—population 2,300, 97% white, and historically Mennonite—are learning to speak Arabic, according to Sam Freedman of The New York Times. Kalona teacher Susan Swartzendruber, who learned Arabic while teaching in Egypt as part of a Mennonite social service program, convinced her school district to apply for the funding.

Twenty miles north of Kalona in Iowa City, Zahra Al-Attar heard through a posting at her mosque that an elementary school was looking for a native Arabic speaker to teach. Ms. Al-Attar, who was exiled with her family from Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, had no idea what to expect. “When I first started, I thought, ‘Wow, Arabic in Kalona? What’s this going to be like?’ But everyone has been so welcoming.”

But the idea of teaching Arabic in Kalona has not been without opposition. Kalona principal Jim Cayton fielded complaints that Christians were being taught to be Muslims and some worried that students were learning “the language of the enemy.” Ms. Swartzendruber acknowledged the tension in the community: “Of course I was worried. There’s almost no diversity here, and most people have been here forever. But I thought, all the more reason to do it here. What better way to break down the stereotype…”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.