Social Studies

Islam Lesson Turns Into Legal Battle For Virginia District

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 24, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Washington Post reports this week that a Gulf War veteran is suing the Charles County school system in Virginia. He claims that its high school’s lessons on Islam violated his daughter’s constitutional rights.

The father, a Marine, was banned from the school after he issued what the school district described as verbal threats. He is asking the district to lift its ban and allow him to attend his daughter’s graduation.

The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents involving teaching about Islam in public schools. The school district in Veronia, Va. shut down for a day after a lesson on Arabic calligraphy in December. Parents in Tennessee and Georgia also raised concerns that students are being indoctrinated into Islam in school earlier this school year.

It’s worth asking: Why are so many teachers’ lessons about Islam landing so poorly? Are the lessons educationally sound? What’s a teacher whose curriculum includes world religions or Islam to do?

This week’s issue of Education Week features an article about a program that’s trying to help teachers become more informed about religions and their complexity. It’s in Hartford, Conn., and is led by Diane Moore, the founder of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard University.

But it turns out that most teachers never receive training on how to teach about religions, even though religion is featured in social studies standards and curriculum. No state requires it, and most teacher training programs don’t touch on it.

Experts say some of the backlash against lessons in recent months is likely tied to general Islamophobia and fear in the wake of terrorist attacks—a number of groups with large followings, including Jihad Watch and Stop Islamization of America, have publicized their concerns about these lessons and also assert that Islam is an inherently violent religion.

But some of the controversy may be avoidable: Teachers sometimes do teach about religion in inappropriate ways.

An important distinction, according to the First Amendment Center, which offers resources for teaching about religion in public schools: Teachers should be sure they are teaching facts, not interpretations. They also should steer clear of asking students to memorize and recite religious dogma or act out religious rituals, which can blur the line of teaching religion rather than teaching about the religion.

Most of the lessons involved in the controversies seem to have slightly missed the mark. The calligraphy lesson that triggered a district’s closure in Verona, for instance, involved students writing out the Islamic statement of faith. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and an advocate of religious freedom, said that while the lessons were almost certainly not intended to indoctrinate students, he would not recommend asking students to write out a statement of faith.

The Post includes some of the text from the lesson that triggered the Charles County lawsuit on its website. It asserts that “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian.” While the teacher was probably not trying to indoctrinate students, that hardly seems like an objective (or grammatical) statement.

How to ensure that teachers’ lessons on Islam are more academically sound? Haynes, the religion scholar, says more teachers need to be exposed to religious studies and trained in teaching about religions. He is planning to organize a series of webinars with the University of Northern Iowa to help give more teachers access to religious studies and resources for teaching about religions effectively.

Journalist Linda Wertheimer also discusses the importance of teacher training in her recent book on religion in schools, Faith Ed.

Education Week‘s Global Learning blog has a great list of resources for teachers who need to teach about Islam and other religions.

Did you learn about religious studies in teacher training? Do you think preparing more teachers to talk about religion would make a difference? Let us know in the comments.


Related stories:


For more news and information on curriculum and instruction:

And sign up here to get alerts in your email inbox when stories are published on Curriculum Matters.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Teachers Rally Against Laws Aimed at Limiting Classroom Discussion of Racism
Some teachers are speaking out against new legislation. But others are holding back, for fear of repercussions.
5 min read
In this Aug. 28, 2021 photo, demonstrators held a rally in Kansas City, Mo. against laws forbidding teaching critical race theory in classrooms.
Demonstrators held a rally in Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday against laws forbidding teaching critical race theory in classrooms.
Photo courtesy of SURJ-KC
Social Studies Opinion Why Do Native People Disappear From Textbooks After the 1890s?
How we teach American history has direct consequences for Native students today, writes a Navajo Technical University professor.
Joshua Ward Jeffery
5 min read
A Native American man sees a vibrant history emerging from a book.
"Tells His Story" by Brent Greenwood for Education Week
Social Studies Explainer Who Decides What History We Teach? An Explainer
Education Week breaks down how politics has long been embedded in this decision, and how new laws may affect the process.
15 min read
Image of books on history.
thomaguery/iStock/Getty
Social Studies Opinion Q&A Collections: Teaching Social Studies
Links to 10 years of posts with commentaries from over 100 social studies educators.
7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty