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Teaching Opinion

‘More Than Aladdin': Dismantling Common Misconceptions About Arab and Muslim Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 30, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the third post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are important considerations that educators should keep in mind when teaching Arab and Muslim students?

Guest-editor Dr. Sawsan Jaber “kicked off” a multipart series responding to this question. Dr. Jaber, along with contributors Abeer Shinnawi and Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani, also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

The focus of Part Two was the same as post No. 1: What considerations educators should keep in mind when teaching Arab & Muslim students? Abeer Shinnawi, Sarah Said, and Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani continued the conversation in the second post in this series.

Today, Sarah Said, Abeer Shinnawi, Dr. Sawsan Jaber, and Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani explore common misconceptions about Arab and Muslim students.

More Than Aladdin: Teaching Our Youngest Learners About Middle Eastern and Muslim Culture in America

Sarah Said is the director of language and equity programs in an EL Education school in Illinois. She is of both Palestinian and Syrian decent. She has worked with multilingual learners as a teacher and administrator for more than 15 years. You can find her on twitter @MrsSaid17:

Growing up Middle Eastern and Muslim in the American public school system during the first Persian Gulf War, I struggled to explain my identity to my peers even as early as 1st and 2nd grade. Children in my class struggled with understanding that people of my culture were not the enemy. Then “Aladdin” came along, and suddenly my peers wanted to learn more about “a whole new world” from me, even to the extent of asking if my family had a magic carpet to fly away on.

Later, I started my teaching career post-9/11 in a high school classroom and realized there were students who were fascinated with my identity—wanting to know more about the Arabic language and how my family came to the United States and there were others who just associated me with places that “had wars all the time.” This is when I realized my calling in this profession was to support children in understanding my differences and the beauty of the culture I came from and the idea that they can see themselves within my differences and embrace their own.

With that being said, I’m writing about our youngest learners and how to carefully help them deconstruct Middle Eastern and Muslim culture. Yes, it’s great to see Buster Bunny eat a falafel sandwich on “Arthur,” but there is more to our culture than it’s falafel sandwiches and the tale of “Aladdin.” In this post, I hope to provide ideas and supports on how to accurately support the understanding of Middle Eastern culture and Muslim culture for younger learners

For those of you who would like a picture book to utilize in instruction, I would recommend Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye This book is about a girl who lives in the United States and her grandmother lives in Palestine. The main character goes to Palestine to visit her grandmother, and although she doesn’t speak the language, she learns about her culture and life through her grandmother. The book provides a reader with an appreciation for the strong family connections that Middle Eastern children have with their families, as well as the storytelling that happens from generation to generation.

In addition to books, the best teachers of a child’s culture are the children and their families. I believe all teachers should work with students and their families to learn about their home culture. This can be done through a child bringing family artifacts or even members of their family to help them explain their home life and their culture. With remote learning now, I would even recommend a child (with parent permission) creating a video at home about their home culture and uploading it to a classroom platform for others to learn about.

Families will be more than willing to do this—growing up, my mother was very quick to want to explain our culture to teachers and administrators. During Ramadan, she sent plates of sweets to school with me to hand out to staff and volunteered to help at many school events. She was a new immigrant from Syria and wanted people to know the beauty of our culture.

Children need to understand the different cultures of the different countries of the Middle East. Having students research different countries of the Middle East with credible sources and create a “think-link” graphic (this is a graphic that has links to other graphics that you can click on to lead you to text, audio, or video) helps them learn about each country and its culture. You can then have students complete “think-link scavenger hunt” in order to learn about countries and cultures their peers researched.

In addition to deconstruction of Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures in the classroom, we need to think about the bias we create in different schoolwide events. Yes, there are people of Middle Eastern descent who are Christian and honor Christmas. However, we need to recognize the holidays of other faiths, including Ramadan and Eid. Letting students have an understanding of why their peers are fasting for a month and the Eid holidays can create a community of inclusion for Muslim students.

Within our schools that serve our youngest learners, we also have to think about how we portray 9/11. As school staff, I have felt a discomfort when school officials openly talk about America being “under attack by terrorists from the Middle East.” Do understand that a school building can have staff and students who have a discomfort with this phrasing. A better way to discuss this is just honoring heroes in America, and the diversity of those heroes in America, and the beauty of America’s people.

Our culture is more than just “Aladdin,” flying carpets, and falafel sandwiches. Yes, we have had conflict in our region of the world, but it is not the only part of who we are as Middle Eastern people of Muslim descent. All cultures hold a beauty and uniqueness; allow children to deconstruct our’s and understand it for themselves.

Avoiding the Savior Complex—Arab Girls Do Not Need to be Saved

Abeer Shinnawi is an 18-year veteran middle school social studies teacher who is the founder and consultant for Altair Education Consulting LLC. Abeer is also a member of the teacher advisory group for the National Museum of the Native American. She, along with three other educators, is also the founder of the Arab American Educators Network-AAEN. Find her on Twitter @shinram1:

Education was heavily encouraged by my family growing up, especially by my mother. My mother, an avid learner, was offered a college scholarship to study in Lebanon. She decided to pursue a family in the United States and always regretted not continuing her education. Since that lost opportunity, my mother always told her daughters: Your education is your shield, your weapon. If you have an education, you don’t need to depend on anybody! My mother raised six children: three girls, who pursued college degrees. This was the norm in our community; the majority of Arab girls I grew up with obtained college degrees and have successful careers.

There are many preconceived notions that Arabs do not value education, especially for their daughters. These ideas are generated from the notion that Arab culture is steeped in patriarchy. Although one can argue the majority of societies around the world are patriarchal, Arabs tend to be magnified with this assumption. There is also the idea that Arab women need saving from their culture because they lack the means to “help themselves’’ succeed. This implicit bias seeps into our classrooms, leading teachers to assume Arab girls come with a “deficiency” to advocate for themselves or will not continue with their education. This philosophy is damaging because when teachers look at any student as coming in with a deficiency, their teaching does not focus around strengths but weaknesses of that student. This domino effect leads to lack of rigor in education for students, providing fewer opportunities in the long run.

Teachers should learn more about the student as an individual without the monolithic view of their cultural background leading the inquiry. When we develop an understanding on how culture shapes students, teachers are better able to guide the student on the path to success. What educators must understand about Arab female students is their deep pride in their own heritage that has given them freedoms long before the SUFFRAGIST MOVEMENT in the West. Arab girls are highly skilled in the art of advocating for themselves when given the opportunity.

What teachers should focus on with their Arab female students is developing a better understanding of the Arabic culture and Muslim religion while using the lens of their students. The only ideal empirical method to understand a culture is by steeping oneself in that culture. Visit their communities, ask to be a part of their functions, and encourage Arab female students to speak in terms of local, personal, and the immediate when discussing life experiences. The more opportunity we allow our students to express themselves through their own lived experiences, the richer the learning environment becomes for all students.

Seeing Arab and Muslims Beyond Stereotypic Media Representations

Dr. Sawsan Jaber, a global educator of 20 years in the U.S. and abroad, currently serves as a high school English teacher in Illinois. She is an Our Voice Academy board director, the founder of Education Unfiltered Consulting, and a founding member of the Arab American Education Network. Sawsan is a proud Palestinian American. You can find her on Twitter @SJEducate:

In our journey to be culturally sustaining, the work we do to understand our students’ cultural and linguistic diversity should be ongoing and fluid. Culture is not a constant, so the work to shift to an asset pedagogy mindset must be constant. The basis of that work is knowledge. What does it take to really know our students beyond their personas in our classrooms as learners in a traditional form? Scholars will say that immersing teachers in communities that represent their student demographics is a large part of that answer. What are some things a person might learn if they were immersed in an Arab American or Muslim American community?

1) The identity of Arab American students is one that is difficult to define. Although most are raised with strong ties to the native countries of their parents, they are considered foreigners and not completely accepted in those countries if they are born and raised or live abroad for substantial periods of time. In America, Arabs are also considered a minority and “the other,” leaving them with a sense of identity loss in both settings since both their mother country and their country of residence do not acknowledge one aspect of their identity.

2) Not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arabs. Muslims are people who come from different ethnic and demographic backgrounds and share a unified faith of Islam. Arabs are people with ancestral ties to one or more of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries. Contrary to common belief, Arabs are religiously diverse.

3) Arab and Muslim tradtions don’t strip women of their rights. Like women throughout much of the rest of the world, Arab women also struggled to gain their rights at one point or another historically. Today, Arab cultures are very different depending on the country and even the region that people come from. Some are matriarchal, while others are patriarchal. Islamic beliefs secure women’s rights through the foundations of Quranic doctrine and the traditions of Muslim prophets. Islamic history preserves stories of women leading men in war and playing extremely critical roles in shaping political policy and preserving religious teachings.

4) Although they may speak one language, Arabs from different regions have different cultures, speak different dialects, and come from countries with very different political systems that impact their identity in a multitude of ways. Arabs who are first-generation Americans are very different from Arabs whose ancestry has multiple generations in America.

The political war on terror is infused with cultural constructions and has been painted as a religious war. Many Muslim and Arab students in schools report being told that being Muslim and Arab is incompatible to being American. According to scholarship, Muslims are considered to be “perpetual foreigners regardless of the length of time one is in the country, he or she is perceived to be dangerous and unaccepting of American value,” and Muslim and Arab students “pose a threat to the American way of life,” causing students to feel a lack of inclusivity and to abandon any indicators that allude to their cultural and linguistic diversity.

Unfair treatment of students of color is a type of violence because it happens and over elongated time periods. Since anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racist propaganda is not just limited to historic events and is heavily highlighted in current-day media, not directly addressing the problem is inadvertently supporting the current status quo and the violence against these students. The capacity of American public school teachers must be developed for them to actively disrupt anti-Arab and anti-Islamic discourse in schools and communities.

We Did Not Arrive Yesterday, We Came in Waves

Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani is a college administrator and teaches Middle Eastern and Arab American studies at two Chicago universities. She holds a doctorate in higher education and organizational change and is one of the founders of the Arab American Educators Network. Twitter: @DrNinaShoman:

There is a common misconception that the Arab population in the U.S. is new, considering the intentional elimination of Arab and Muslim narratives in school curriculum and the continuous vilification of Arabs and Muslims as the enemy other in political discourse and in mainstream media. In addition, although Arab American participation in voting and politics has increased in recent years, the overall lack of representation of Arab Americans in politics and government may lead society to think that this subpopulation does not need representation because their voice does not exist (Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar helped change this narrative).

Typically, Arabs are lumped into one category, viewed as homogenous groups who have just started “invading” American lands in the last couple of decades. Seldom do Americans hear of the historical contributions of Arab Americans or about the diversity of the millions of Arab Americans who trace their lineage throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa. This point is reiterated by Asi and Beaulieu (2013) who stated: “While the Arab population is a distinct ancestry group, it is also a heterogeneous one, composed of many groups with different ethnic origins originally from the Middle East and North Africa” (p. 1). In order for educators to understand the background of their students, they should also understand the historical journey of their communities.

Although Muslim history in the U.S. can be traced back to the slave trade, the journey of voluntary Arab immigration to the U.S., which began in the late 1800s, is known as the first wave of Arabs to the U.S. This first wave was predominantly Arab Christians coming from what is known today as Lebanon and Syria. The second wave of Arabs was much more diverse and arrived in the 1950s-1960s. The third wave is considered the 1970s to present.

Each wave of immigrants has characteristics varying from socioeconomic status to education level. The motivation behind Arab immigration to the U.S. also varies. It should be noted that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, legislation, and executive orders, such as the Muslim Ban, all influence the fluctuation of Arab immigration to the U.S. While U.S. census data on Arab households is limited due to census classification of those with Arab ancestry as white, historical data from the American Community Survey does show the Arab American population continues to grow. As published by the Arab American Institute, Arab Americans can be found in all 50 states; they are represented in all labor sectors and have a higher graduation rate than the average American (at high school, bachelor’s and graduate-degree levels).

Over 20 years ago, Arab American scholar Michael Suleiman stated: “Despite the fact that Arabs have lived in America for more than a century and despite their major successes, they are still struggling to be accepted in American society,” (1999, p. 16). This struggle may not end; in fact, scholars of Arab American studies may argue that the struggle to “be accepted” has only worsened. As educators, we must ask what role we play in this struggle. What role do you play? There are various roles to play in a struggle, and that of the teacher is crucial. Teachers have the opportunity to shape minds. What will you do with the information you read? Yes, by simply reading this article, you are making an effort to learn, but taking the extra step to put this information to use in your classroom is what is needed.

Thanks again to Sarah, Abeer, Dr. Jaber, and Dr. Shoman-Daajani for their contributions!

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