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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Supporting Arab & Muslim Students in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 27, 2020 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a multipart series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Issues of race, culture, and ethnicity are critical for us educators to keep in the forefront of our minds.

And, when we think of who we’re teaching, the needs of Arab and Muslim students are perhaps not considered as much as they should be...

Today, series guest-editor Dr. Sawsan Jaber “kicks 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.

Stories from the Front Lines: Experiences of Arab and Muslim Students in American Classrooms—Introduction

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. Find Us: Twitter: @EducatorsArab Email: arabamericaneducators@gmail.com:

According to recent research, there has been heightened anti-Muslim racism, also known as Islamophobia. This increase has resulted in many Arab American and Muslim American students in schools where they are not the majority feeling that they either want to mask their identity by assimilating or that they cannot learn because they are not socially accepted. Studies show that Arab American adolescents are victims of discrimination by their teachers and classmates. Focus groups with students have magnified Arab reports of their faith and culture being scrutinized and adversely viewed by students and teachers, resulting in feelings of defensiveness and demotivation.

The lack of understanding of students’ intersectionality and cultural identities leads to their disempowerment, limiting their access to an equitable educational experience in comparison with their white peers (Jaber, 2019). Research has highlighted that this is the plight of many students of color across the United States; however, research has also highlighted that Arab and Muslim students are more of a target of systematic oppression and inequality due to the current political climate, which began its shift after 9/11.

These facts magnify the need for collaboration and communication among stakeholder groups. An increase in communication between educators and parents would bring to light the burden being placed on students by educator and parent stakeholder groups to advocate for themselves by themselves at all times with no systematic support. Therefore, the need for all stakeholder groups to humanize their perceptions of each other and work past their epistemologies in order to collaborate for the sake of building community by empowering the students becomes essential.

That is where the mission of the Arab American Education Network (AAEN) was born. Representation and official advocacy for Arab students has always been overlooked even among educators doing equity work. Arab students are not recognized demographically on the census, and most Arab students are products of countries that are not democratic; therefore, self-advocacy is not a natural characteristic promoted culturally. The mission of the network is to gather Arab teachers from across the United States so that we can collaborate to amplify the voices of Arab and Muslim students and raise awareness through research, professional development, advocacy, and training on understanding the cultural and linguistic pluralism and diversity that exists within these subgroups. We hope to provide teachers with the tools and knowledge they need to better serve Arab students.

This article will be the first in a series of several articles addressing the central question, “What are important considerations that educators should keep in mind when teaching Arab students?” My colleagues and fellow founding members of this network, Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani, Abeer Shinnawi, Sarah Said, and I will each answer this question for the first component of this series (appearing over two posts) based on our unique educational lens with different focuses. Subsequent columns will focus on dismantling common misconceptions about Arabs and on proactive actions educators can take to create more inclusive environments for Arab students.

We hope that through these articles we shed light on decades of marginalization for Arab students, the need for educators to disrupt and agitate the cycles, curriculum, and thought that has been normalized in their everyday work to create more equitable and inclusive spaces for all students including Arab students, and to provide educators and educational organizations with a resource to continue learning about Arabs and Arab American students through this network.

Defying ‘Single Story’ Representations in English and Language Arts Classrooms

Attempts of English teachers to be culturally responsive as I progressed through my educational career often led to teachers handing me texts that were supposed to be representations of my own experiences, “mirrors” in educational jargon today. Yet, I was never handed a text that strayed away from the racist anti-Islamic and anti-Arab normalizations represented in the media. The implications of my teachers not seeing me as anything more than a tangible example of media representations caused me to feel like an “outsider” throughout my school journey. Sadly, my experiences were not isolated incidents.

Critical Race Theory thought and research have highlighted the detrimental impacts of the lack of student empowerment and inclusivity in the educational sector; they further marginalize groups of color instead of legitimizing their experiences and stories. Ultimately, students who perceive to be “othered” in school share only what they need to survive their context. That translates to Arab and Muslim students sharing only what they discern to be similar and relative to the culture of their peers withdrawing when things like pronouncing their name correctly draws more attention to their pluralistic identities (Jaber, 2019). Without educators explicitly working to “perpetuate and foster-to sustain linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling and as a needed response to demographic and social change,” the price is the loss of democracy and of cultural identity for Arab American students.

Texts like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni and God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi are often hailed as examples of great texts to include if you are culturally responsive and have Arab and Muslim students in class. Although these texts may represent the lived experiences of the authors, they do not differentiate between the Arabic culture of the specific region versus the role of the religion. These omissions lead readers who do not know the difference between Arab and Muslim to further blur those lines and often view students through a stereotypical lens. Consequently, attempts to provide Arab students with mirrors to view themselves in the literature and other students with windows to learn about Arab and Muslim peers result in magnfying stereotypes, misconceptions, and feelings of alienation for the same students the texts were intended to empower.

As a parent of children with exposure to these texts in school, I found it challenging to navigate these texts with my children, empowering them to hold critical conversations with misinformed teachers who were perpetuating Arab and Muslim stereotypes. Students do not want the responsibility of teaching teachers and peers their own truths. Arab and Muslim adolescents developmentally just want to “belong” and feel included (Jaber, 2019). So, what happens to these students when this is the only representation?

Arab and Muslim students report sharing only parts of their identities that were considered the norm and were socially acceptable in school contexts (Jaber, 2019). This included their dress, language, lunch choices, holidays they celebrate, who they interact with, and general demeanor at home—a central “norm” that others need to be brought into implying an outside appearance of inclusiveness that does not really exist. Although these characteristics would give the impression of harmony with peers and the environment, it does not actually exist since students are not able to share their cultural identities.

Students attribute their choice to “hold back” to two main reasons: They feel “other” school community members would not understand and they avoid the burden of constantly explaining and defending their identities. Both allude to a lack of safety and order required for students to gain the sense of belonging and inclusion they inherently yearn for indicated by their willingness to let go of integral aspects of their identity, disadvantaging them and limiting their gains.

Thanks to Dr. Jaber for her contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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