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Teaching Opinion

‘Teaching Beyond Stereotypes': Ways to Teach the Middle East & Islam in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 29, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One 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 today’s column is 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 continue the conversation in today’s second post in the series....

Teaching Beyond Stereotypes: How to Teach the Middle East and Islam in Schools

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:

Growing up in the United States to Arab immigrant parents, I learned that watching the news was a must in our household. Before 24-hour news services existed, my parents watched every newscast available at the time to stay abreast of information coming from back home the Middle East. They were very aware of the unwavering biases and fraudulent claims made by the media about events that unraveled in the Middle East, the root of the constant harassment my parents faced as new immigrants to the U.S. The media portrayal of Arabs and Muslims has not been kind, which has led to the implicit and overt biases embedded in public school education. If the average Americans were gaining their information about a group of people using the media as the reliable source, then educators would not be immune from using the same sources to teach about the Middle East or Arab students.

Muslim and Arab students have been increasingly targeted in schools since the events of 9/11. This challenge creates a need for us to consider how to better address their needs. Educators are rife with implicit bias that they bring with them into the classroom, which can create a hostile environment aimed toward students who are Arab, Muslim, or are perceived to be both. The major issues when the topic of Islam emerges are the constant stereotypes and misconceptions that plague our society.

According to Dr. Susan Douglas, the K-14 education outreach coordinator for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University states, “Stereotypes and misrepresentations of Islam have been deeply ingrained in American culture. Just as the legacy of slavery shaped popular images of Africa as a continent of heathen tribes ..., so the Western medieval world and colonial heritage of Islam has underlain modern miseducation about Muslim society and history.” With an increase of Muslim and Arab students in American public schools, there needs to be a major shift in how to teach the history of Islam and the Middle East.

There are many steps that need to be taken to change the false narratives that are marginalizing our Arab and Muslim students. The first step to counter false narratives is to begin with creating a safe environment in schools. Implementing a zero-tolerance policy with consequences regarding anti-Muslim and -Arab bigotry would give students a sense of safety. Another major step is to write and implement a curriculum that reflects the rich culture and heritage of Arabs and Muslims that have shaped the geographic, social, economic, and political landscapes of the world beyond American foreign policy or the Crusades, the focal point of many curriculum guides.

There are many resources, organizations, and educators who have created rich, engaging, historically accurate curricula that can enhance a student’s knowledge about the Middle East and Islam such as The Middle East Outreach Council which, according to its website: “established the Middle East Book Award in 1999 to recognize books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to understanding of the Middle East.” Last, teacher-college courses must provide incoming new teachers with cultural-studies programs to prepare them on how to teach students from various religious, cultural, and social backgrounds—those marginalized for decades due to the ongoing media and foreign policies that drive local, state, and national standards.

As an Arab American educator, the relationship I build with all of my students comes from a better understanding of their backgrounds because I know what it feels like to be marginalized, and that, in turn, creates a strong learning environment. Although every teacher may not be able to relate to being marginalized, every teacher has the duty to ensure a safe, culturally responsive classroom for all students.

Understanding and Amplifying the Needs of Arabic-Speaking Multilingual Students Beyond Language Support

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:

Having been a practitioner of multilingual-learner education for more than a decade and a half, I have struggled to make others around me understand the needs of our Arabic-speaking students from the Middle East. I work in Illinois where Arabic is the No. 2 language amongst multilinguals—yet there is still a lack of understanding of the demographic of Arabic speakers in communities in our state.

Currently in Illinois, our Arab multilingual learners are newer immigrants along with first- and second-generation children of immigrants. While some of our multilingual learners in Illinois come from places with limited resources and conflict such as Yemen, Syria, and Palestine, many are born in the United States to parents who push to keep the language and heritage of their home lands. We have a differentiated group of learners who need supports in different ways. Some of our learners need help understanding their own native language because of the limited resources in their own countries and interrupted schooling due to conflicts in their countries. Meanwhile, they’re also learning English to survive in the United States. Others are needing more supports with acquiring content that is challenging in gifted, honors, and AP courses.

For teachers who are teaching multilingual learners who are Arabic speakers, there is more support needed for our students than language support. Social-emotional support is critical in the sense that these students go home to one culture but go to school environments where they feel they are forced to assimilate into a culture that is not their own. What they need is for their values to be appreciated and honored.

It is already difficult to be forced to be in a community where you are made to feel as though yours is an inferior culture with words like “terrorist” and where Islamophoic cultures exist. For our students who are Middle Eastern multilingual learners, having opportunities to display their culture and be leaders in the school community will help them achieve acceptance and confidence amongst their peers. Our students need more than language support, they need a chance to be heard in their school communities.

Not a Designated Spokesperson: The Arab American or Muslim Student in Your Classroom

Dr. Nina Shoman-Dajani serves as an assistant dean at Moraine Valley Community College 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:

By the time Arab American and Muslim students are college age, most have formed a sense of what their racial or faith-based identity is. However, it may very well be that college offers an opportunity for students to explore their identity. Their lived experiences influence how they perceive themselves while external influences (domestic politics, U.S. involvement in the Middle East, how the news covers stories about Arab and Muslim people in the U.S. and abroad, for example) influence how peers in the classroom, as well as professors and staff members, perceive them.

During a research study I conducted about the racial-identity construction of Arab American college students, a common theme among the participants was that they were perceived as ambassadors of the Arab and Muslim community (here and abroad). Arab American and Muslim college students are often bombarded with questions about their culture, their traditions, religious beliefs, and lifestyle. Professors and fellow students rarely recognize the vast diversity of the Arab and Muslim world, and every Arab American or Muslim student is not a spokesperson for a billion people who many also identity as Arab, Arab American, or Muslim. Often Arab American Christian students are assumed to be Muslim and put on the spot to answer questions about Islam.

While some of the research participants did express the frustration for being put on the spot to answer questions during a lecture on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East or about why some Muslim women choose to wear hijab, they agreed that they would rather be a source for others to learn from, regardless of how ignorant the questions may be, as long as the intentions behind the questions of their peers or professors were to truly learn and not scrutinize them. Answering questions is an opportunity for them to honor their identity and dispel myths and stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. One participant named Dina expressed that her pride in her Arab American identity reinforced her confidence to answer questions:

I enjoy being an Arab American, and even though people have questions and they may be ignorant at first, I’m always happy to talk to them about it and answer their questions because I feel like it’s important to know who I am and where I came from.

It is important to recognize that answering questions about their identity, traditions, and beliefs can also be emotionally draining. This was expressed by a participant named Omar:

Lately, it’s affected me to such an emotional level where it causes me so much stress that I do feel it physically. I feel physically and emotionally exhausted from just constantly having to worry about all the problems, all the different kinds of questions that I’ll get whether they mean well or don’t mean well with the questions. I’m just tired. Sometimes I just want to sit back and be white.

I am not proposing that educators and students completely stop asking Arab American and Muslim students about their heritage or beliefs; however, it is important to recognize that when doing so, it can create discomfort for the student. The student of Arab heritage or Muslim faith in your classroom should not be your designated source of information about the Arab and Muslim world, and they certainly shouldn’t be put on the spot to offer perspective about domestic issues or crises abroad unless they volunteer to do so. I encourage students to speak up and attempt to address misconceptions about the Arabs, Arab Americans, or Muslims; however, the student and those asking the student questions need to understand that while one or a few students in a classroom can speak from their personal perspective, they do not necessarily represent the same opinion as others with the same heritage or faith.

Thanks to Abeer, Sarah, and Dr. Shoman-Dajani and for their contributions!

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