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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘The Story of Arab & Muslim Students Is Often an Untold Story’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 04, 2020 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

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

Today, Dr. Jaber, Sarah Said, and Dr. Shoman-Dajani “wrap up” the series by discussing proactive actions educators can take to create more inclusive environments for Arab and Muslim students.

The Untold Story: Removing the Muffle on Arab and Muslim Student Voices

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:

Current teaching of the Middle East is a singular story often portraying Arabs and Muslims as violent and unable to blend with other societies and communities. In their current forms, these depictions tend to cause fixed notions of identity working to marginalize Arab and Muslim communities by portraying them as different from dominant white culture.

What can teachers do to create spaces where Arab and Muslim students feel safe to share their cultural and linguistic diversity with their teachers and their peers, enabling them to build new learning by connecting to who they are and what they already know? Educators have a responsibility to:

  • understand the centrality of race, racism, and its structural and systemic nature. Arab and Muslim marginalization began before 9/11. The erasure of Arab and Muslim narratives, historical and current contributions to American society are a part of that marginalization. 9/11 and Trumpism have worked to intensify anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments and have normalized the explicit vocalization of those feelings through talk and action. Educators cannot understand the constructs of current events without analyzing the path of how we got here through the exploration of history.

  • immerse themselves in the Arab and Muslim communties in order to accurately understand students and modify practices, policies, and systems to better meet their needs. These communities like all other cultural communities are fluid and change over time. Educators must do the work of getting to know their specific students and communities.

  • include the use of storytelling and experiences of Arab and Muslim students. Amplifying student voices by allowing them to share their lived experiences humanizes them and presents peers with perspectives that dismantle stereotypical representations as a historically marginalized group.

  • empower Arab and Muslim students by supporting the development of self-advocacy and civic action. Build students’ skills enabling them to interrogate policies, practices, and systems that continue to marginalize them and enable them to be part of the change.

  • strengthen the empathetic capacity of students and teachers by advocating for Arab and Muslim students in different spaces in schools. Intentionally include accurate representations of their histories and cultures in cross-curricular content. Ensure that the curriculum is dynamic and responsive. Collaborate with different stakeholders for the purpose of creating more equitable curricula that is accessible to this specific subgroup.

  • ensure that Arab and Muslim students feel included. Arab students generally have strong ties to their ancestral countries. Yet, they are often not considered “native” to those countries if they were born or lived abroad for long periods of time. Similarly, they are considered foreigners in the American context. The need for a sense of belonging and acceptance is detrimental to their success in school. Arab students need to have their existence and identity acknowledged in order to feel included.

  • view Arab and Muslim students with an asset mindset. Arab and Muslim students are different. Instead of working to assimilate that difference, teachers should be working to embrace and celebrate their cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. Schools should be working to encourage Arab and Muslim students to bring their rich cultures and traditions to the classroom to share with their peers and build new learning experiences on those intersections of their identities.

The story of Arab and Muslim students is often an untold story. Like all other students, teachers leave imprints in their lives that can either be motivational or detrimental to their development as people and future citizens. Be the catalyst behind the disruption of systems and traditional school practices that continue to muffle the voices of Arab students, Muslims students, and other students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Ensuring Schools Address the Needs of Arabic-Speaking Multilingual Learners

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:

In this day and age, we need to understand that our multilingual populations are one of the fastest-growing in this country. Yes, there are simple things a teacher should know about Arabic speakers—Arabic reading is in the opposite direction of English; the letter forms are unique and connected. The “p” does not exist and can sound like a “b” to them. Also, there are glottal sounds that are different from typical sounds you would hear in English, German, or the Romance languages. But that is just the beginning of what teachers should know about Arabic speakers who have origins in the Middle East. There is other knowledge that is critical for us to know as educators that can really be powerful in our instruction.

Teachers should always remember students’ cultures and how to really inspire their curiosity in learning. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is imperative for teachers to know that multilingual learners who are Arabic speakers come from so many different backgrounds culturally and economically. With that, past experiences in education and access to resources will be different. I will address some tips for supporting Arabic-speaking multilingual students at the elementary levels as well as the middle and high school levels.


At the lower grades (K-2) , there is less of a chance that students will come into your classroom with Arabic literacy. In my experience, parents want to maintain the Arabic language, but they also want their children to be proficient in English as well. There are resources that can support children’s access to English content in Arabic that I can recommend.

Twinkl: Twinkl is always a good resource to use, and they are constantly developing content-related materials in Arabic. This can be used for students in K-5. It is an online application with printable resources and ready-made presentations.

Creating English/Arabic Take Home Bags: Scholastic Arabic has plenty of books on high-interest thought-provoking topics that can be sent home for parents and students to read together. This can really ignite curiosity on science, nature, and fiction. Children’s Plus Inc. is also a supplier that I have used in the past for Arabic content books. They have ways to support virtual books in Arabic as well.

Engaging Arabic multilinguals in their home language and English will really support the students getting an equitable challenge in content and language. It’s also critical to be supportive of elementary students’ Arabic-speaking parents who are trying to navigate the school system. Using platforms like Seesaw that will convert into an Arabic-language setting on a parent’s computer or Talking Points that offers two-way English-Arabic translation can help you build your relationship with Arabic-speaking parents. Also, promote Parent/Caregiver and Child together activities for your Arabic-speaking families in your program that are academic. Parents really want to learn ways to support their children at home; you can offer this in your bilingual-parent council at your school if you have one.

Do understand that your students and parents are navigating a system that is unique to them. Please do not let language be a barrier between you and the families you support. If you are curious, ask questions about the culture in a respectful way. Families are willing to talk and explain what their home culture is like. Your best teacher will be your students—talk to them.

Middle School/High School

It is important to understand that in some Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, among others, middle school and high school children may already have been learning academic English for years. Their social English may not be fully developed, but the education systems have introduced English into the curriculum in the Middle East. Some of the new immigrant students that you are serving could have some background in language that you can utilize as a scaffold for learning in your classroom.

On the other hand, you could have some students who are newer to the United States that could have gaps in their education because of conflicts in their country—Syrian, Yemen, and Iraq, among others. These students will need an introduction to English and could have gaps in other content such as math or science. Although these students have had some interrupted schooling, being in conflicted regions has built their life experiences beyond years—there are some who at times have been the “breadwinner” of their family as a teenager. This experience may not be academic, but it is experience; do not discount it in learning. Build off some of the economic and trade knowledge that students have to teach content. You can really build interest in the content and ignite curiosity in them to make them “Ready for Rigor.”

Recognize that your students are adolescents between cultures. As my colleagues have mentioned in early posts, it is critical to recognize their culture in the classroom. Bring in texts that are mirrors for students to see themselves within your instruction. And allow students to have conversations that are crucial to affirming their identities in the classroom in social studies and language arts. We are a proud and resilient culture—learn about that from your students in their discussions, writings, and performance tasks.

Please take the time to really learn about the language and the culture of your Arabic-speaking students in your classroom. Don’t make assumptions about our culture or our learners. These biases may impact the education, growth, and success of a child that is sitting in your classroom. It’s OK—just ask.

Count Us In! Capturing Accurate Data on Arab American Students Needs to Happen Now

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:

Scholars of Arab American studies have argued that Arab Americans live and move between being invisible and hypervisible in the U.S. According to the federal government, if your heritage is Arab, you are white; concurrently, Arabs are racialized as nonwhite. Despite Arab categorization as white by the government, they still have an inferior status and as said by Louise Cainkar, this status is, among other variables, related to U.S. foreign policy and global politics.

Race is a social construct, so why is the racial status of Arab American students important? Typically, data-driven decisions should be made with accurate data. So what happens when the data of Arab students who live a marginalized experience is integrated with that of white students? They share a racial category with all of the students who are descendants of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa (MENA). Their story, their struggles, their needs, and their academic success remain invisible. Other variables also contribute to data outcomes, such as socioeconomic status; however, I will focus on race.

In Jamal’s (2008) analysis of previous surveys conducted in Arab American communities on identity and race classification, she concluded “even though the U.S. census continues to classify Arab Americans as ‘white,’ a solely ‘white’ designation may not capture the diverse and complex ways that Arab American individuals experience ‘race.’ ” The call to have the MENA category added to the 2020 Census was rejected by the Office of Management and Budget under the guidance of Trump’s administration, but this does not mean that your school cannot expand how it collects demographic information. There may be access to more resources for English proficiency, grants, and other special programs if the demographics in educational institutions are more accurately captured. A brief historical overview regarding race and the Arab American community was creatively captured by the AJ+ team (Al Jazeera) in Are Arabs White?

My argument for educational institutions to count their MENA students can be used to advocate for other marginalized groups. Having a more accurate picture of the diversity of student populations shouldn’t wait until the U.S. census changes—these changes need to happen now! As an Arab American mother who has elementary and middle school age children and as an administrator at an institution that has a very large Arab American student population, who has also served as the adviser to an Arab student organization for a decade, I know our children deserve to be seen. My dissertation research focused on the racial-identity construction of Arab American college students. All of the students I interviewed were greatly influenced by the othering that they either experienced themselves as children or witnessed family members experience—the bullying, stereotyping, harassment, and racism. It was clear to them that they weren’t white. Their lived experiences were not of a white person. Some of the responses I received on a pre-interview questionnaire when I asked if they identified with the term “white” were the following:

Omar: “Hell no. Because I’m simply not.”

Naser: “No. I am white passing, but “white” as a context and racial construction and experience is not something I identify with at all.”

Linda: “No. I do not consider myself white because as an Arab, I am not treated as I am “white.”

Sarah: “No ... white for me is a European construct. It’s a way to blend Arabs with the majority and not recognize who we are as a community and what we stand for.”

Today, we often hear K-20 educational institutions tout words like “equity,” “inclusion,” and “diversity” as core values. But are our institutions really upholding ideals of creating equitable spaces, inclusive of all students while simultaneously celebrating diversity?

Students want to be seen and heard. When a student comes from a marginalized community, they do not inherently have the privilege of moving through society in general, schools, and classrooms feeling “included.” Collecting more accurate data on the identity of students fosters inclusivity and will assist in serving them better as educators.

Find Arab American stories and lesson plans to share with your students here.

To learn more about the importance of the MENA category, click here.

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

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