Another day, another opportunity to talk about religious bigotry…

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the news articles and clips about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-yr-old engineering whiz whose homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb, causing his arrest when he brought it to school to show off to his teachers. If you haven’t, a good overview of the story and subsequent fallout is available from the Dallas Morning News.

It’s another chance to talk with students about profiling and misperceptions–how would this have been treated differently if Mohamed had a different religious background? Or gone to a school elsewhere in the nation, or in the world?

Mohamed’s thank you tweet to supporters is bittersweet–appreciative of the outreach he’s gotten (even President Obama invited him to the White House and encourage him to keep pursuing science) but cognizant of the challenges faced by Muslims in the world today:

Ahmed Mohamed's thank-you tweet

Ahmed Mohamed’s thank-you tweet

Hopefully the online support he’s recieved will translate into real-world encouragement and appreciation, especially since STEM is all the rage these days in the education world. I have a hard time know how to respond to Ahmed’s tweet–how to tell him there are many people who do really care about him, who want all young people to stay curious and inventive. I’d love to hear how high-school and middle-school students would respond to Mohamed’s tweet. How do they think they might respond if they were in his shoes–with an overwhelming sense of rejection, or a push for resilience?

Continue reading

I call that a success!

As I was grading final exams, I came across this.

Question 1

Question 1

Question 2

Question 2

Not the best student, and in fact, a student who in his original journal post stated that he would be working to try to help me accept Christianity this year. Glad that I’ve helped him grow more accepting too.


When the Course Swerves…

Sometimes courses, or particular classes, take on their own particular theme or direction. This year’s unit on Islam made an unexpected shift to include a heavy dose of media literacy, partly because we had covered Islam through so many current events throughout the year already, and partly because the students and I both recognized it as being at the root of so many misunderstandings.

For the past few years I have assigned a project about Myths and Misconceptions in Islam where students take a belief about Islam that is incorrect or oversimplified and work to both explain the source of that misconception and the truth they would use to explain it. Noticing flaws in what previous years’ works had resulted in, I decided to pay a little more attention to the selection of resources as students researched their topics–and in so doing I think I unknowingly planted a seed that blossomed when they turned in their finished works.

Continue reading

On Field Trips and Flexibility

I know…it’s been forever since I’ve written. Spring break and lots of life have gotten in the way, and I apologize.

Class, however, has been marching on. We have made it through our Christianity unit, which always feels like a challenge to me. It’s challenging because there are always a few students who have been raised on the Bible and know its passages far better than I do. It’s also challenging because it’s one of those religions that students think they know everything about before we get started. And because trying to expand students’ notions of Christianity (or expose them to divisions within it) can push some buttons for the firm believers in my classroom in a way that investigating a religion that they are less attached to does not.

As a result, while I do spend some time reviewing the core beliefs of Christianity and analyzing passages from the New Testament (I especially like the Sermon on the Mount for the way it helps differentiate between “old ways” and Jesus’s teachings), I allocate most of the unit to understanding the historical development of the religion (helped by useful Eduportal videos like this one) and looking at its diversity. It’s my hope that students end the unit with the firm grasp of the concepts that all Christians share, but an understanding that all Christians are not like the ones they know.

I have a couple of strategies for doing this. We spend a few days looking at Mormons, and I ask the students to answer for themselves the question of whether Mormons are Christian or not. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints says, unequivocally, yes. (See the most recent shift in their logo, below). 

 But others question if a group that adds new books to the Christian canon can truly fit in. I have found the PBS video on the Mormons to be an excellent supplement here, and a more sober approach than the South Park episodes and broadway musicals that my students tend to be more familar with.

We also spend some time looking at other Christian groups: the Amish, Christan Scientists, Quakers, Christadelphians, and more. Again, we focus on the defining beliefs of Christians: monotheism, belief in Jesus as a savior, an emphasis on love, forgiveness, hope, and grace, and the practices of baptism and communion. Then I ask students to consider what makes each group different and unique.

We ended the unit with a sort of transitional field trip–a trip to a mosque and a church. This year we visited Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman and Resurrection United Methodist Church. Chosen both for proximity, their welcoming attitude, and the variety of experiences they provide, I found this year’s pairing to work especially well. Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman is in a small, low building that was clearly never intended to be a mosque. In fact, it shares a parking lot with a store-front church. For many of my students, this is a different kind of religious building than they have been to, in that there is absolutely no fancy architecture–the emphasis is solely on the creation of a community space for worship and study. The students were shown to the library and listened to a presentation by a member of the congregation. This was interesting too–the imam, Mowlid Ali, is very young, somewhat quiet, and had to leave early to lead Friday prayers in a neighboring city. His colleague was an older gentleman who was very chatty and eager to share his understanding of Islam. The contrast between the two men was almost comical–but again I appreciate that the students had an opportunity to hear from two voices. 

Following that, we visited the church where Reverend Alan Felton shared with the students about Methodism, a denomination we had not encountererd yet. I thought the kids were fading a little–we had arrived late and lunch was waiting–but was impressed by how they perked up with questions about the Eucharist and the little ways in which the ceremony differed from some of their own experiences. It was clear as they asked about the things that they saw that they were building a comparison in their heads. 

It was a fitting and pleasant end to a unit that I always have a little trepidation about teaching. Today, on the way in to work, I heard a piece on NPR that helped me articulate my approach to teaching this section on Christianity, and really to how I hope to approach much of my teachings. The snippet was about Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a Catholic who has been teaching about Islam to students in both Catholic and Muslim universities. He states at one point, when addressing a room of devout Muslims: “I said to the students ‘I’m not here to teach you anything — I’m here to help you to learn, and to understand your own religion better.” Like Fitzgerald (although I am sure his expertise in the field of religious studies is far far greater than mine), I recognize that it does me no good to try to teach my students what they may already know, but rather to lead them to questions and ideas they may not have encountered yet, to give them opportunities for new experiences, and tools for engaging with them. Hopefully, with this unit, I did at least a little of that. 

Teaching about Charlie Hebdo and Terrorism

I’d like to take a few class periods next week to talk about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the many questions it brings up about satire, religious extremism, tolerance and bigotry in Europe, and more. My student teacher has been teaching the past few weeks, so we could not hit it immediately, but I have a break in the curriculum coming up and would like to investigate the topic while it’s still fresh. If one of the goals of this course is to prepare students to understand world events and the impact that religion has on them, it seems pretty important to tackle this act of terrorism and the circumstances surrounding them.

Why not also address the attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria? I’ve thought about this a bit, as I think that the pointed questions regarding the difference in outrage regarding each set of attacks are worthy. We should be paying just as much attention to the violence and the deaths occurring in Africa.

However, for the purposes of my class, these events are examples of different things. Later in the curriculum we do a study of religious extremism and how violent groups use, or misuse, religion. The actions of Boko Haram fit there. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, however, has initiated discussions about not just the pattern of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants, but also the role of the press and challenges of the government in a religiously diverse society. In addition, the history of religious minorities in Western Europe is worth taking into consideration. These questions go back to discussions my classes held at the beginning of the year, when we weighed First Amendment protections, religious freedoms, minority vs. majority values, and safety and security.

All that being said, I have not fully concluded how I will frame these discussions in my classroom. Here is what I have pulled together so far:

PBS Newshour does have a Lesson Guide that reviews the basics of the events. I plan to ask my students to review this site and come up with a list of questions they would like to discuss and/or research in class.

This Telegraph article claims that Mohammed would have approved of the Charlie Hebdo cover released after the attacks, while this New York Times article describes the anger that it has created. New York Times Learning Network also has a set of questions related to this.

The New York Times Learning Network also has a broad overview of activities, that just appeared! As I began writing this yesterday I was frustrated that they hadn’t pulled anything together yet. Thanks, NYT, for pulling through! I especially appreciate the first activity that frames the discussion about the new Hebdo cover, mentioned in the paragraph above.

This France24 article describes how French teachers have dealt with this tragedy–kind of stunning. It of course brings to mind experiences talking about September 11th and the Newtown shootings here in the United States.

Nicolas Kristof addresses, in a characteristically balanced way, the question of Islam’s relationship or responsibility for such attacks.

And then there are the questions of satire and Hebdo’s provocations. Ross Douthat’s take and David Brook’s discussion have helped me think about these ideas. There are also the brilliant and diverse cartoons that have emerged: Patrick Chappate’s, Joe Sacco’s, and this collection of responses from the Arab world. I am envisioning a gallery wall with room for students to comment on these.

I am not quite sure how I will pull this one together yet, or what I will ask my students to produce: it is important to me to hear their thoughts and questions before I plan too far ahead. Are you incorporating this into your classes? How will you do that?

Update 1/31/15: If you would like to see the full lesson I developed, please read the next post, here.