In recent weeks, our country has been treated to an ugly reflection of itself. The controversy over the Islamic community center in New York City has been followed by a spate of anti-Muslim acts. They include the stabbing of a Muslim cabbie, attempted arson at a mosque in Tennessee and teens harassing Muslims at worship in upstate New York.
The controversy over the New York community center has clearly made the biggest splash. When I first heard what people were saying about it I immediately wondered how to tackle this head-on as an educator. What would I say to my teachers about how to approach the subject in our history classes? How could I be a participant in a difficult conversation in which some of our Muslim students are directly affected?
I decided to visit the local Islamic Society to get information. Teachers, I have learned, are at their best when they are students themselves and are seeking to become more educated. While there is something to be said for immersing yourself in a new and different culture, it can have unintended consequences. One of my friends recently admitted that she was hurt when someone invited her children to a playgroup simply for the forced and artificial act of “having a diverse group.”
When I visited the Islamic Society center I was careful not to make the praying Muslims there a fascination. My goal was not to shine a spotlight on them. Instead, I wanted to build a relationship in which I could answer students’ questions. That relationship was needed because information about Muslim culture and history is glaringly absent from our history books and curriculum. Many of my students know of Islam only through the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In searching for more information, I found a website by two men who are trying to visit 30 mosques in 30 days. Aman and Bassam are both Muslims who have mapped out mosques across the country that they are attending during Ramadan. They chronicle their travels on their blog and via Twitter. This is a great resource for classroom teachers to promote culture, technology (they use lots of photographs and the occasional video), geography and communication. However, be sure to screen each blog post because there is occasional mild profanity. The story about Alabama is particularly interesting.
Keep in mind that Teaching Tolerance also has resources here, here and here that can help in teaching about sensitive religious issues. And I’m curious: How is your school dealing with the issue of the New York community center?
Wickham is a Teaching Tolerance blogger and assistant principal at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill.