On the heels of a Florida pastor's announcement of an International Burn a Koran Day this past September and protests over a planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City, the topic of teaching Islam in public schools is gaining more attention—but this attention is yielding different results in different places.
The Texas State Board of Education adopted a resolution in September that urges publishers to curtail references to Islam in world history textbooks. David Anderson, general counsel for the Texas Education Agency, which the board oversees, says the resolution was merely an opinion that "is not taking an action that really changes the Texas curriculum one way or another."
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that acts as a watchdog on far-right issues in the state, criticizes the board's move, saying it's an "anti-Islam resolution" that is political and "bashing one faith."
The 15-member board took on the textbook issue this past summer, pointing to textbooks "that are no longer in Texas classrooms and that are not about to be put into classrooms," stating they paint Christianity in a negative light in certain sections and that they devote more lines to Islam than to Christianity, Miller says. But some board members ignored whole parts of the textbooks, including the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, which have links to Christianity, she continues.
On top of Texas' textbook controversy, more than four in 10 Americans (43 percent) admit to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims—more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18 percent), Jews (15 percent) and Buddhists (14 percent), according to a Gallup Center for Muslim Studies report, "Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes toward Muslims and Islam," released last January. In October, veteran journalist Juan Williams was fired from his job as senior news analyst for National Public Radio in part for stating on a Fox TV news show that he gets "nervous" when he sees people dressed in Muslim-style clothing on airplanes. NPR stated that this was "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
Professional Development in Place
But in some parts of the country, particularly California and New York, where ethnic and religious diversity is particularly abundant, programs exist for helping teachers bring accurate information to classrooms.
Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications at the American Association of School Administrators, says the rules about teaching religion in public school districts are very clear: "You can teach about it as a historical fact or social fact, but you cannot teach about it to promote that religion, or a religious view." He says the discussion about Islam can be part of a comparative religions class, a history of religion class, or even a class where students learn the effect of religion on cultures.
The Los Angeles chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization that carries out educational projects concerned with domestic and international peace and justice and nonviolent alternatives to conflict, offers a professional development course, Teaching about the Arab World and Islam, for Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. "I think especially the reaction to the Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero and things like that make it extremely timely to understand who the Muslim community is in the United States and about our relationship to countries around the world," says Linda Tubach, the course instructor. "After all, we're still at war" against terrorism, she adds.
Peggy Taylor Presley, LAUSD's director of teacher support, says Tubach's professional development course helps teachers teach about diversity, which is part of the social studies curricula taught throughout K-12. It meets the state's academic content standards. The district's diversity lessons don't only focus on Islam, but on other cultural and religious topics, such as Korean history and culture, the human rights of immigrants, and the Holocaust. "We have to make sure there is a broad base of understanding," Presley says.
She adds that the school board values diversity: "The fact that we have these course offerings [to teachers] is an indication that our district embraces opportunities to ensure there is support for classroom teachers."
Tom Roderick, executive director of New York City's Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, adds that it's "absolutely crucial" for schools to educate students fairly and accurately about Islam and to provide a safe environment for Muslim students. One of the center's projects, TeachableMoment.org, offers weekly, inquiry-based lessons to teachers on topics such as Islamophobia and the controversy over the Muslim community center. The Morningside Center has worked closely with and provided workshops mostly to New York City schools as part of a Respect for All initiative from Chancellor of Schools Joel Klein and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Another teaching piece provides background for teachers on the complicated relationship between Islam and the West.
"These are real issues that schools ought to be addressing," Roderick says. "There is so much hysteria and misinformation out there, and I think the Muslim community center is a good example. People kept referring to it as a mosque—it's not. It's a community center. We are trying to put out information that is accurate and gets kids thinking. We use inquiry approaches to get them to think and make up their own minds. And I think it's an important responsibility that schools need to do. If schools don't, who will?"
The Morningside Center as a whole focuses on training teachers and helping schools implement evidence-based programs in social and emotional learning, Roderick says. Its major program is called the 4Rs—reading, writing, respect and resolution-—and provides teaching guides, training and classroom coaching to support teachers as they provide weekly instruction to students in how to manage feelings, listen, be assertive, solve problems, and stand up to discrimination and bullying.
Five years ago, Tubach, who is also a retired L.A. high school social studies teacher, started offering the 15-hour professional development course. "It's a very popular class, considering current events and the current foreign policy," Tubach says. "It has been approved and meets district standards and has been vetted completely."
The class offers speakers and workshop sessions on subjects ranging from Muslim women and their attire to Middle East geography. Tubach encourages teachers to get evaluations of their classes from their students. "Students say [in those evaluations] they learned things that changed the way they thought about Arabs and Muslims," she recalls. "They learned that not everyone wears a headscarf, they learned what jihad means, and they learned that everybody's different and that stereotypes are really dangerous."