The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq marked my first year of teaching. When one of my students referred to Iraqis as “towel heads,” I told him he had to do extra homework researching turbans and present a report to me the next day. It took him a week to complete the assignment, and instead of gaining insight and compassion for a different group of people, he probably just became more resentful. I now see this as a lost opportunity.
As a precursor to our social studies unit on conflict in the Middle East, I taught a unit this year on world religions. We started off studying seven of the world’s major faiths and then narrowed it down to the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
There are no Muslim or Jewish students in my class, and at the beginning of our unit, it was clear to me that my students knew very little about Islam’s status as the second-largest and fastest-growing religion in the world. In a pretest, I asked students to list the three largest world religions. Islam only appeared on two or three of the tests.
Students had lots of questions about Islam: “Why do the women wear those scarves on their heads? Don’t most Muslim women wear burkas? Why did they attack us on 9/11?”
In order to break through the boundary between “us” and “them,” our study of the Abrahamic faiths had to go beyond texts and videos. My student teacher and I set up visits to three local sites: a synagogue, a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox church. Students were able to immediately compare the faiths as we went from one site to another on one day, focusing on what all the faiths have in common.
Our site hosts were generous and welcoming. The guide at the church walked the students down the aisle as if they were Byzantine royalty. The youth outreach coordinator at the temple demonstrated a bread blessing. The representatives at the Mosque (a man and a woman) not only took us into the prayer room, they also brought us doughnuts and bottled water. At no time did the guides cross the line into proselytizing, and at no time did the students offer anything but respect for the hosts.
The most memorable moment for me came during the question-and-answer time at the mosque. “I don’t know much about Islam,” an eighth-grade student said, “and it seems a lot of people are confused about it, too. If you could put the message of Islam into one sentence, to help people understand, what would it be?”
“Islam means ‘peace,’” he replied. “That is what Islam is.”
She nodded slowly, perhaps in surprise, and then smiled. I guess she liked the answer. I’m just really glad she had the chance to ask the question.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.