Our staff took an in-service afternoon to design a new approach to Ramadan. It wasn’t for a teaching unit, but out of consideration for the more than 30 Muslim students in our school. During this period of religious observance, which requires fasting, these students were directed to the cafeteria at lunchtime as usual. Some took to the media center, but most suffered in the cafeteria.
Stella, our new principal, and a majority of the faculty are culturally Christian. We had not realized how large the Muslim student population was in this Midwestern, urban middle school. Our principal asked how to be sensitive to the needs of these students and keep them engaged. We now had an opportunity to create a solution, honor a cultural tradition and better serve our students.
Audra, head of our media center, said she had seen students come into the center, hungry and bored. That boredom led to violations of the school internet policy that frowned upon the use of Facebook or non-educational games.
As the brainstorming began, we quickly realized most of us knew little about the local Muslim community. Audra and our ESL teacher, Madiha, knew more. Some members of the Muslim community had been in our area for decades and had even founded a local mosque, while others were part of a stream of new immigrants.
“They’re hungry, and—let’s face it—bored,” Audra said, adding that this year’s holy days were being celebrated during the first three weeks of school. “Even in the media center, they try to be good, but calling it an ‘extra study hall’ is not really helpful. They aren’t working on major research this early in the year, yet they are sitting right next to the computers. Students ought to have something useful to do.”
We all knew the district’s internet policy. The central office didn’t want students using email, Facebook or non-educational games during school hours, even if they had nothing else to do. Enforcing that rule was an endless headache for any faculty member supervising computer use.
Madiha developed a “mentor project,” exercises for English language learners. She also arranged to have experienced speakers act as tutors.
Audra contacted the local Imam, the Muslim prayer leader. He recruited three of our students to make lunch tray favors for nursing home residents as a community-service project.
Others participated in extra football, soccer or track practice during lunch-hour PE classes. The band and choir teachers opened their classes to the musically inclined. I offered an extra-credit project to study Islamic art.
A few students opted to read quietly in the media center, but most of the special projects had at least one taker. Parents were delighted and let the district know. Soon there were programs like ours in all grades.
We were truly serving our students. All it took was being mindful and seizing the opportunity to be proactive for our students.
Gephardt teaches private art classes in Kansas.