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Opinion Teaching about religion in public schools can be risky, but it’s worth it

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On Friday, a Virginia school system made news by shutting down in response to hate mail and other backlash about a world geography lesson on Islam. Some parents had vehemently protested an assignment for students to practice calligraphy by writing the shahada, or Muslim statement of faith. While such a dramatic reaction from administrators may be unprecedented, teachers facing controversy as they try to teach about religion is common.

Furor over Arabic assignment leads Virginia school district to close today

In this case, like others, school district officials stood by the teacher. Educating about religion has long been a part of the curriculum in Virginia schools and elsewhere. Most states passed standards during the past two decades requiring that students be educated about the world’s religions as part of social studies and geography. Some teachers were teaching about world religions long before the standards existed.

In writing a book about schools’ efforts to teach about religion, I found that Islam is singled out for fear in the classroom. Regardless of the teacher’s approach, opponents often claim that children are being indoctrinated into a faith they see as evil. Many argue against teaching Islam by saying they feel public schools have abandoned Christianity.

While schools have steadfastly refuted claims of indoctrination, the controversies reveal a reality: Teaching about religion is complicated. With lots of gray areas.

In the Virginia case, the high school social studies teacher reportedly used a calligraphy assignment from a workbook teachers had created on world religions. The assignment displayed the calligraphy for the shahada in Arabic and advised students to try copying it to get an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.

That statement, which translates to “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” is sacred to Muslims, but the latter part in particular would obviously conflict with the beliefs of non-Muslims. The teacher also reportedly gave students the option of using scarves and wearing them as if they were hijab. I don’t believe the Virginia teacher erred with the calligraphy exercise, given that the assignment’s purpose was clear. But perhaps she could have used a non-prayer. Having students act out trying on hijab or other religious garb may be more problematic because it’s akin to reenacting religious ritual.

In 2013, a high school world geography teacher in Lumberton, Tex.,  had students dress up in a burqa, setting off a furor. The teacher had done the exercise for 15 years, but this time a student took a photo and posted it on Facebook. It went viral, leading to months of complaints that the school system was indoctrinating students and promoting the oppression of women.

Other more recent clashes in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia highlight how little Americans know about Islam and how much they fear it. The conflicts also reveal the careful dance for world religion teachers.

Did the Virginia teacher err by letting students try on scarves to simulate wearing hijab? Is it appropriate to have students write out the Lord’s Prayer, the Muslim statement of faith, or the Sh’ma, a key prayer in Judaism that affirms Jews’ belief in one God? Should students, as happened on a suburban Boston school’s field trip to a mosque, witness active worship?

If an activity simulates ritual, it risks the appearance of crossing that fragile line separating church and state. At the very least, it may unnecessarily make students uncomfortable. Teachers also risk offending students of the faith on display.

In every case I chronicled in my book, teachers’ intent was purely educational. They wanted to spark students’ interest. But in getting creative, teachers need to walk a fine line.

I’ve seen teachers read the English translation of the shahada as part of a lesson about the core beliefs of Islam and also play a recording of the call to prayer. I’ve also heard teachers read the translation of the Sh’ma and read words of a Christian prayer. They did not ask students to recite prayers.

They are not attempting to proselytize, they are educating students about the similarities and differences of these three monotheistic faiths.

World religion teachers in Wellesley, Mass., became warier after receiving hate mail and experiencing national controversy in the aftermath of a 2010 sixth-grade mosque field trip. They continued the mosque trips, but selected a different one that didn’t have active worship daily so they could avoid the previous error. A worshiper had invited a handful of boys to join the call to prayer but the intent was to have students observe, not participate.
Wellesley teachers also continued annual field trips to a synagogue. On one trip a few years ago, the associate rabbi handed each student a yarmulke, also called a kippah, the head covering Jews wear in holy spaces. A teacher winced at the sight and asked a colleague if they should interfere with the rabbi’s action. By asking students to cover their heads, were they engaging in a ritual act?

Just before the rabbi was to give a talk about Judaism, one of the teachers walked over and shared the concerns about the yarmulkes. The other teacher then announced to students: “I’m going to ask people who are wearing the kippahs, if you are Jewish, you can wear them. If not, take them off.” The majority of students took them off.

Some might argue that visitors, out of respect, should don yarmulkes when they enter a Jewish worship space. But when public school students are the visitors, the rules are different. Students can learn about a practice without doing it.

The parents in Virginia and other places certainly overreacted based on unfounded fears. It is, however, okay and necessary to have reasoned discourse about the best approach to teaching about religion, all religions. But let’s not single out Islam.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a former education editor for the Boston Globe, is the author of “Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” Find her on Twitter @lindakwert

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