Lessions of Inclusion
American Public School Kids Learn About Ramadhan
Squeezing through a thick swarm of his giggling and gregarious sixth-grade classmates, Luis Macias, 12, stood on tiptoe to get a peep at a table crammed with clothing from the Middle East, sesame candies and leather-bound books with curly swirls of Arabic writing.
Within seconds, he spotted what he wanted: a black, green and velvet Kufi hat, with round mirrors and glitter dotting the sides. He placed the hat from Afghanistan atop his mop of black hair and quickly scrambled to his seat.
"Now that you are all wearing clothes from the Middle East, we can talk about them and what the upcoming special month for Muslims is," said Samira Hussein, a guest speaker at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring. "Does anyone know what is coming up?"
Blank faces. Embarrassed shrugs. Even though Luis was smiling in his Kufi, the boy from Ecuador had never heard of Muslims, let alone what their holy month was.
"It's Ramadan, my holiday," answered Daad Mohamed, 12, a Sudanese American student. "We fast and get gifts at the end."
Eyes grew wide. Hands starting shooting into the air with questions as Hussein, a Muslim activist who works as a cultural liaison for the Montgomery County public schools, explained the 30-day period of fasting and reflection that started this week.
As the Muslim population in schools soars, lessons like this--complete with extensive lesson plans--have become more common in classrooms across the Washington region. It's part of a growing effort in public schools to increase understanding and decrease stereotypes of Muslim students and their traditions.
Educators said they are careful to keep the lessons focused on information rather than religious preaching. But they added that with thousands of Muslim students now attending Washington area schools, basic knowledge of Muslim students and their holidays is needed, especially during a time of tense conflict in the Middle East.
Cynthia Ross, who runs the Middle Eastern/South Asian Club at Chantilly High School, where about half the club's members are Muslims, said: "I recently got a call from a parent who wanted to know why we would sponsor a club like this. She started echoing stereotypes, and it was very tough and very painful. I think we very much need these kinds of sessions and clubs so people can gain some understanding."
Some Muslim activists and students are also talking about the idea of having a formal Muslim or Middle Eastern Heritage month, much like Hispanic and African American heritage months.
At Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Amani Elkassabany, a Muslim teacher and adviser for the Muslim Students Association, said she supports the idea and believes it could boost the self-esteem of students from the Middle East.
"The students are really struggling against negative images of Islam," said Elkassabany. "It's hard enough being a teenager and wanting to be accepted. As Muslims, some of these students are really reluctant to tell their peers about their culture because of the stereotypes that are out there."
At the school, Muslim and non-Muslim students alike prepared information cards that explained Ramadan. The cards described how Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the month. They also said that Muslims have a three-day party called an Eid al-Fitr with food and gifts at the end of Ramadan, which marks the revelation of their holy book, the Qur'an.
The students also made small packages of dried apricots, dates and almonds--foods used to break the fast every day after sunset--and placed them in the mailboxes of all the teachers in the school.
"It's kind of hard when you tell people that you are fasting," said Afshan Chaudhry, 17, a Muslim student at Wootton. "Most people don't know much about the religion."Many Washington area schools are hosting information and Islamic heritage sessions around the time of Ramadan. Several school districts, including Montgomery County and Fairfax County, have also held Ramadan sessions for teachers that include trips to local mosques.
"I sent out e-mails to the entire staff explaining about Ramadan," said Isabel Showkatian, a second-grade teacher at Bailey's Elementary School in Fairfax County, who is Muslim. "And I brought out books about Ramadan and told teachers they could borrow them from me. The Muslim students become so excited when they meet someone who knows what Ramadan is about."
At Herndon Elementary School and at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Muslim mothers and teachers have visited classrooms to explain to students the meaning of Ramadan and why some of their classmates are fasting.
"I talk to them about tolerance and teasing and how it's not funny to have someone wave a Twinkie in your face when you are fasting," said Amaarah Decuir, a Muslim who is a sixth-grade teacher at Herndon Elementary School. "I think after you explain that, many students understand."
Afeefa Syeed, an intercultural trainer and consultant, has developed a lesson plan she has used in schools in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties to teach about Ramadan. The curriculum contains a show-and-tell with prayer rugs, Korans and coloring books about the holy month, along with arts-and-crafts projects for students.
Muslim students said they find that the lessons often make it easier for them during Ramadan.
"People always ask if you get presents like Hanukah and Christmas," said Salma Monastra, 11, a sixth-grader at Herndon Elementary. "After a teacher explains, they understand a little bit that it's a fun time and it's not just about fasting."
Students said they prefer that teachers or visitors explain what Ramadan is, saying they sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about it.
"When I went to Muslim school, everybody knew," said Fatima Showkatian, 13, now an eighth-grader at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna. "I kind of like when someone explains to everyone here what it is. It makes it easier for me."
Muslim teachers, including Wafa Hozien, who teaches government at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, said they also appreciate it.
"It's nice, because I like Madonna and I grew up very American," said Hozien, 31, who came to this country from Libya when she was 8. "They can now explain that I can be very American and still have my religion and pride. It's more complicated than people assume."