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Teaching About Islam, the Middle East

Professional Development

Teachers fielded many questions from students in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, some of them dealing with the history, culture, and religions of the Middle East. To better prepare themselves for questions, about 60 Connecticut teachers attended a weeklong seminar about the region and how to use the information in the curriculum. Included: Resources for teaching about the Middle East.


Classroom teachers fielded many questions from students following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011 in New York City and Washington, D.C., and no doubt will face these questions every year as the anniversary of the attacks approaches.

"If Islam is a peaceful religion, why would they do these things?" was among the questions posed to Katherine Field, a teacher at Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, Connecticut, last September. "I haven't had a good answer," she said.

"My biggest problem was a lack of resources," said Jennifer Pompa, a seventh-grade social studies and geography teacher at Flood Middle School in Stratford, Connecticut, about the period after September 11.

Pompa, Field, and about 60 other Connecticut teachers are now better equipped to answer students' questions. The teachers attended a weeklong conference about Islamic culture and religion and the history and geography of the Middle East.


Exploring the Middle East, Islam

Here are some resources for teaching about Islam and the Middle East:


The program, called the Teachers' Institute on Middle Eastern Studies, was held at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The institute was funded in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the Connecticut Humanities Council. The Wethersfield (Connecticut) School District applied for the grant and was required to offer the workshop in conjunction with a college.

"Obviously, [the Middle East] is an important part of the world, and teachers always are faced with questions about it," said a Wethersfield school administrator about why the district applied for the grant. "I think the more information students have, the better chance they have of being critical thinkers. I think ignorance breeds intolerance."

The grant program was developed after September 11 to help teachers and their students better understand Muslim culture and religion and to contradict ideas that all Muslims are terrorists, said Richard Benfield, the program coordinator of the institute and chairman of CCSU's geography studies group.

"The goal was to teach about history and culture and tolerance and knocking down stereotypes [of Muslims and Arabs,"] Benfield told Education World. "Greater understanding, we hope, leads to greater tolerance and respect."

The institute was generated by student questions, he added. "Teachers were finding there was more of a need for information about Middle Eastern issues [after September 11], and some feel the need to fit more of that into their curriculums. We tried to cover the geography, history, and culture of the Middle East. These teachers are going to be asked to provide information and leadership on these issues at their schools."

After four days of lectures about the Middle East and Islam, teachers spent the last day of the institute working in groups developing units and lesson plans. Two follow-up sessions are planned for the fall or winter to allow teachers to share their lesson plans and talk about their experiences using the lessons in their schools.


Most of the teachers at the institute were middle and high school teachers, but several elementary school art teachers who attended were looking forward to using the material.

One of the art teachers said she would like to develop lessons using the geometric patterns in Islamic art and architecture and link them to the math curriculum.

"This is an area we have not had much information about, and this was a good opportunity to learn to teach it," the teacher said. "This is a huge part of our culture and much of it has been left out. This will help students realize the beauty and richness of the Islamic culture. So far, they have only had very negative images of Islam."

Another art teacher said she hopes to connect an Islamic art unit with geography lessons.


Several secondary school teachers at the institute who teach social studies, history, and/or religion said they hoped to use the information to give their students broader perspectives on Islam and the Middle East.

"This has given me a week to focus on the region and think through the issues," said Richard Bruneau, a high school history teacher who teaches a course about Middle Eastern governments.

Field, the Woodstock Academy teacher who teaches comparative religions and world history, said she plans to create a chart showing the similarities among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and would like to find speakers with first-hand knowledge of the Middle East and its religions.

"This is a very important area, and I wanted to learn more about it," Field said. "Hearing about Islam from someone who is Islamic is helpful. It's hard for us to get speakers in our area." The Islamic speakers stressed that terrorism is not a tenet of the Muslim religion. "They said people who said that are misinterpreting the religion."

Pompa, who teaches geography at Flood Middle School, said the institute provided her with numerous resources to find answers for herself and her students about the Middle East and Islam. "On the news, you only get bits and pieces," she said about issues in the Middle East. "It's good when you can go deeper."

Pompa plans to begin the school year with lessons about the Middle East and Asia, to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks "and dispel some of the myths that Islam means terrorism." Pompa also plans to explain the reasons for certain Islamic practices, pertaining to the role of women and why they keep their heads covered.

She also wants to work in a lesson about resolving conflicts with a friend and how those methods might be applied on a global scale. "Since September 11, it's been important to be aware of all areas [of the world]," Pompa said. "We cannot be an isolated country. I think we need to be aware of all people."

Last updated 9/22/2011


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