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Where Is Arabia, Anyway?
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In this week's Starr Points, columnist Linda Starr talks about teaching, preaching, and tolerance.

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On September 11, 2001, amid clouds of smoke and showers of debris, New York City public-school teachers safely evacuated more than 8,000 students from schools located near the World Trade Center. Be sure to add those teachers -- and all teachers -- to your list of 'America's Heroes!'

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige called on educators to help end harassment of Muslim and Arab-American students that has arisen in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In a letter to school leaders and college presidents, Paige asked educators to protect their students from ethnic harassment and to send a message that "such conduct is unconditionally wrong and will not be tolerated in our schools."

A reasonable request, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough. Paige's statement asks teachers to preach the doctrine of tolerance but fails to charge educators with their most important task in ending ethnic intolerance -- dispelling the ignorance that engenders it.

Teachers are not preachers, a fact our society has lost sight of in its crusade to rapidly inoculate our children against the physical and moral dangers they face. Preachers urge right actions because those actions are moral imperatives. Teachers give kids the knowledge they need to choose right actions because those actions make sense. Or they should.

Instead of telling students that all people of Arab extraction are not alike, teachers should give kids maps and help them locate Arab countries and Middle Eastern countries. Do they know that Arabs don't come from a single country called "Arabia?" Do they know that Afghanistan is not an Arab country?

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four grown children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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Instead of telling kids that not all Arabs are terrorists, teachers should help kids learn about the many Arab Americans who have contributed to our society. Do they know that an estimated 6 million Muslims and 3 million Arab Americans are contributing members of U.S. society? Do they know that Doug Flutie, Donna Shalala, Paula Abdul, and Christa McAuliffe are of Arab descent?

Instead of telling kids that the Islamic religion does not advocate terrorism, teachers should introduce their students to the history and tenets of the world's major religions. Do they know that Islam is the second largest religion in the world? Do they know that the name Islam is derived from the word salam, which means "peace"?

Instead of ... well, you get the idea. Today's kids are inundated with talk, but they are woefully short of facts. It is up to teachers to give them those facts. If we don't know them ourselves (and many of us don't!), we need to learn. We need to educate ourselves -- and then we need to educate our students.

We can't expect kids who are exposed to nightly reminders of the murders at the Pentagon and World Trade Center to not be angry. We can't expect kids who hear reports of "sleeper" terrorist cells throughout the world to not be afraid. And we can't expect that merely preaching tolerance will dissipate that anger and fear. Talk can't end intolerance, but facts can -- facts that make ethnic bigotry not just unacceptable, but unreasonable.

Certainly educators can model tolerance. They can insist on kindness in their classrooms and in their schools. But a teacher's most important responsibility is to teach -- not to preach.