by Andy Beutel
War and terrorists. These were the two words my students most commonly associated with Islam, Muslims and the Middle East. Projected on the screen in the form of a word cloud that enlarges the most often repeated words, it was clear to all students that the majority of them had negative associations with Islam. Unfortunately, this is a trend I’ve seen year after year among my students.
I teach seventh grade social studies in a high-achieving public school district situated in an affluent, suburban, and conservative-leaning town in northern New Jersey. The school is somewhat diverse in relation to the neighboring school districts but the student body is nearly 80% white and the majority are Christian and from families earning a household income well above the state average. For most of the students, my class is their first exposure to contemporary social and political issues beyond what they have seen on social media or heard at home and this is especially the case with topics related to unfamiliar cultures and places.
One my overarching goals as a teacher is to help students think critically about the world in which they live or develop what Freire (1997) described as a “critical consciousness.” I seek to expose them to issues of social injustice like discrimination, war, and inequality and help them to analyze issues from multiple perspectives. I want them to be able to think beyond their bubble and understand their place in the broader society as it compares to those who are underserved. At the same time, I try to empower them with the skills to analyze societal challenges and consider creative ways those challenges could be addressed. However, as Swalwell (2013) noted, it is difficult to engage in this type of teaching with this population of students while avoiding the alienation of students and accusations of indoctrination from parents and administrators. To achieve this goal, I teach social studies by having students analyze different types of primary and secondary sources, synthesize information they are learning with their prior knowledge, write for conceptual understanding rather than factual regurgitation, and consider how the past is relevant to the present (Downey & Long, 2016).
I approached the unit I teach on Islam and the Middle East through this lens. Out of my 110 students I taught last school year, only three were Muslim. I tried to teach in a way that valued the culture of those few students while also challenging the misconceptions and stereotypes of the majority of my students. As part of the introductory lesson, we discussed the differences between extremists and typical adherents to a religion and then students responded to an analogy comparing Muslims to ISIS with Christians to the Ku Klux Klan. My goal in my first lesson was simply to have students be willing and able to recognize that not all Muslims are terrorists.
From there, students learned about the history and beliefs of Islam. They analyzed the similarities and differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the spread of Islam and its influence in parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. They studied the lasting contributions of Muslim civilizations and empires and saw how life in the Middle East one thousand years ago was a much different place than what they see and hear today. Unfortunately, I have found over my years of teaching world history that most of my students don’t develop empathy for people today by learning about people from the same place in the past.
I have consistently struggled with how to approach teaching the Middle East in the modern day in a way that helps them critically understand the issues while also challenging their negative assumptions about Muslims. Part of my goal is to help students understand the complexities of the conflicts and the involvement and culpability of the United States in those conflicts. Students are not wrong in associating the Middle East with war – for their entire lifetimes the US has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and in recent years wars in Syria and Yemen. Even as I write this there is speculation of the US starting a war with Iran. But the students need to understand that most people living in these places are simply trying to go to school, work, have families, and live their lives free of violence and persecution (much like people in their own country). To that end, I approached this part of the unit differently than in previous years. Rather than focusing solely on current events articles and video clips, I had students read part of a young adult fiction book.
The book is called Refugee and it was written by Alan Gratz and published in 2017. The book is broken into three separate but similar stories of refugee children set in different times and places. The story I assigned to my students was about a fictionalized 12-year-old Syrian boy and his family who fled the war in Syria in 2015 and journeyed as refugees to Germany. The story integrates information that the students learned in class including the geography of the Middle East, religious and cultural aspects of Islam, and the conflict in Syria. Additionally, the book raised key questions about topics we explored throughout the year such as migration, war, and human rights. Finally, I thought reading this book would help students empathize with people who have different life experiences from their own, specifically refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East as well as those seeking asylum at the southern border in the United States. Ultimately, my hope was that by reading this story it would help to de-otherize marginalized refugees of color for my white, non-marginalized students.
During each class period over the course of seven days, students read parts of the story, responded to reflection questions, and engaged in a critical discussion with their peers. As hooks (1994) asserted, when all students are actively engaged in critical reflection and dialogue with others it helps them better understand themselves and their world. Some of the topics students discussed included the idea of loss, the complexity and effects of living in a place at war, living without a home, how refugees are viewed by others, and the criminalization and imprisonment of refugees. Students also considered decisions made by the characters like leaving one’s home country and entering a country illegally. After finishing the story, the culminating questions I asked the students were:
- Do you think refugees (people fleeing their home country due to persecution, war or violence) should be free to move to a country of their choice? Why or why not?
- Do you think countries that are wealthy, free and relatively safe (like the US, Canada and many in Western Europe) should be taking in more refugees? Why or why not?
In the end, there were quite a few students who wrote responses that demonstrated empathy and support for refugees, including a desire for their own country to do more for these people. For example, in response to the first question about whether refugees should be free to move to a new country, Amelia wrote: “Yes because nobody owns a country and if someone wants to live there they can.” Similarly, Sydney wrote: “Yes I do believe that refugees should be free to move to a country of their choice because I feel like they should be able to be free and have their own choices.” Responding to the second question about whether countries like the US should be taking in more refugees, Megan emphatically stated, “Yes! If we can take in more refugees, we should! Reading this story made me realize the hardships they have to go through. I think it is absurd to have a law banning refugees from Syria. These people are just trying to find a home, and it’s ridiculous to ban them.” This group of students represents those with the most support for refugees. However, not all students adopted this perspective.
Many students wrote responses indicating some empathy and support for refugees but with conditions and limitations. For instance, Abby reached this conclusion: “From reading this book, I learned just how hard it is for people to have freedom. I gained a new understanding on all the Mexicans trying to come in. Although I still don’t want them in, I feel bad. I think that refugees should be able to have freedom but don’t be waiting for months to get into my country.” Here, it is clear that Abby developed empathy for refugees but is not willing to go the next step and see her country support and honor the freedom of refugees. Mike wrote in response to the question about freedom of movement: “I believe it shouldn’t be free, but based on the refugee’s assets and how useful they are to the country.” Mike was rather ambivalent to the plight of refugees on a human level but saw the question of entry into a country through a utilitarian lens, only wanting people to come into a country if they add value for the people already living there. Both of these responses reveal some sympathy for refugees but also a view of the United States as belonging to them as American citizens rather than others seeking entry.
A handful of students remained obstinate in their completely negative view of refugees. The most obvious example of this is Sarah who wrote in response to the question about whether refugees should be free to move to a new country: “No. They could be carrying diseases and spreading them throughout all different countries. They could also be terrorists so there should be a background check. Lastly, some people could be spies working for enemies.” This response is disappointing on several levels but further justifies correcting misinformation among our students and emphasizing the importance of facts and evidence to guide our views.
On balance, the majority of students both enjoyed and learned from the book study. For example, Nicole said, “On a scale of 1-5, I would give it a 5 because usually I don’t like reading books but this was different. I loved this. I think it fits right into social studies and we should read more like this. I learned that life could be crazy and a big journey especially for kids my age too. I gained new insights and perspectives by reading this book.” Nicole was a struggling student all year but this activity enabled her to better access the information about refugees and make personal connections to the content. While the analysis of non-fiction texts is essential to the teaching of social studies, this response validates the integration of fictional texts as a supplemental resource. This book in particular was ideal for in-class reading with my seventh grade students. The late elementary/early middle school reading level allowed my struggling readers to be successful and the two other refugee stories in the book created a built-in supplemental activity for my stronger readers.
After the book study, students completed an inquiry-based research project as a final assessment for the unit. They had the choice of focusing on either cultural practices and misunderstandings, countries in conflict, activism, or refugees in the Middle East today. Many students chose to learn more about refugees after reading the book. Through the project, students were able to dig deeper into their topic of choice through focused research. As part of the assignment, students wrote reflective responses about why they chose the topic they did and how they are affected by the issue. Hannah wrote the following in her reflection:
“Syrian refugees really interests me because before I did this project I saw Syrian refugees as terrorist (sic). But after I did this project I know now everything they go through. This affects me because now I won’t take anything for granted. For example, I am able to go out with my friends without my parents being worried about me getting shot or something bad. But Syrias (sic) can’t even leave their house for two minutes without getting asked to recruit or getting shot or having an air missile dropped on them. This also affects me because illegal Syrian refugees have been coming into our country for the wrong reasons and killing legal people in our country. This could affect me because the person that they could decide to hurt could be someone that I love and care about.”
This single response captures both the possibilities and limitations of critical teaching and learning in an affluent, suburban, majority-white public school setting. Hannah began the year with strongly negative views of Muslims and refugees but through the book study and research project she developed a more nuanced and empathetic view of refugees. However, despite that new perspective, her default was still to assume that Syrian refugees are a threat to the country and her family.
For nearly all of my students, the issues of war and human rights are far-removed from their everyday lives. For that reason, the social studies classroom is an invaluable space for critically engaging with these questions and topics and confronting the racial stereotypes that permeate our society. Progress on this front is both necessary and possible through the use of carefully-selected texts, student-centered research projects, guided dialogue and reflective writing.
Downey, M. T., & Long, K. A. (2016). Teaching for historical literacy building knowledge in the history classroom. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised 20th anniversary ed). New York: Continuum. (Original work published in 1970).
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Swalwell, K. (2013). Educating activist allies: Social justice pedagogy with the suburban and urban elite. New York, NY: Routledge.
 All student names have been changed to ensure privacy.