Teaching Islam in a Catholic School

This article is by Gregory J. Landrigan, a teacher in the 2015-16 Teaching for Change Stories from Our Classroom course.

By Gregory J. Landrigan

Most of my students had questions about logistics. What sort of lunch should we bring? Can we please not wear our uniforms? Will we be back by the end of the day? Then I called on Jonathan, “So when we get there, I mean while we are at the Mosque, are we going to pray?” It was the perfect question. Jonathan understood that prayer transcends religious affiliations. Our school community is one that prays together and it only made sense that while visiting a place of prayer that is what we would do. But I didn’t have an answer. Could a fifth grade class from a Catholic school visit a Mosque and pray?

While planning for this school year, my partner teacher and I started to wonder about the stories and perspectives that are not represented in our school community or in our neighborhood. We wanted to add activities to our curricula that would help our students to find connections between their lives and the lives of peoples about which they did not know first hand. We organized our units of study around themes that could serve as cross currents for our students’ thinking in the different subject areas. These themes included identity, conflict, learning, and diversity.

When our planning started and as the new activities rolled out at the start of the school year, we were just hoping to expose students to the world around them. But when the terror attacks in Paris happened, and when hate-crimes against Muslims in the United States tripled, and when presidential candidates started to feed off fear, bigotry, and hatred; our curriculum about appreciating other cultures became a curriculum about defying racism and building a more inclusive society.

The Archdiocese of Washington religion standards call for a study of Islam. But the fifth grade religion standards are 44 pages long and the three standards pertaining to Islam are on page 42. Our religion textbooks are only about the Catholic religion and there were no curricular materials available in our school to support a study of other religions.

I asked my students what they knew about Islam during religion class on the Monday after the terror attacks in Paris. They were silent. Eyes darted about, looking to see if anyone could answer the question. Many students knew the word Muslim and a few recognized that it referred to a people, but nobody knew that it refers to people who practice a specific religion. I was relieved. I had worried they would raise their hands to talk about ISIS or bring up terrorism. But in that moment, I pictured my students’ first exposure to Islam if I did not build it into our learning. I imagined them thinking of Islam as an adjective that precedes the word terrorism or the name of the “state” that is causing so many problems in Syria.

In a classroom of students that are all Christian and in which all but one are Catholic, I worried that it would become easy for my students to dismiss Islam as a faith that inspires global terrorism. I worried that some students might have a misguided sense of Catholic identity that could become a source of hatred if we did not explore other religious perspectives.

Bringing Islam into the classroom

We approached our learning from both a religious perspective and through a study of current news reports about the Muslim world. We wanted our students to learn to respect Islam as a religion that is closely tied to and related to their own Christian faith. We also wanted students to understand its context in the Muslim world.

Our class started each morning looking at one story in the news.  I scheduled the activity into the beginning of our Language Arts block. Students discussed their reactions to the story and connected the story to the themes that we organized our units of study around. As our studies of Islam began, I sought out stories about the Muslim world for my students to discuss. We looked at an article that the Washington Post ran about US colleges opening campuses in Qatar. We saw Saudi women vote for the first time. We followed the suspension of Larycia Hawkins from Wheaton College because of posts she made to Facebook saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

While we looked at current articles in the morning, I added a unit of study about the Abrahamic religions to our religion curriculum. Our regular religion curriculum was put on pause for two weeks while we explored the ancestral links between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was important for students to learn about other religions during the time of day set aside for a class that usually pertains exclusively to our Catholic faith.

Then one morning I found an article that inspired an important conversation among my students. Pope Francis was in a Muslim region of the Central African Republic where he visited a mosque to pray. After students discussed the article, I asked who wanted to share. Lots of hands went up. Edgardo jumped in to talk about one of the photos in the article, “Look how happy all those people are to see the Pope. I mean, you said it’s a Muslim region. So they’re not even Catholic, but they know he’s there for peace.” Canfield steered us toward the Pope’s message, “and he went there to visit a Mosque. It’s like he’s telling Catholics—telling us—that we should feel comfortable with Islam.”

“So what does that mean for us?” I asked the class. Someone called out, “We should go to a Mosque on a field trip … just like the Pope.” Heads nodded in agreement and I knew I had a field trip to plan.

At the Mosque

We sat on the carpeted floor of the mosque as people filtered in and began preparing for afternoon prayer.  Our guide asked, “So, a question for all of you, what are Islam, Christianity and Judaism?” Hands went into the air. My students were ready for this question. Our guide pointed to Evelyn. “Um, they’re all religions?” The other students nodded, that was the answer they had planned to give.  Our guide nodded, “But what does that mean? What is a religion?” Hands slowly lowered.

Our guide relished the moment, “Ah, now I get to be the teacher.” He smiled, “Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all ways of life, all different ways to the same God.” As he described how a Muslim prays, this was a point that he came back to several times. The guide spoke to students about the five pillars of Islam, Muhammad and the Koran. Then he demonstrated how a Muslim prays. Gesturing with his hands, he brought them to beside his cheeks and crossing his arms over his chest he prayed in Arabic as he prostrated himself.

The carpeted space filled while we sat with our guide. Then an Imam stepped to the front and called the worshippers to prayer. Our guide excused himself and left us. My students and I sat watching the process of afternoon prayer. The congregants formed lines and prostrated themselves in unison praying in Arabic.

Reflecting later, my students found interesting similarities between their own way of worship and Muslim prayer. The prostrations reminded them of genuflecting and kneeling at Catholic mass. They saw connections between the hand gestures that started the Islamic prayer and their own sign of the cross.

Our students’ learning

As our students planned the essays that they would write during our thematic unit on conflict, we saw their respect for Islam emerge in their ideas. One student chose to write about Islamophobia in the United States and proposed that all Americans wear the hijab in solidarity. Others wrote about the need to accept refugees from the Syrian conflict here in the United States in defiance of several outspoken political figures. Another described the use of Islam as a justification for terror as a misunderstanding of the religion.

By studying Islam our students also deepened their appreciation for their own faith tradition. Elements of their own worship like the sign of the cross, statues in Catholic churches, genuflecting, and holy water were pieces of Catholicism that they did not see in the Mosque. Students came to recognize these elements of their faith as being uniquely Catholic because of our visit and this deepened their love for their own faith.

Lessons for future planning

We added Islam to our learning as a response to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the news that we worried would negatively influence our students’ perceptions of the religion. Because of this, it lacked the pre-planning that would have allowed us to integrate our studies into other subjects, like Social Studies, Math, or Science. Our decision to explore Islam as a faith and also in the context of the Muslim world was powerful for our students. But studying the culture of Islam through newspaper articles left us at the mercy of what came out in the news. Going forward, we will permanently add studies of non-Catholic religions to our religion curriculum, which will allow us to plan ahead and integrate these cultural studies into our other classes as well.

Religious intolerance develops out of a fear that is rooted in ignorance. It is critical that students raised in the traditions of a particular faith, have meaningful experiences with other religions. Our study of Islam gave my students the tools they need to forge an inclusive and just world.

Gregory Landrigan taught language arts in a New York City public middle school and currently is a fifth grade teacher at a Catholic school in Washington, D.C. He holds a Masters of Arts in Bilingual Education from Teachers College.


© 2017, Gregory Landrigan and Teaching for Change. Contact Teaching for Change at info@teachingforchange.org for reprint permission.

Posted Thursday, February 2, 2017 |

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