By Ahlam Yassin
Tell me the first words that come to mind when you think of the Middle East. My usually talkative class was quiet. I, their visibly Muslim, Arab American teacher looked around the classroom during a dramatic pause and in the moment I realized how strange this may have seemed to them.
After a minute or so, a brave soul responds, “well, nothing good.”
I say, “O.K.… what are they?” And slowly one student after another chimed in, and this was the list of words: oil, terrorism, bombs, Third World, war, conflict, Muslim, Islam. And there began our unit on The Modern Middle East.
As the bell rang, there was a lot to unpack and I stood for a moment and looked at the board. I was a bit stunned at how little the perception of the Middle East had changed, even with the advent of social media and access to information, since I was in high school.
Two months earlier, here in New Jersey, a student asked for an extension on his assignment and the teacher responded to the request with “we do not negotiate with terrorists.” This Ridgefield incident came on the heels of yet another event in a New Jersey town, not in high school but in elementary school. In both instances, there are children who will now question if they belong in their school and their place in their community and their identity.
Sahar Aziz’s The Racial Muslim says that nine of the 10 articles published on Muslims are negative. According to Azis, The New York Times (to which I subscribe) “portrayed Islam and Muslims more negatively than alcohol, cancer and cocaine, among other benchmarked words.” Aziz continues to describe the impact as “making the term Muslim as maligned as cancer or drugs,” according to a 416 Labs report. It is no wonder why students who grew up in the shadows of the “War on Terror” associate the Middle East with negative connotations.
Educators and policymakers should be at the forefront of the push to globalize our classrooms, or at the bare minimum have an understanding and respect for the diverse backgrounds of our own students.
The Garden State ranks sixth in having the most segregated schools. If we are to prepare our students with the skills needed in a complex global community, this is not the path forward. Collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving are all byproducts of a diverse educational community.
Unfortunately, the trend in our state and our nation indicates we are moving in the opposite direction, which continues to uphold opportunities for the wealthy and leaves marginalized communities behind. Although educators do not have control of the external factors that drive biases, we have the power to create welcoming spaces in our classrooms.
State Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz has introduced bill S1659 to the state legislature, which would require all New Jersey educators to receive cultural competency training biennially, which falls in line with what the majority of U.S. states have been doing for years.
As the 2020 Census indicates, New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the U.S. and instead of playing catch up in creating classrooms that are led by culturally competent educators, we should be leading the way.
Educators, parents, school districts and community stakeholders should rally around this bill because it benefits our children. Students who walk into a school building should not feel required to leave a piece of who they are at that door, regardless of their background and as the adults in the room, educators should know how to facilitate a sense of belonging in their classrooms.
– Ahlam Yassin, MA.Ed. is a secondary school educator. She is a high school debate coach, Fulbright Global Classrooms and New Jersey Teacher Leader Policy Fellow. Yassin has centered her research on the impact of culturally competent teaching methods in the United States and international classrooms. This article was published first by: https://www.nj.com/. It has been edited for style.