Teaching Islam a touchy subject

Parent complains; school district defends right to teach about religion

What are they teaching?
To see the state and local education standards, log onto http://tinyurl.com/edstandards. For a breakdown of state-testing emphasis, go to www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/blueprints.asp.

When Dawn Kingsley’s seventh-grade daughter came home from school last week with a class project to diorama the five pillars of the Muslim faith, Kingsley was speechless. Religion has no place in public schools, she thought. A former educator herself, she remembered being forbidden from discussing religion with her students—so how is it OK to teach about Islam in seventh-grade history?

“What happened to the separation of church and state?” she asked.

Teaching religion in public schools is always a sensitive issue. But there’s a difference between teaching students to favor one religion over another or teaching them solely about certain religions and not others and teaching about how religion fits in with history.

“Teaching about the different types of religion isn’t against the law. You just can’t teach to favor one religion over another,” explained John Bohannon, director of alternative education at Chico Unified School District and a former middle-school principal.

Upon seeing her daughter’s project on the five pillars of Islam, Kingsley became upset and called the school to get a copy of the class curriculum. It’s inappropriate to be teaching her daughter about such specifics of the Muslim faith, she said.

“They’re teaching about how they prayed and who they prayed to. They’re teaching about the Quran,” said Kingsley, whose daughter attends Bidwell Junior High School. “I don’t see her coming home with projects on the Ten Commandments, or learning about Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.”

If they’re going to discuss religion in the classroom, they should discuss all religions equally, she argued. That means minority as well as majority religions.

Looking only at the Chico Unified School District’s curriculum guidelines for seventh-grade history, her point can be seen fairly clearly. The class, which covers world history and geography in medieval and early modern times, spans Europe, Africa and Asia from the years 500-1789. Sections include the Roman Empire, China in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Reformation and Scientific Revolution. And Islam.

While many of the sections claim to cover religion, when you read the description of individual chapters, religions are merely mentioned. Example: In the section on medieval Europe, there’s a chapter discussing “the causes and course of the religious Crusades and their effects on the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish populations in Europe ….” In contrast, one of the two sections on Islam calls for teachers to “Trace the origins of Islam and the life and teachings of Muhammad ….”

When you ask CUSD officials about the content of the seventh-grade history class, however, they say they’re just following state guidelines. And that does seem to be the case.

CUSD created its guidelines based on the state standards—i.e., what the state deems most important and what students will ultimately be tested on. Based on time constraints, schools can’t teach everything included in the state standards, so school districts choose which sections and chapters to emphasize. Only two chapters from the state’s six regarding Islam are included in CUSD’s curriculum. They happen to focus on the religion more than Muslim society and politics.

“Our students are being held accountable,” said Bohannon, referring to the test they will take in the eighth grade covering everything they learned in history over the past three years. “We want to make sure we’re emphasizing what the state is emphasizing.”

Bohannon did not have a hand in putting together the curriculum in question, but he pointed to a state document highlighting the emphasis that that eighth-grade test puts on each section and chapter in the state’s standards as a likely starting point. Indeed, more emphasis is put on the two chapters on Islam included in CUSD’s curriculum than the four omitted from the state standards.

“There are experts who have analyzed that if you were to teach everything [included in the state standards], kids would be in school until they were 22,” Bohannon said. “We try to find what’s most important and build from there. That doesn’t mean that’s all we’re teaching.”

While CUSD does not have a standard sixth-grade history curriculum available on its website, a look at the state standards and which of those standards are emphasized on the eighth-grade history test indicates that sixth-graders in CUSD should be learning about the fundamentals of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

“It’s a progressive curriculum,” explained Judi Roth, principal at Bidwell Junior High. So, what the students learn in seventh grade builds on what they learned in sixth.

Kingsley said she would be bringing her concerns to the school district, and that she’d already contacted agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League and California Watch to look into whether the religious aspects of the curriculum being taught at CUSD are appropriate.

As for Bohannon, he’s dealt with upset parents before, but he stands by the district’s choices.

“The study of religions is always controversial, but I think understanding its impact on our society is important,” Bohannon said. “It’s hard to teach history without teaching how religion impacted the different time periods in history.”