Third Grade Connections to Middle Eastern and Arab Cultures
By Rhonda Hover
This vignette describes explorations with students that arose from a literacy community based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. Please see Literature about Immigration and Middle Eastern Cultures by Seemi Aziz for an overview of this literacy community’s work.
The rural school where I teach has demographics that are far from diverse. Caucasian students make up 79% of the population while 13% are American Indian, 4% African American, 3% Hispanic and 1% of Asian or Pacific Island descent. Our student body has little to no contact with people from the Arab world or Islamic cultures. I grew up in the same area in which I now teach. My exposure to the Muslim people and their culture was limited to cartoons with flying carpets and rich sheiks, as well as occasionally seeing people outside of my community wearing traditional Arab clothing. Similar to my experiences, my students are exposed to subtle stereotypes of Arabs through the cartoons and television programs they watch, in the books they read and the commercials they see (Gilliland, 1995). Those who pay attention to world events hear a barrage of news reports about trouble in the Middle East, including the involvement of our military. As the vastness of our world seems to shrink with new advances in technology, children need to have multiple exposures to cultures different from their own in order to build tolerance and understanding of people unlike themselves. I agree with Louise Rosenblatt (as cited in Duckett and Knox, 2001) that children’s books, with their combination of picture and text, are well suited to this endeavor.
My goal through this project was to challenge stereotypes and fears that often accompany ignorance through exposing students to children’s literature that depicted the Muslim cultures. Al Hazza & Bucher (2008) claim that introducing students to multicultural children’s literature is a beneficial step in the process of eliminating stereotyping and prejudice. In addition, Royce (2006) states that we experience not only change, but also an increase in empathy and knowledge when we read about another culture.
As a Title I reading teacher, I work with small groups of children who are struggling with reading in grades 1-3. My groups can and do change throughout the year, depending on what struggles each student is encountering at any given time. I have my own classroom where I work with students and I work with small groups of students in their home classrooms. I generally keep my groups at six students or less in order to preserve the effectiveness of the small group setting. For this project, I worked with a total of seven third graders who struggled with both reading fluently and comprehension. One student was traded out for another after the first two books because the regular classroom teacher felt one was in more need of help with comprehension than the other at that point in the school year. We met twice a week for thirty minute sessions. The group was exposed to seven selections of authentic children’s literature that depicted Muslim cultures in a non-stereotypical manner. After reading each selection, we spent time exploring the books in literature circles.
My students began to make connections between their world and the Muslim world with The Best Eid Ever (Mobbin-Uddin, 2007). They were able to connect the celebration of Eid, of which they knew nothing, to the celebration of Christmas. I hoped that with each connection they made throughout this project they would be less inclined to make prejudicial or stereotypical judgments.
McKinzie: I think Happy Eid Day is Christmas.
Alora: ‘Cause they get gifts just like we do and they celebrate with their family members and the spirit of it.
Heather: Well, it’s not really a holiday, but it’s a person’s thing, like it’s a birthday and you get gifts.
Much of their focus was on the hijab worn by the female characters in the story, an item of clothing that was unfamiliar and fascinating to them. Most could not fathom why the girls and women would wear a scarf to cover their hair. Brooklyn thought she knew the explanation behind the ‘choice.’ She believed that the women were required by their husbands to wear the head covering because they did not want their wives seen by others. This is an excellent example of children’s inaccurate beliefs about Muslim culture. The students were interested in finding out more about why Muslim women wear the hijab. Other questions and curiosities were generated through this read-aloud. They wondered where the places of worship like the one mentioned in the story might be. It is interesting to point out that they live within twenty minutes of one of these places of worship, but had no idea it even existed before experiencing it through the literature.
The students continued to make connections to their own lives as we read My Name is Bilal (Mobbin-Uddin, 2005). They automatically predicted that Ayeesha would be subject to bullying because of what she was wearing. Despite their predictions, they gasped when we read Scott’s words, “This is America…We don’t wear dumb things on our heads.” Ironically, one student responded as a bully herself, while another simply expressed her disbelief.
Brooklyn: Oh, I’d punch him so hard…
Alora: This is a free country. She can wear that if she wants.
It was clear that they realized bullying and unfair treatment could occur when one’s clothing or name was different. They have evidently experienced similar situations either personally or as a witness. Through the literature, they were able to relate those experiences to another culture and stretch their understandings. After reading the book, the students conducted a free write as a literature discussion strategy. Every student’s free write dealt with the issue of bullying indicating that the students were transacting with the literature to build understanding.
Next, we read Nasreen’s Secret School (Winters, 2009). The hijab worn by the female character was still a focus of the students despite the fact that this was not a focal point as it was in My Name is Bilal. Although they did not discuss the clothing, several included it in detail in their pictures during our graffiti board response. Students were upset that girls were treated so unfairly in Afghanistan; they did not indicate recognition of the Taliban indicating that they did not have preconceived notions surrounding this group. Their conversations dealt with how they drew and what they were going to draw rather than the events in the story, so I was unable to gain further insights into their perceptions of Muslim people.
In our next session, I introduced The Librarian of Basra (Winters, 2005). We read this book around the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, so the students made connections with that event even though none of them were alive in 1995. They had been learning about the bombing in their regular classrooms and had no other experiences of war and bombing from which to draw. They also made connections between their school librarian and the librarian of Basra.
As they discussed the book while they completed a consensus board, they came up with an interesting question. Ethan wondered where the librarian took the books to keep them safe. The other students maintained that she hid them in her house. Ethan persisted in his questioning, “If the books were not safe in the library, then why were they safe in her house?’ Several of the students guessed that she must have lived in the country, outside of the city, and that as long as you were outside of the city, you were safe from the bombs. They disagreed whether the books would be safe in the country if the city was being bombed. They had a lively discussion and even questioned what the military commanders are thinking when they decide to bomb an area. Are they choosing a place that is more populated? Their thought processes were set in motion as we discussed this book despite the fact that they had not personally experienced war.
We explored this subject matter further with Sami and the Time of Troubles (Heide, 1995). Again, students related the war to the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. As we discussed the literature through a sketch to stretch activity, only one student drew a picture that related to the book. She depicted the speech given to the people at one point in the book. She included the blue sky and the sun – both details mentioned in the book. Ethan commented that he thought the sky should be black because the feelings evoked by the war in the story seemed more like black and dreary than blue.
As students read the story, they showed no understanding of the effects of war, such as food not being available or there being no place where one would feel safe. However, they worked to come up with solutions that fit in with their understandings and perspectives of such issues.
Heather: On this page, whenever it says Stop, Stop, Stop the fighting, they probably want them to stop fighting because the kids are always stuck inside and stuff and they want freedom to be outside all the time, probably like kids here [in the U.S.]
McKinzie: Well, probably the people there that fight, they probably get bored and don’t want to stay in the whole time…
Heather: Well, this is what I think they should do. I think they should stop the war for a day and let the kids play.
McKinzie: Mmhmm…and then the other day [they can fight,] that’s what I mean.
Jacob: Cause, you saw like all that was destroyed, so I don’t think there’s like any peaches growing.
Heather: Um, I think they have this market close by that, um beside them, um that a bomb did not go off around [so the peaches could be growing there.]
Teacher: So, where did the market get the peaches from?
Jacob: It’s hidden. (The peaches were grown in a hidden place, safe from the bombing.)
Heather: And they probably went there to get a peach for the two kids to share and it takes two days or something [to get to the hidden growing area.]
McKinzie: Why can’t they just take one half for the kids to play on, like this book (pointing to one side of the page,) and the army can keep this side. (She was referring back to the earlier part of the discussion indicating they could divide the area and use part for play and part for fighting.)
It was interesting to see how their minds made sense of issues that were new to them and the solutions that they came up with. Again, I witnessed their thought processes working to understand material that was unfamiliar. I believe they were building better understandings of what children in other areas of the world experience.
We moved away from war during our next session as we read Big Red Lollipop (Khan, 2001). When I first read this book, I thought it was a good example of how we tend to look at our situations selfishly; I thought it would be an opportunity to gain a new perspective while being exposed to another culture. I began with questioning about the different areas that had been the settings in each of our books and was disappointed that my students really were not connecting the places with each story. They even guessed that some of our stories took place in China, although none so far had.
As we looked at the book, the students’ attention was once again on the hijab the mother wore. McKinzie asked, “What is that headband thingy they wear?” As we began reading, Heather commented, “She’s wearing that thingymabob.” They readily recognized the hijab as part of the culture and seemed to accept it. They did not find anything odd about the mother making her oldest take her younger sister to the birthday party. In fact, several of them had experienced similar situations. They did side with Sana and thought she was being treated unfairly. We discussed why the mother did not seem to know what a birthday celebration was.
Teacher: Does the mom understand what a birthday party is?
Students: No. (Silence) Yes. (Students were not sure what the correct answer was.)
Teacher: What can you tell about the way the mom is dressed?
Students: No. (Students were responding to the first question based on my questioning.)
Heather: Um, she’s wearing a…a…thingy…(referring to the hijab.)
Teacher: So do you think she’s from America?
Teacher: Do you think they don’t celebrate birthdays in other places?
Students: No. Yes. (Students were still indecisive.)
McKinzie: Rafael did.
Aubrie: At New China (a local restaurant) they wear that stuff.
One controversy surrounding this book centers on stereotyping Pakistani women as being ignorant of world customs, which is ironic because Khan is a proponent of dispelling stereotypes through exposure to different cultures (Khan, 2009). My students did not pick up on this stereotype. I had to lead them to the realization that this was unusual behavior. Perhaps this could be due to the fact that they are exposed to fiction stories more than any other genre, so they are used to reading about different situations in books. This group also struggles with comprehension, so picking up on anomalies such as these does not come easily to them. Towards the end of our discussion, McKinzie made the comment that Rafael had celebrated his birthday. This realization prodded her and several others to begin to travel beyond the surface of the iceberg to understanding deeper concepts of culture.
The last book we read was Mirror (Baker, 2010). This book is crafted to expose readers to the differences and the similarities of Morocco, Africa and Sydney, Australia. We looked for connections between the two as we investigated the book. The students noticed such things as they both buy stuff (although in different places and ways) and both have phones and animals (but as pets in Australia). Both have tables, but they sit in chairs like we do in Australia and on the floor in Morocco. They noticed that the hijab worn in Morocco was different from the ones in the literature we had read – it covered the whole face with slits for the eyes. They also noticed that both communities had family units.
We read this book right after the Toms Shoe Drive, in which our school had participated. Aubrie noticed that the characters in both communities were wearing shoes (this was an anomaly for her since we had just collected shoes and gone shoeless for a day to raise awareness for children in other countries who did not have shoes.) They noted that shoes were not worn inside the house in Morocco. As a literature discussion strategy, the students created a web of what was on their minds. Their web consisted of the connections they noticed as we explored the book.
To culminate this project, I asked students if they felt like their feelings towards people from the Middle East and/or the Muslim culture had changed. All felt that they were more familiar with this culture and would not be as wary when they came into contact with a Muslim. One student comes from a military family and had lost an uncle in the occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was the only student who hesitated when asked this question. I believe that this exploration did familiarize the students with another culture that sometimes is associated with fear in our country. This familiarization is a baby step towards dispelling the fears and stereotypes that we develop without even realizing it.
I was discouraged by the fact that they still did not associate the characters in the stories with the Middle East. I do not think they could identify the Middle East at the end of this project despite the fact I showed them maps of the different settings or origins of the people about which we were reading. The other teachers participating in this project kept a paper map on hand at all times and referred to it often; I think their first graders had a better grasp of the geography than my third graders. I could see much growth in my students’ understanding and tolerance of Muslim cultures through this project. In the public school system, we tend to shy away from teaching about Muslim cultures; in doing so, we fail to teach our students the difference between the extremists from the culture and those who desire to live peacefully. The result is an unfounded fear of all Muslims. Much more needs to be done in our schools to address this problem and to create a future where diversity and tolerance are the standard rather than the exception.
Al-Hazza, T. C. & Bucher, K. T. (2008). Building Arab Americans’ cultural identity and acceptance with children’s literature. The Reading Teacher, 62(3), 210-219.
Duckett, P. & Knox, M. (2001). Secrets in The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. Journal of Children’s Literature, 27(2), 29-36.
Gilliland, J. H. (1995). Living in Sami’s and Ahmed’s worlds: Picture books explore children’s lives in other countries. In S. Lehr (Ed.) Battling Dragons, (pp. 105-112). New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Khan, R. (2009). It’s how you say it. Hornbook Magazine, 85(5), 499-505. \
Royce, J. (2006). Walking two moons: Crossing borders with international literature. Knowledge Quest: Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, 35(2), 32-39.
The Iceberg Concept of Culture. Retrieved from http://www.homeofbob.com/literature/esl/icebergModelCulture.html (May 3, 2011).
Children’s Literature Cited
Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. London: Walker Books.
Heide, F. P. (1995). Sami and the time of troubles. Ill. T. Lewin. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Kahn, R. (2010). Big red lollipop. Ill. S. Blackall. New York: Viking.
Mobin-Uddin, A. (2005). My name is Bilal. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Mobin-Uddin A. (2007). The best Eid ever. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Winters, J. (2009). Nasreen’s secret school. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Winters, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.
Rhonda Hover is a Title I reading teacher for first through third grade with the Perkins-Tryon School District in Perkins, Oklahoma.