WOW Stories Volume IX, Issue 2

Developing Text Sets and Engagements Using Children’s Literature about Middle Eastern Nations and Islamic Cultures
Manal Tafish

I am an Arabic language teacher at John B. Wright and Myers-Ganoung Elementary Schools. Both are Title 1 PreK–5 public schools in central Tucson. They are among the city’s most diverse schools, with a large number of children from refugee and immigrant families. Latinx students account for over 40% of the total enrollment in each school, followed by African American students, European American students, Asian American students and Pacific Islander students, Indigenous students, and students from (or whose families are from) Middle Eastern and African countries. The schools incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA) across their curricula and, in 2017, they began offering an Arabic language class. This class was meant to support students with developing intercultural understandings and global perspectives and embracing diversity by learning about the Arabic language and Islamic cultures. Arabic is a new language for many students, and learning it is challenging for them. I always invite them to engage in various hands-on activities, using children’s literature and multimodal tools (e.g., videos, music, and pictures) to make learning fun. I enjoy teaching too, because students look forward to coming to my classes and are excited about learning something new. My classes have been playing an important role in developing inclusive school communities. They create a space in which Arabic-speaking students and students who are unfamiliar with Arabic can learn from one another, better understand each other’s cultures and languages, and build relationships.

Global Literacy Community

I was very excited when I was invited to be part of the global literacy community, learning about children’s literature concerning Middle Eastern nations and Islamic cultures. I had always wanted to learn strategies for incorporating the literature into my Arabic class. I was also happy to share my own life experiences and cultures as a Muslim woman coming from Palestine. In the monthly meetings, we explored various children’s books, such as Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan and Anna Bron (2020), Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini (2012), and Under My Hijab by Hena Khan and Aaliya Jaleel (2019). I thought these books could be great resources to support students in learning about the diverse lifestyles, perspectives, and religious and cultural values and practices of Muslim people. I also thought the books—through their use of universal themes, such as friendship, school experiences, and family traditions—would support students in developing a sense of connection to the characters, who are close to their age, and appreciate cultural differences.

Developing Text Sets

Using the literature I received through the global literacy community project and the literature I already had in my classroom library, I developed various text sets, applying the strategy I had learned in the literacy community study group. The purpose of these text sets was to encourage students to explore stories as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990). In this way, they could become aware of the importance of culture in their lives and in the lives of others, while coming to understand the diversities and complexities in the Middle Eastern region and among Islamic cultures.

First, I spent time exploring educational websites, such as Worlds of Words (WOW), the Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC), and the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) to see what books were available in the U.S. Second, I selected the books I wanted to use in my Arabic class, and identified major themes across the books, such as family practices and traditions, identity exploration, school experiences, challenges and hope, and life journeys. I then sorted the books based on these themes and selected anchor and related texts. The anchor texts portray Islamic cultures, especially in the Middle Eastern region, and include Arabic words. The related texts are thematically connected to the anchor texts, containing stories set in a global context, but not limited to the Middle East. The table below showcases the text sets I developed. After I completed these text sets, I began developing engagements for them. These engagements are shared in the next section.

Table 1. Text Sets around Islamic cultures in the Middle East.

Engagements for the Text Set: Pursuing Dreams with Courage, Hope, and Supports from Others

I created five engagements for The World is Not a Rectangle, Little People, Big Dreams: Zaha Hadid, Muslim Girls Rise, Malala’s Magic Pencil, and Malala and Iqbal. The purposes of the engagements were to explore Muslim people’s hopes, dreams, achievements, and contributions to society. Muslim people, especially women, often suffer from discrimination, oppression, and stereotypes. The characters in these stories also suffer from hardships, and, with the support of family and friends and the community, they seek solutions to and solve those problems with strength and determination.

Engagement 1: Exploring Zaha Hadid’s Life Journey

  1. Read aloud the story Little People, Big Dreams: Zaha Hadid.
  2. During reading, ask students:
    • Zaha’s favorite subjects in school were math and arts, and these helped her in her career as an architect. What are your favorite subjects and why? In what ways do you think those subjects will help you be what you want to be when you grow up?
    • What aspects of Zaha’s childhood helped her succeed as an architect—a job that was dominated by men?
    • What was Zaha’s personality like? How does the author describe her personality?
  3. After reading, depict Zaha’s life journey by writing and drawing. Ask students, “What aspects of Zaha’s life experiences helped her pursue her dream to be an architect?”

Engagement 2: Exploring the Buildings Zaha Hadid Designed

  1. Read aloud the story The World is Not a Rectangle.
  2. During reading, ask students:
    • What things did Zaha see growing up in Baghdad that she later remembered when she began designing buildings?
    • Why did her buildings look different from the buildings other people designed?
    • How did Zaha get the ideas for the buildings she designed?
    • What do you notice about how her buildings look?
  3. After reading, watch a video to see buildings designed by Zaha Hadid. Ask students to describe the buildings (e.g., dances like grass). Use a world map to figure out where the buildings mentioned in the video are located.
  4. Imagine that students could interview the following three people mentioned in the book and have them list some questions they would ask these people:
    • Zaha Hadid
    • One of the architect judges who chose her design as the best
    • One of the city committee members who refused to build Zaha’s design

Engagement 3: Exploring a Text Set using a Comparison Chart (Short, 2004)

  1. As a group, students will read one book from the following: The World Is Not a Rectangle, Little People Big Dreams: Zaha Hadid, Muslim Girls Rise, Malala’s Magic Pencil, or Malala and Iqbal. Then, have them identify the book’s themes, settings, and main characters, as well as the problems the characters face and the problem-solving strategies they use.
  2. The teacher will create a comparison chart and record students’ words. In the chart, write the book titles down one side and the categories (themes, settings, main characters, characters’ problems, and characters’ problem-solving strategies) across the top. Invite students to talk about the similarities and differences among the books.

Engagement 4: Author and Illustrator Study.

  1. Visit authors’ and illustrators’ websites for more information about them and their works.

Engagement 5: Designing Arts with Imagination

  1. Students will sketch a building using shapes on paper. Encourage them to use their imaginations to come up with various ways to take something that belongs to nature and turn it into a building design.
  2. Zaha Hadid started designing clothes and bedroom furniture when she was a child. Ask students if they have ever designed anything, and, if so, ask them to describe what it was. Have them try designing anything besides buildings, such as clothing, furniture, jewelry, or toys. After they finish, post their designs in the classroom.

Engagements for the Text Set: Exploring Values and Beliefs

I developed five engagements using Under My Hijab, Mommy’s Khimar, Mommy Sayang, Deep in the Sahara, and My Grandma and Me. Under My Hijab is a story about a Muslim girl who observes how contemporary Muslim women wear the hijab in a unique way. Mommy’s Khimar, Mommy Sayang, Deep in the Sahara, and My Grandma and Me show Muslim families in global contexts: the U.S., Malaysia, Mauritania, and Iran.

Engagement 1: Exploring the Role of the Hijab in Muslim Women’s Lives

  1. Read aloud the story Under My Hijab. Before reading, ask students:
    • What do you like to wear?
    • Do you know the name of what the girl is wearing on her head? (Show book cover).
    • Who do you know who wears a hijab?
    • Do you know why and when that person wears a hijab?
    • Why do you think Muslim people believe it is important to wear a hijab?
  2. During reading, ask students:
    • How do the characters feel when they wear their hijabs?
    • What colors can hijabs be?
    • Why is wearing a hijab important to the characters?
    • What activities do they do with and without their hijabs?
  3. After reading, ask students:
    • What are some of the new things you learned? Have you learned any new words from this story? What do you know now that you didn’t know before we read this book?
    • Read the author’s and illustrator’s notes. Ask: Why would they want to share this story? What are the messages they want to address?
    • Why do you think the title of this story is Under My Hijiab?
    • How does this story connect to your life? Why?

Engagement 2: Important Object, Place, Person, or Memory

  1. Students will identify and share connections between the story and their own life experiences. Then, they will depict these connections through writing and drawing.
  2. Students will choose an object, place, person, or memory that is important to them. Then, in writing, they will describe why it is important to them and how it makes them feel.

Engagement 3: Exploring a Text Set using a Story Ray Strategy (Short, 2004)

  1. As a group, students will read one of the following books: Under My Hijab, Mommy’s Khimar, Mommy Sayang, Deep in the Sahara, and My Grandma and Me.
  2. Each group will be given a narrow, three-foot-long strip of paper. On this ray, they will place colors, images, and words that represent the story’s significance.
  3. The rays will be assembled on a large mural or wall to reflect the story.

Engagement 4: A Portrait of a Personal Role Model

  1. Students will create a portrait (a drawing or collage) of a person, who is a role model for them.
  2. They will describe what actions and characteristics they admire about this person.

Engagement 5: Author and Illustrator Study

  1. Visit the authors’ and illustrators’ websites for more information about them and their works.

Final Thoughts

I often hear that the Middle East and Islamic cultures are not easy to discuss with children in the classroom. Unfamiliarity may be keeping educators away from these topics. However, I sometimes feel hesitant and tense when teaching Arabic, too. Perhaps this stems from the stereotypes and misconceptions about the Arabic language, Muslim people, religion, Islamic cultural practices, and current social and political concerns in Middle Eastern countries. Yet, I always wonder, what if we keep staying away from teaching about the Middle East and Islamic cultures? I am afraid that will keep creating stereotypes and even disconnections between students with Islamic backgrounds and students from other cultural groups. I think unfamiliarity, hesitancy, and tensions may be a great starting point for teaching.

Children’s literature creates a space for students to question, share, learn, and grow together to be global, critical, and active citizens. During the 2020–2021 school year, the COVID-19 pandemic kept causing my teaching schedule to change, and I was not able to settle down to create a consistent time to share the literature and try the engagements I designed. I am very excited about sharing them with my Arabic class in the coming school year.

Children’s Literature Cited

Cline-Ransome, L. (2018). Game changers: The story of Venus and Serena Williams. Illus. J. E. Ransome. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Cunnane, K. (2018). Deep in the Sahara. Illus. H. Hadadi. Decorah, IA: Dragonfly.

Ebeid, R. (2020). Baba, what does my name mean?: A journey to Palestine. Illus. L. Jawhari. Melbourne, Australia: Tablo.

Engle, M. (2015). Drum dream girl: How one girl’s courage changed music. Illus. R. Lopez. Boston: HMH.

Gonzales, C. M. (2013). My colors, my world/ Mis colores, mi mundo. New York: Lee & Low Books.

Hoffman, M. (1991). Amazing Grace. Illus. C. Binch. New York: Dial Books.

Javaherbin, M. (2019). My grandma and me. Illus. L. Yankey. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Khalil, A. (2020). The Arabic quilt: An immigrant story. Illus. A. Semirdzhyan. Thomaston, ME: Tilbury.

Khan, H. (2012). Golden domes and silver lanterns: A Muslim book of colors. Illus. M. Amini. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Khan, H. (2019). Under my hijab. Illus. A. Jaleel. New York: Lee & Low Books.

Khan, H. (2021). Crescent moons and pointed minarets: A Muslim book of shapes. Illus. M. Amini. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Khan, R. (2013). King for a day. Illus. C. Krömer. New York Lee & Low.

Kobald, I. (2015). My two blankets. Illus. F. Blackwood. Boston: HMH.

Kuntz, D., & Shrodes, A. (2019). Lost and found cat: The true story of Kunkush’s incredible journey. Illus. S. Cornelison. Decorah, IA: Dragonfly.

Masood, H. (2016). Drummer girl. Illus. H. Hadadi. Arden Hills, MN: Daybreak.

Meddour, W. (2019). Lubna and Pebble. Illus. D. Egneus. New York: Dial.

Mills, D., & Alva, A. (2018). La frontera: El viaje con papa/My journey with papa. Illus. C. Navarro. Boston: Barefoot.

Mobin-Uddin, A. (2005). My name is Bilal. Illus. B. Kiwak. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.

Muhammad, I. (2019). The proudest blue: A story of hijab and family. Illus. H, Aly. Boston: Little, Brown.

Mohamed, O. (2020). When stars are scattered. Illus. V. Jamieson. New York: Dial.

Nye, N. S. (1997). Sitti’s secrets. Illus. N. Carpenter. New York: Aladdin.

Nye, N. S. (1999). Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nye, N. S. (2002). The flag of childhood: Poems from the Middle East. Sydney: Turtleback.

Nye, N. S. (2005). 19 varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. New York: Greenwillow.

Nur, S. (2019). Muslim girls rise: Inspirational champions of our time. Illus. A. Jaleel. New York: Salaam Reads.

Ramadan, D. (2020). Salma the Syrian chef. Illu. A. Bron. Toronto: Annick Press.

Rubio, P. S. (2019). Far from home: A story of loss, refuge, and hope. Illus. F. Anaya. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Kids.

Ruurs, M. (2016). Stepping stones: A refugee family’s journey. Illus. N. A. Badr. Trans. F. Raheem. Olympia, WA: Orca Books.

Shami, W. (2019). Olive harvest in Palestine: A story of childhood memories. Illus. S. New Providence, NJ: Farouki.

Sullivan, R. (2019). Mommy sayang. New York: Disney.

Thompkins-Bigelow, J. (2018). Mommy’s khimar. Illus. E. Glenn. New York: Salaam Reads.

Thong, G. R. (2016). Green is a chile pepper: A book of colors. Illus. J. Parra. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Thong, R. (2015). Round is a tortilla: A book of shapes. Illus. J. Parra. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Vegara, I. S. M. (2019). Little people, big dreams: Zaha Hadid. Illus. A. Amar. London: Frances Lincoln.

Watanabe, I. (2020). Migrants. Wellington, New Zealand: Gecko Press.

Williams, L. K. (2007). Four feet, two sandals. Illus. K. Mohammed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Winter, J. (2014). Malala, a brave girl from Pakistan and Iqbal, a brave boy from Pakistan: Two stories of bravery. New York: Beach Lane.

Winter, J. (2017). The world is not a rectangle: A portrait of architect Zaha Hadid. ‎New York: Beach Lane.

Yousafzai, M. (2017). Malala’s magic pencil. Illus. Kerascoet. Boston: Little, Brown.


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.

Short, K. (2004). Literature discussion strategies. College of Education, University of Arizona. Retrieved from

Manal Tafish teaches Arabic Language at John B. Wright and Myers-Ganoung Elementary Schools.

© 2021 by Manal Tafish

WOW Stories, Volume IX, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work by Manal Tafish at

WOW stories: connections from the classroom
ISSN 2577-0551