Sunday, 26 June 2016

Transcending The Politics Of Parents In An Interfaith Classroom - Betsy Markman

This is the seventeenth post in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan. 

Credit: Betsy Markman

I teach English as a Second Language in a United States middle school. My students are between 11 and 15, and they come from all over the world: China, Uganda, Rwanda, Poland, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Iran, Chile, Somalia, Mexico, Iraq, Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq and Israel. Generally, there is more peace and cooperation than you might expect from a group of pre-teens and young teens. Every once in a while, the politics of their parents or homelands invades the classroom, but usually in small, controllable bursts.

Two years ago, a new girl arrived from Israel. An Iraqi 6th grader announced, "I hate Israel!" and I talked to her outside class about why she felt that way, and how she could leave those inherited opinions at home.

When I brought that same 6th grader to science class for the first time and asked if there were any students who could help her in class and show her to her next class. The girl who raised her hand and waved eagerly was wearing a hijab. I asked her name and and where she was from. She gave her name and proudly said, "Palestine!" When I saw the Israeli girl a few periods later, I asked how science and geography were.  She excitedly told me that she had a new friend, and named the Palestinian girl.  Really?  "Yes! We both like math and we both picked dance class for gym!"

Fast-forward a year and a half.  This year, we had a few more issues.  The issues between the high school Arabs and Kurds threatened to come to the middle school, but the students rose to the occasion and kept the issues away from school. There were other problems among groups of students, but far more over 6th graders using the word "crazy" than international tensions.

In the spring, we had an international celebration at school, and each national or regional group had a table to display their artifacts, show their slideshows, play their music, and display the posters they created.  The one Vietnamese student was with the three Chinese students.  The students from Mexico, Chile and Venezuela shared a table, as did all the students from Africa.  And the two Israeli students shared a long table with the five students from Iraq.

On the first day, the Iraqi student in native dress, who has the job of "tall person" for his class, helped hang all the posters that needed space at the top of the wall as we weren't allowed to tape, glue, or tack anything onto the windows of the library office. No issues with hanging the flags and posters of Sudan and Uganda, but when it came to the posters created by an Israeli boy, he turned around and told me there was a problem. I braced myself. "Miss. Is no plastic staples in my box. I need new box."

Oh, that! I handed him a new box of push-pins and all was good.

The two groups sat and stood side by side throughout the week, and were delighted to find that both groups had artwork on the table that included a hand, both languages were written in the same direction and included a few similar letters and numbers, both had similar climates, and some kids from both countries had moms wearing head-coverings come to the celebration.

May we and they never forget what they learned that week.

Betsy Markman has been an educator for 26 years, involved in kindergarten and adult ESL, bilingual, and refugee education for most of them, along with part time Jewish education. Betsy previously wrote “She’s Just Using You!”: Interfaith Anecdotes for Interfaith Ramadan

Previous Post: 

On Belonging - Wasi Daniju 

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Unity Over Tea: Understanding Oneness Through Openness - Greta

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