Beliefnet
Over the next few weeks, multicultural trainer Afeefa Syeed will bring third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Muslim Al Fatih Academy in Herndon, Va., to area public schools to share the practices and beliefs of their holiest month, Ramadan. Syeed and the children will present the call to prayer in Arabic, display prayer rugs and offer tastes of dates. In countless other classrooms across the country, similar efforts will be made to educate students about the time of fasting and spiritual reflection for adherents of the world'ssecond-largest religion.

Ramadan, which begins Oct. 15, depending on the sighting of the new moon, is making more appearances in public school classrooms, thanks to a series of new teacher training initiatives, an increased fascination with Islam and the assurance that schools, if careful, can educate impressionable children about religion without crossing a constitutional line.

The Council on Islamic Education, a nonprofit organization based in Fountain Valley, Calif., plans to release an updated version of its booklet"Muslim Holidays," which was first published in 1997, for the more than4,000 teachers nationwide who have used it.

The booklet, which contains lesson plan ideas and historical and cultural background on Ramadan and other Muslim holidays, also outlines the various state regulations governing instruction about religion in public schools and discusses accommodations that schools can make to enable Muslim students to observe the holiday.

Muslim educators note tremendous progress in education about Ramadan andIslam in general in public schools, particularly since the terrorist attacksof Sept. 11, 2001 -- perpetrated by extremist Muslims -- brought Islam intothe national spotlight.

Another reason for this success, some say, is an increased general awareness in public education circles of what is constitutionally appropriate to teach about religion. In 1995, President Clinton released "Religious Expression in PublicSchools: A Statement of Principles," guidelines on promoting the freeexercise of religion in schools without endorsing a particular faith. TheFreedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., subsequentlylaunched a series of training initiatives to remind public school officialsnationwide of the federal and state regulations concerning religion inschools.

Unlike the political situation, which has become divisive in some ways,"the educational arena came out unscathed" by increased attention on Islamsince Sept. 11, said Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council onIslamic Education.

Whereas Ramadan used to garner only cursory attention from public schoolteachers, Muslim education consultants say, interest in deeper understandingof the holiday has spiked. "They want to know accurate information," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the Washington-based Muslim Education Council.

Alkhateeb, who has worked with administrators, teachers and textbookpublishers since 1989, says that an increase in the number of Muslimstudents in public schools is part of the reason for the heightenedattention.

"They want to know how it impacts the lives of the students on a dailybasis with their other schoolwork," she said. The number of Muslim publicschool students in Virginia's Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, hastripled to more than 6 percent in the last 15 years, said Alkhateeb, whoworks closely with school officials there.

For teachers and administrators, as well as fellow students, explainingRamadan helps the school accommodate the religious requirements of theholiday. For example, at puberty, children begin to participate in the dailyfast, which lasts from sunrise to sundown each day of the month. Manyschools arrange for Muslim students to sit in the library during lunchtimeso that they are not surrounded by food as they fast.

Also, Muslim students are often excused from physical education duringthe month, as fasting students may become exhausted from rigorous physicalactivity. Educators cite Ramadan as a good opportunity to teach students aboutIslam and its practice around the world. "Many people don't know a lot about Islam necessarily, but they have heard of Ramadan," said Munir Shaikh, the Council on Islamic Education's executive director.

But teaching Ramadan in public schools has not been without controversy.Last year, a federal judge said that the Byron Union school district inCalifornia could continue a three-week curriculum that emphasizedrole-playing exercises requiring, among other things, seventh-grade studentsto recite Muslim prayers. Despite the ruling in the district's favor, the school suspended the program because of the outcry the lawsuit spawned.

Crucial to avoiding these kinds of problems, say educators, isunderstanding the difference between "teaching" and "teaching about"religion. Role-playing exercises that require students to recite sacred words orimitate Muslim prayer practices are not appropriate. "It is a wonderful method in teaching history, but when it comes to religion, we will have to modify it a bit," said Mansuri.

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