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 than 4,000 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 and Islam in general in public schools, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- perpetrated by extremist Muslims -- brought Islam into the 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 Public Schools: A Statement of Principles," guidelines on promoting the free exercise of religion in schools without endorsing a particular faith. The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., subsequently launched a series of training initiatives to remind public school officials nationwide of the federal and state regulations concerning religion in schools.
Unlike the political situation, which has become divisive in some ways, "the educational arena came out unscathed" by increased attention on Islam since Sept. 11, said Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education.
Whereas Ramadan used to garner only cursory attention from public school teachers, Muslim education consultants say, interest in deeper understanding of 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 textbook publishers since 1989, says that an increase in the number of Muslim students in public schools is part of the reason for the heightened attention.
"They want to know how it impacts the lives of the students on a daily basis with their other schoolwork," she said. The number of Muslim public school students in Virginia's Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, has tripled to more than 6 percent in the last 15 years, said Alkhateeb, who works closely with school officials there.
Also, Muslim students are often excused from physical education during the month, as fasting students may become exhausted from rigorous physical activity. Educators cite Ramadan as a good opportunity to teach students about Islam 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 in California could continue a three-week curriculum that emphasized role-playing exercises requiring, among other things, seventh-grade students to 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, is understanding the difference between "teaching" and "teaching about" religion. Role-playing exercises that require students to recite sacred words or imitate 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.
Mansuri and other education consultants suggest discussing ways that different Muslim cultures observe the holiday. In Egypt, children light a lantern to signify the end of the daily fast, and in Indonesia a drum is beaten at that moment. Many cultures eat dates at their break-fast, which students can sample during a presentation, said the Al Fatih Academy's Syeed, the multicultural trainer. She has led public school workshops for more than 10 years in such places as the Washington area, Indiana and Florida.
Syeed, who also uses a globe in her presentation to show students that Muslims live all over the world, says that her lesson plan, "The Seven S's of Ramadan," highlights aspects of Islam that children of other faith backgrounds can relate to, like patience, peace and gratitude.
"It's really just to define who we are on our own terms and make the connection with a much larger, universal aspect," she said.
Despite all of the progress, however, there are still obstacles to overcome. A "weakness" with how public schools teach about religious holidays, says Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, is the "December-centric" approach, in which religious holidays are lumped together with Hanukkah and Christmas.
Ramadan, which migrates through the calendar year because Muslims observe a lunar calendar, does not fit this mold, so schools should schedule their lessons about the holiday at the proper time. Otherwise, Haynes said, "it's not taking religious holidays seriously."