Monica was recently appointed as a special education/learning disability teacher in an inner city school. During her six years of teaching in this school (out of twenty-five years of teaching experience), Monica has developed a complex understanding of her Muslim students’ identities, realities, needs, and aspirations. She has done that by exploring the meanings of their names, their styles behaviours, the countries, cultures, and religions they come from, and most importantly, by discussing religious and cultural issues in her class. Kids like to talk about cultures, God, religion. They can share the wealth of their cultural knowledge and learn from each other. In this way, they can better learn basic literacy skills of reading and writing, listening, and speaking. She used their prior knowledge as a basis for developing their overall literacy skills. According to Monica, the students might bring misconceptions, biases, and prejudices; she acknowledges that the children may not see their own knowledge and ideas as biased. Monica considers this knowledge as the material to engage with politely and seriously.
Monica learns about Islam and Muslim from many sources: from children books (e.g., A Faith Like Mine, by Laura Buller ) as well as from her students, media, workshops, and scholarly literature. This includes theological (e.g., Shi’a–Sunni differences; Shari’a) and socio-economic (e.g., woman status, polygamy, girls’ education) complexities and issues among Muslims. She is also interested the differences and similarities between various religions (especially between Christianity and Islam). She is curious about how different Muslims approach hijab, halal food, and prayer, and she wonders about perceived inconsistencies and complexities in Islamic thinking. She does not see Muslims as one monolithic mass. Monica senses that there might be a difference between what her particular students say about an Islamic practice and what the adults, media, or scholarly perspectives say about it. That is why any particular student’s practice and view on Islam is as important as that of any outsider’s in her class.
Monica’s school has a strong anti-racist milieu. The former principal was not afraid to have strong teachers around him, and teachers often engaged in intellectual discussions about teaching, curriculum and pedagogy. At this school, they have committed themselves to serve their students’ and community’s needs. This is a school where most children and their parents can surprise you with their honesty, their openness about issues, and about their needs and problems. Monica is able to bring to her class religious and cultural discussions, because her school encourages this and because she is experienced, knows how to discuss sensitive issues in a respectful manner, and does not impose her own point of view. She does so despite an overall aura and climate of not bringing issues related to politics, culture, and religion into class, and to stay neutral and not take an ethical stance. Her students like to talk about Christmas, about Santa Claus, about Eid, Ramadan, Diwali, Chinese new year, and so on. Her students talk about their cultures and languages, and she channels these discussions to ensure they learn cognitive skills such as language and comprehension, and social skills such as appreciation and respect.
Not all of what students say and bring to class is uncritically celebrated, however. Such engagement must be done politely, sensitively: “You do not have to bluntly tell the student he or she is wrong or ignorant. You show an alternative viewpoint, ask about what other views are, make them think about it, respond to negative remarks by bringing in simple examples.” For example, when a student made an inappropriate remark about Jews, Monica responded, “You know the head of school is Jewish. Now would you say things like that of him?”And, “Some of my friends are Jewish.” On another occasion, when one of her students removed a Muslim’ student’s hat by force, Monica spent time soliciting why they should not do so, and she connected this situation with a well-known case in the school when a Muslim girl’s hijab was removed by another student.
Monica’s pedagogy reflects her complex perspective on what the education of her students, including Muslim, means. Her perspective includes engaging her students’ particular experiences and aspirations, envisaging Canadian society and the world at large. “Our students come from different communities; we need to build on them, but create a new community with them in Canada”. Her vision her self-concept as an educator and citizen, the various expectations she has for her students, the support she receives from her colleagues, and the challenges she faces in facilitating meaningful learning to her students. Individually and with her colleagues, Monica strives through increasing demoralization, EQAO, overload, contradictory demands, blaming of teachers, attack on public schools, and superficiality toward serious global and Canadian issues.
Educators like Monica need to be given podiums to speak about what it means to be a teacher in Canada today (Thiessen, 1993). There is a need for providing more of the non-romanticized, critical, and diversified resources on curriculum and pedagogy, as well as a support system for learning about Muslim students’ complexity and diversity, and the critical perspectives on issues in Muslim communities within and outside Canada.
Communicating the relevant transferable findings of PICSF to other school districts within Canada, and/or internationally can be done through dialogical courses, workshops, and seminars that present various perspectives on Muslim education and communities, both historical and contemporary. Such PD initiates should have comparative-historical approaches where both intra-Muslim as well as inter-faith comparisons are made (Niyozov, 2010). They should critically engage both the views of the participants, instructors, and scholarship in the fields of Muslim Education and Islamic Studies.