Kathryn Smeglin's Learning Story


A large sheet of blank paper hung on the chalk board in my middle school art room. On top of the paper, in front of my quietly puzzled 8th graders, I wrote ISLAM/ISLAMIC ART. When I asked them what words came to mind when they read the paper, they barely paused before calling out in torrents, ‘Suicide bomber! Twin Towers! Terrorist! Habib! Plane! Hijacking! Turban! Caves! Osama! Jihad!’
With fewer than 5 minutes of class gone, the diverse group was in chaos. Kids were leaping from their chairs. Two students had to be removed from the room. I grabbed the guidance counselor from across the hall to calm the class while the principal (who was fortunately passing by at that moment) talked down two friends who were ready to punch each other. Obviously this was a lesson we needed to continue.
When the class came back together, everyone was quiet. The first student to speak said, ‘I don’t think it’s fair that people should be able to say those things! Not all Muslims are like that.’ ‘ ‘Yeah. My friend is Muslim, and he’s not a terrorist.’ This sentiment echoed around the class. Several students apologized for their comments, noting that the words just came to mind, but that they didn’t really believe all Muslims were like that. Students began to wonder about their associations, and we got around to talking about stereotypes and where they come from. They asked why the media would want to negatively portray Islam, and they made a decision. ‘We need to make another list.’ On our second piece of paper, one student volunteered to write, and they set off. After mosaic, mosque, and fancy writing (calligraphy), they were stumped. They questioned why it was so hard to write the positive list.
As our lesson continued over the next several days, we constructed a class tessellation while I helped them to build a counter narrative, a positive vocabulary about Islam. We looked at examples of Islamic arts and traditions like glassware, textiles, and book binding. Arms were raised again, this time in recognition, as kids made connections between these Islamic arts and the items they know from today. ‘My mom has a rug like that in our living room!’ ‘We read books!’ ‘I have those cups at home!’ Our large and colorful tessellation hung in the school, sharing our learning with the greater community.
I will not recap for you what was learned during this lesson. You can judge that for yourself. I will instead point out that real learning is sometimes scary. It means letting go of control, letting go of answers and directions, and trusting that our students are bright, capable, and eager. All of our students have ideas and questions, and the best learning happens when we guide them as people through the revision, discovery, and appreciation of their worlds.