ERIC Identifier: ED429144
Publication Date: 1999-03-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Arab American Students in Public Schools. ERIC Digest, Number
Arab Americans in U.S. schools represent more than 20 countries in the Middle
East and Northern Africa. They share many similarities with other immigrant
groups seeking to establish an ethnic identity in a heterogeneous country, but
they also face additional challenges. These result especially from negative
stereotyping; racism and discrimination; widespread misinformation about their
history and culture; and, for the majority who are Muslim, the need to find ways
to practice their religion in a predominantly Judeo-Christian country (Jackson,
Some Muslim Arab American parents send their children to private Muslim
schools so they can receive an education consonant with the family's religious
beliefs, but most opt for public schools (Zehr, 1999). As the number of Arab
American students in public schools has increased, so has the array of
strategies and materials for successfully integrating them. Still, many schools
have not yet acknowledged Arab culture and history or counteracted Arab
stereotyping (Suleiman, 1996). This digest reviews the resources available to
provide Arab Americans with a supportive school environment and all students
with an accurate and unbiased education on the Middle East.
School policies and practices largely
determine how welcome Arab American students feel. Schools can:
*Represent the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims accurately, completely, and
fairly in the curriculum and school activities.
*Ensure that Arab American students are treated equitably and without
prejudice by teachers and peers, and that teachers respond to incidences of
racism and discrimination strongly and quickly, with attention to both the
perpetrators and the victims.
*Respect the customs of the native culture and religion of Arab students.
INCLUSION OF ARAB CULTURE
Although Arab Americans may be
one of the smaller minorities in schools, they should be represented in
multicultural courses and activities to validate their culture and educate all
students about the Middle East. Field trips can include visits to Arab community
institutions, assembly speakers can include Arab American leaders, and film
series can include Arab contributions, for example. Schools can involve Arab
American families to familiarize students with the various groups' celebrations,
foods, and history (ADC, 1993a).
ELIMINATION OF PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION
prejudice against Arab Americans increases when political events involve Arabs,
or are even speculated to involve them, educators need to be prepared to respond
to possible harassment of Arab American students resulting from negative news
reporting, and to invoke school policies against hate crimes and discrimination
as appropriate (Suleiman, 1996).
Administrators and teachers should correct erroneous information when
confronted with it, such as popular myths that all Arabs are
"...wealthy...barbaric and backward, and...have harems" (Farquharson, 1988, p.
4). They can help students understand that Arab Americans should not be held
personally accountable for events in the Middle East (ADC, 1997). They can
confront scapegoating by allowing students to air their views and helping them
understand why such judgments are inaccurate and hurtful (ADC, 1997).
Schools can take care not to discriminate against Muslims. They should not
enforce dress codes or showering requirements that violate the Muslim tradition
of modesty or require Muslim students to engage in coed physical education
classes. Educators should ensure that girls are not ridiculed for their head
covering. They should not schedule tests on major Islamic holidays and should
allow fasting students to go to the library instead of the cafeteria during
Ramadan. Federal law permits students to organize prayer services, and schools
should accommodate such requests from Muslims (Council on American-Islamic
Relations, 1997). Muslims across the country are now petitioning schools to
label cafeteria food containing pig products, and some schools are already doing
so (Zehr, 1999).
Schools can provide professional
development training and make available to their staff accurate resource
materials about the Middle East, Islam, the various Arab groups in the U.S., and
the nature and extent of anti-Arab sentiment. Middle East organizations and
centers at local colleges offer schools a range of services, including training,
often at no cost. For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
(ADC) has produced a substantial Middle East bibliography for educators (1993b)
and a guide for helping Arab parents serve as a resource for teachers (ADC,
1993a). Followers of Islam in particular (Arab Americans as well as other Muslim
communities) want to feel respected, and providing teachers with information
about the religion promotes understanding. Several groups, such as the Arab
World and Islamic Resources and School Services, conduct workshops; others,
including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (1997), have published
materials for educators.
CURRICULUM COURSE CONTENT
Arab references can be infused across the curriculum to
familiarize students with Middle East culture and dispel myths: Arab music, Arab
art, photographs of Arab countries, American words with Arab roots, notable Arab
Americans, etc. (ADC, 1993a). Courses in religious tolerance need to include
Islam. Anti-racism training (for educators and students) should cite Arab
Americans as a group targeted by bigots. Schools can also offer Arabic as a
foreign language, an option available to Fairfax County, VA, students (Zehr,
To promote critical thinking skills by analyzing news reports, teachers can
ask students to evaluate stories for biases, unsubstantiated accusations, or
uneven treatment of Arabs and Jews that promote racism. To identify
stereotyping, teachers can ask students to critique their textbooks, television
programs, movies, books, and news reports for negative portrayals of Arabs;
indeed, many studies document pervasive anti-Arab attitudes in the entertainment
media, including cartoons (ADC, 1997; Wingfeld & Karaman, 1995).
A scholarly evaluation of texts covering Middle
East subjects and Islam (Barlow, 1994) has documented that many of them are "deficient" and "inaccurate" (ADC, 1993a, p. 9). Further, children's fiction
that portrays Arab and Jewish children together is also frequently biased
against Arabs (Kissen, 1991). Therefore, educators need to evaluate materials in
use and discard those with misinformation or biases. Then they can work with
school districts and the state to ensure that new books are more accurate (ADC,
1993a; Council on American-Islamic Relations, 1997).
A variety of resources are available to facilitate this process. The American
Forum for Global Education (Kelahan & Penn, 1996) has produced an extensive
bibliography of materials on Arab history that can be used by curriculum
developers, and the Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services
(Shabbas, 1998) has issued a large notebook for secondary school teachers to use
as a basis for a multifaceted curriculum. In Michigan, which has the largest
Arab American community in the U.S., parents work with the school system to
produce a high quality and accurate curriculum (ADC, 1993a).
COMMUNICATING WITH ARAB AMERICAN STUDENTS
from different countries differ from each other in culture and socioeconomic
status, as do Muslim and Christian Arabs, and newly-arrived and second and third
generation Arabs. To accommodate the individuality of Arab families, it is
important for teachers and counselors to take the lead from students and their
parents when approaching them about school and other related issues, and to be
knowledgeable about Arab culture as a whole (Adeed & Smith, 1997). In
general, though, recent immigrants may experience culture shock, and feel
insecure and lonely; all Arab Americans may feel alienated because of perceived
prejudice and ridicule of their rituals, and they may express negative feelings
as a defense (Jackson, 1997).
The counselors of Arab American students need to respect both traditional
Arab attitudes toward usual counseling practices and the Arab communication
style in all interactions. Jackson recommends first meeting with the student
outside the counseling office to build rapport. Group counseling should be
considered because it "reflects the Arab value of collectivism," and the group
should be single sex. Also, a cognitive approach may help allow students to
honor their reluctance to discuss personal feelings with strangers. Finally,
Arab clients are more comfortable sitting very close to the counselor than are
members of other groups (Jaclson, 1995, p. 49).
Family life and harmony are crucial to Arabs, so educators need to
demonstrate respect for the sanctity of the nuclear and extended family and the
familial role of elders. Nevertheless, when Arab American students seem
troubled, it may be productive to determine whether their problems stem from
intergenerational differences within their family or another source. Inviting
family participation in the counseling process regardless of the nature of the
student's problem can be useful Jackson, 1995; 1997). Because Arabs are very
sensitive to public criticism, teachers should express concerns to Arab American
students in a way that minimizes "loss of 'face'" (Adeed & Smith, 1997, p.
505). Finally, helping families cope with varying levels of acculturation,
language differences, and conformity to tradition can enable students to develop
a positive identity that is both personally satisfying and respectful of their
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