The Geography Teacher Made a Poor Choice

Although my own family tends to regard me as a bleeding-heart-liberal, I cannot agree with the knee-jerk reaction from liberals regarding the community outcry in Staunton, Virginia about a public school teacher’s assignment to write the Islamic statement of faith, the shahad, in Arabic letters.

The bulk of the comments in defense of the assignment imply that objecting to it is a form of Christian terrorism or an attack on the sensible practice of instructing American children about an important world religion.

I disagree.

Here, according to a CNN account, are the details of what happened in Staunton:

Cheryl La Porte, a geography teacher at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia, gave the following assignment to a ninth-grade class studying world religions:
“Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”

When students took the assignment home, “calls and emails flooded the school.” Some of them were from outside the area and contained “nasty tone and content.” The school administration became concerned enough to close all the schools in the district in the name of security.

Assignment given to students in a World Geography class
Workbook assignment given to ninth-graders in a World Geography class

An article in The NewsLeader by Megan Williams defends Mrs. LaPorte’s actions by noting that “The calligraphy assignment came from a workbook created by teachers called World Religions. It was not an assignment LaPorte made up herself.”

I was a classroom teacher in a small town for many years. I learned to avoid unnecessary confrontations with uneducated, blinkered parents who felt that public school teachers should be required to support their own narrow views. I learned to choose my battles, omitting materials that were certain to offend certain parents—as long as I had other materials that would serve my teaching purposes as well. I stood my ground and took my lumps on topics and materials that I felt to be non-negotiable.

The geography teacher in Staunton may not have designed the assignment, but she chose to use it.

It’s an unhappy fact that American teachers have lost much of the classroom autonomy they once enjoyed, but I’m pretty sure they still have the power to choose which exercises to assign from their prescribed textbooks and workbooks. In my experience, no teacher ever uses everything contained in a textbook or workbook. For one thing, there’s not enough time to use it all. For another, not everything contained in textbooks is of value.

Flag of so-called "Islamic State"
Flag of so-called “Islamic State,” aka DAESH, ISIL, ISIS

The Islamic shahada may be an interesting example of Arabic calligraphy, but it is also the emblem on the flag of the so-called Islamic State. Only a very insensitive person could imagine that an assignment to draw this symbol is appropriate in the light of current world affairs. It does not matter that the assignment was made in the context of a lesson on Islam.

Take, for example, what has come about in regard to another symbol, the Confederate battleflag. In my opinion, the flag is an inoffensive regional symbol of the South that is unobjectionable in literary and historical contexts. However, this flag has become an anathema in any context for many Americans who see it only as a symbol of racism. If I were a history teacher, I would not hang one in my classroom.

I strongly favor the teaching of comparative religion in the public schools. I have only pity and contempt for parents who insist that teaching about religion is the same as teaching religion.

To defend Mrs. La Porte as a victim of mindless bigotry is to distort the facts. The parents were not objecting to a lesson about Islam. They were objecting to an exercise that required students to reproduce an Arabic rendering of the Islamic statement of faith.

The choice of exercise was inappropriate for two reasons:

1. It was sure to upset many parents.

2. It had no pedagogical value in the context of teaching about world religions.

“The artistic complexity of calligraphy” has no more relevance to an understanding of world religion than the difficulty of writing Hebrew or Greek.

The shema in Hebrew
The shema in Hebrew

I very much doubt that any public school teacher has ever asked students to write the Jewish declaration of faith, the shema, in Hebrew letters, or the Greek letters for ithcus, an acrostic that early Christians used as a code word for Jesus, to “give them an idea” of the complexity of writing Hebrew or Greek.

Three Statements of Faith

The shahada translates as, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.”

The acrostic "ithcus" in Greek letters
The Christian acrostic “ithcus” in Greek letters

The shema—שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָד— translates as, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the LORD is one.” .

Itchus in Greek letters is ΙΧΘΥΣ. The words the acrostic stands for translate as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.”

It is too bad that the geography teacher’s ill-considered assignment triggered such an extreme reaction on the part of parents and school administrators. I don’t fault the school administrators for taking the “nasty” emails seriously. I do fault the teacher for not having used better judgment. Everyone is guilty of lapses of judgment. The woman doesn’t deserve to be fired, but neither does she merit uncritical admiration as a champion of religious tolerance.

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