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'Creative' approach to teaching religion draws fire

By Shira BossSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002

Having students walk a mile in someone else's moccasins is a common teaching tool, used by teachers to bring historical topics alive. Kids might act out a battle, take sides in a historical debate, or build a replica of an ancient village or city.

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But insert religion into the process, and suddenly an engaging approach can become fraught with problems.

Education about religious holidays, particularly Christian ones, has long been a lightning rod for parental concerns. But this year, not surprisingly, Islam as a faith has come under particular scrutiny.

Study about Islam was already part of many school curriculums. But some parents have raised concerns about classroom activities they say are tantamount to practicing the religion instead of learning about it – and in the process have renewed a debate about how religion should be addressed in schools.

"[Role-playing] is a wonderful tool, and schools should continue to do creative things with kids so they stay engaged," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "But when you get creative, there's always a danger."

The most recent controversy is in California, where state standards require seventh-graders to "analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages."

One parent has claimed that the middle-school textbook "Across the Centuries" takes students beyond this mandate because of what she sees as a bias toward Islam and against Christianity.

"The text specifically displays its bias by only citing Christianity for examples of religious persecution, focusing on church schisms, crusades, and inquisitions," says a statement from the Pacific Justice Institute, which is representing the San Luis Obispo parent.

The textbook, which has been used in classes nationwide for a decade, was reviewed before publication by a panel of advisers, including representatives from the major religions.

"Across the Centuries" has been charged with devoting much more space to Islam than to Christianity. The publisher says that is because the book is the second of a two-book series. Christianity, because it emerged earlier than Islam, is covered more in-depth in the first book.

Parents also say the text covers Islam without mentioning terrorism and the treatment of women in some Islamic countries, and that it defines "jihad" as "a struggle to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil" – a definition many find inconsistent with the current Mideast violence.

"We teach the fundamentals of Islam, and there is a resentment among some that the dark side of Islam isn't being focused on," says Christopher Hayes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which has worked with California schools on how to cover religion.

The publisher, for its part, says that the textbook covers a period of history until 1789, and that modern topics would not be suitable. "We're also not covering the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor when we're talking about medieval Japan," says Collin Earnst, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin, the Boston-based publisher of the textbook.