Is 'pretending' to be Muslim an appropriate history assignment?

A Wisconsin high school teacher faces criticism for assigning a paper to her sophomore world history class in which the students were instructed to write from a Muslim perspective. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Students at Queens College in New York gather for a vigil, Feb. 18, in honor of three Muslim students killed recently near the University of North Carolina. Wisconsin history teacher Beth Urban, has come under fire for having her students write an essay where they took the perspective of an American Muslim.

Can assignments encouraging students to assume a new identity cultivate understanding and empathy? 

That was the goal one tenth grade history teacher had in mind when she assigned her world history class a five-paragraph point-of-view essay instructing students to write from the perspective of a male or female Muslim, identifying issues that Muslims in America face.

According to an email Ms. Urban sent, students were supposed to draw their information from a handful of documentaries the class watched.

Ms. Urban's essay backfired when a parent forwarded the email assignment to local conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna, who posted a screen shot of the email on Twitter. The conservative blogosphere took exception to the writing exercise, claiming history class was not the place to show preference to one religion over another.

Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck said on Fox and Friends, "Well some people were concerned, 'Hey, did you do this for other religions, and what does this have to do in the role of a history class?'"

Some confusion was due to the wording of the email, with some in the media criticizing the phrasing, "pretend" to be Muslim. According to Union Grove superintendent Al Mollerskov, the email using the word "pretend" was only sent to one student who was absent from school, and was not used in the original, in-class writing prompt. Mr. Mollerskov says the parent who forwarded the email to the media never contacted school administrators to voice their concern.

Mollerskov also told the Monitor that students worked on similar assignments for other religions earlier this year. He stood by the assignment as an opportunity for students to gain perspective. Ms. Urban was unavailable for comment. 

"She wanted students to learn something from the assignment, not become Muslims," Mr. Mollerskov says. "She did a similar assignment on Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism and we received zero phone calls."

Polls show some Americans do want to learn more about Muslims and the faith of Islam. An Arab American Institute poll found 52 percent of respondents said they needed to learn more about Muslims before evaluating their attitudes toward them. Overall, the poll found American attitudes toward Muslims have been growing more negative – only 27 percent of those polled in 2014 had a favorable view of Muslims –  down from 35 percent who had a favorable view of them in 2010. 

A 2014 study from Pew Research found that only 38 percent of those surveyed personally know someone who is Muslim.

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