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Teaching Arab Stories and Counteracting Negative Stereotypes

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Having just returned from reporting in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan for Education Week and exploring Egypt (on vacation), I'm particularly interested in an article just published in Childhood Education that guides teachers in selecting children's literature about the Arab world. The authors of the article, "Celebrating diversity through explorations of Arab children's literature," are Tami Al-Hazza, an assistant professor, and Bob Lucking, a professor at the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The authors observe that these days, "Arab extremists or Muslim fundamentalists bent on destroying the world populate contemporary films," and Arabs have become a "minority of suspicion" in the United States. To counteract negative stereotypes of Arabs, they say, teachers can expose their students to good-quality Arab children's literature that describes everyday events and the thoughts and feelings of Arab children.


One children's book recommended in the article that I'd like to go out and buy right now is The Day of Ahmed's Secret, published in 1995 by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland. The cover illustration has a scene much like those my husband and I saw while riding a local mini-bus through Cairo to the Pyramids. We passed boys and men riding on donkey carts piled high with vegetables and fruits. Ahmed's donkey cart, in the story, is carrying tanks of butane gas for delivery to customers in Cairo. A couple of values of Arab culture emphasized in the book, according to the Old Dominion University professors, are the importance of family and fulfilling one's role in society.

It seems that teachers of diverse groups of children have caught on to using various stories in their classrooms about Latin American culture. But the teaching of Arab children's literature is less prevalent. The Childhood Education article gives teachers an opportunity to expand their repertoire of children's literature in that regard.

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The Day of Ahmed's Secret is a beautiful book and I've used it with children, but my favorite use is in workshops/courses for mainstream teachers on teaching ELLs. I read the book to them when they are growing a bit weary from language acquisition and culture information overload. After the reading they talk enthusiastically and very positively about Ahmed's qualities, skills, and relationships. Then I tell them Ahmed's father died and he has come to live with family in our town. He shows up in their 4th grade classroom. Throughout the rest of the workshop/course questions like "What background info will Ahmed need to connect with this instruction?" "What might Ahmed's 7th grade teacher think if he has no accent but reads and writes poorly?" etc. help bring discussions alive. We've even role-played "parent" teacher conferences with his uncle and talked about whether he should be retained. It's amazing how deeply they know Ahmed and how much knowledge brings to our exploration of language learners.

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