Literacy as Empowerment
“Whether we like it or not, teaching English is a political act, what we do not say is sometimes more powerful than what we do say.”
By Dr. Sawsan Jaber
The most impactful learning happens when students can see themselves reflected in their curriculum and in their learning (Muhammed, 2020; Ladson-Billings, 2014). Students in American schooling have traditionally been immersed in a white-centric curriculum that teaches from the perspective of a single story; one that often omits the points of view, lived experiences, and stories of historically marginalized groups. As a result, many students are only versed in that one narrative usually harnessing stereotypical views about diverse groups based on minimal exposure from mainstream media. All schools have an obligation to disrupt these systemic efforts and cycles meant to oppress and erase the voices of marginalized groups. The Muslim voice is one that is being directly targeted.
These inequities have become so normalized that many educators cannot recognize them as inequities. Islamic schools across America continue to teach texts that are used as propaganda to elicit sympathy and justify the continued oppression of other Muslims internationally. These same schools have the opportunity to see the power of literacy as one connected beyond skills and proficiencies, but as a conduit to justice, liberation, and power. When taught as such, literacy has the power to lead students on a path towards self-empowerment, self-determination, and self-liberation (Muhammed, 2020). Islamic schools have an obligation to embed social justice across contents. One way to do this is by using literature to disrupt racism and racist thinking. Proper instruction entails elevating the minds of students and their social conditions. This cannot happen if schools continue to expose students to the perspectives of canonical literature often glorifying the white man while intentionally muffling every other story.
Our children need to be empowered to join intellectual communities interrogating popular narratives and sharing their own narratives ultimately staking their claims to their histories and making their voices audible and themselves visible. Collaboration and allyship with other marginalized groups can only occur when text selection in schools is purposeful; when it reflects multiple identities and the identities of communities represented and not represented. Only then can teachers leverage the power of students who are resolute in their own identities, understand their own histories, can link and relate to others through their positionality and experiences to begin movement towards culturally sustaining ideals such as civic engagement, shifting the status quo, and the creation of opportunities for students to partake in true community stewardship and leadership.
There is a need to select texts and activities that go beyond cognitive focuses; we need texts that also have socio-political and socio-cultural influences creating opportunities for students to read and think through the content of texts critically, debate subjects, and actively search for their own truths. Instruction must be responsive to social events and people of the time while being rooted in historical contexts.
Muslim students are in need of identity and intellectual development that should be cultivated alongside literacy learning. Leadership can never be cultivated if a strong foundation of identity does not exist first. There are opportunities to include the voices of what is considered “the other” at all grade levels giving students mirrors to find themselves in the literature and windows to discover voices seldom heard.
If we really want to prepare students for college, I would even advocate having them read and expose them to texts that are commonly taught at the college level and misrepresent Muslims so they are able to respond in a manner that is not defensive. I am also an advocate of Muslim schools teaching texts that discuss social topics plaguing our Islamic community and pushing our youth away from Islam. Although these topics are considered taboo, they give students opportunities to have critical conversations in controlled environments with teachers who understand and share their values and religion as opposed to seeing texts for the first time in contexts where they have no support.
Literacy is a platform to shape activist scholars who are well versed in history and current events and who have a strong understanding of who they are, an identity that is rooted in faith. Whether we like it or not, teaching English is a political act, what we do not say is sometimes more powerful than what we do say. It is time we interrogate our practices and ask ourselves if we are really preparing our students for what they will face once they leave us. As a product of Islamic schools in a time that was much less hostile towards Muslims, I can comfortably claim that most of us are probably not. The time is overdue for us to reform our practices and modify our reading selections to allow for critical conversations that can better prepare our students for their post-high school education and citizenship careers.