Two NEA North Kingstown educators engage in a workshop devoted to promoting cultural competence in the classroom

Guest bloggers: NEANK members Stephanie Griffin and Sandra Makielski

Preventing Anti-Religious Bias

by Stephanie Acosta Griffin and Sandra Makielski

NEANK May 15, 2019

Sandra Makielski and Stephanie Griffin of NEA North Kingstown firmly believe teachers are front-line leaders against religious intolerance and desire to know more about the basic tenets and common values of the Semitic religions so they can assist students to exercise what Roger Williams called their “freedom of conscience” based on knowledge. Roger Williams said that democracy and freedom of conscience is the will of God. Freedom to choose or not choose to practice a faith may seem simple but in the global and political landscape of today, bias against religious groups and violence due to acts of white supremacist/domestic terrorism is on the rise and our students need help to make sense of it.

On April 25, 2019, twenty-six teachers from Davisville Middle School, Newport, Coventry, Boston and Middletown schools attended a six hour annual workshop devoted to promoting cultural competence in the classroom called “Teachers as Activists: Combating Anti-Religious Bias.” Makielski and Griffin sought help from societal peace experts to lead an interfaith dialogue: the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Honored guests and experts spent the morning providing guidance on how to teach about the three Semitic religions along with hot topics/issues facing each religion.

Dr. Susan Douglass, of Georgetown University, set a strong academic tone when she presented a treasure trove of digital resources about Islam (see link to padlet below). Dr. Douglass thoroughly explained that Islam is a religion of peace and not one that condones terror. Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Beth-El of Providence, RI spoke movingly about the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger when he said, “It is critical that we remain true to the ideals of a nation that has served as a refuge for those fleeing wars, oppression and poverty — ideals that brought so many of our Jewish ancestors to America's shores.” Finally, Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson's message reminded teachers that it is their authentic and generously given presence and desire to be supportive of all students who are different (including children who identify as LGBTQ because research shows they are at a disproportionately higher risk of suicide) that will lead to the greatest peace in school communities.

These experts stayed on to answer questions with three additional local community leaders. Julie Casimiro, North Kingstown State Representative, offered her insight into the world of local policy when addressing concerns about religion and freedom of speech. Keith Stokes, past chairman of the Touro Synagogue Education Foundation, spoke about Rhode Island's 300 years of African heritage and historical presence in Newport religious communities. Dan Howard from the Shadhiyya Sufi Community of RI shared a powerful message of the value of peaceful reflection within the tradition of Sufi mysticism.

Overall, teachers and administrators learned valuable ways to combat Islamophobia, homophobia and antisemitism. Listening to the stories and experiences of American Muslims, Jews, and Christians and understanding the commonalities between the three Semitic religions empowers teachers to design lessons so their students can move beyond ignorance, fear, and stereotyping. Participants reported feeling more confident in their understanding of societal oppression at the individual, group, cultural, and systems levels through the lens of religious and cultural understanding.

Next, Stephanie Griffin and Sandra Makielski hope to hear back from participants in this ongoing dialogue as we all work to prevent anti-religious bias in New England schools.

Teachers as Activists:

About the Bloggers
Stephanie Griffin is a Special Educator at Davisville Middle School. She is an Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights Holocaust Educators Network Fellow 2018, and an active member of the NEARI Racial and Social Justice Committee. Stephanie was a presenter at the NEARI Mental Health Summit in November 2018. You can read more about it here and look for a 2019 Summit coming later this year!

Sandra Makielski is a 7th Grade geography teacher at Davisville Middle School, a Qatar Foundation International Leadership Fellow and NEA Global Learning Fellow. Sandra was featured in the January NEWSLINE. You can read that article here.