Challenging Misconceptions of Islam: Basic Advice for Parents and Carers

In May a survey of 6,000 schoolchildren was published by Show Racism the Red Card that concluded many students hold widespread misconceptions and negative attitudes towards British Muslims. The research found that 35% of the 10 to 16 year olds questioned ‘agreed’ or ‘partly agreed’ that ‘Muslims are taking over our country’ whereas only 41% ‘disagreed’. In addition to this worrying misconception, most students surveyed believed that Muslims make up around 36% of the population – when in reality the figure is closer 5%. And, sadly, 47% ‘agreed’ with a statement suggesting that there are poor relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in England.

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The Grand Mosque in Mecca. Muslims aim to visit this at least once in their lifetime – so long as they are able to financially and physically.

Although this survey does not – in any way – reflect our own school, it does raise obvious concerns about what students know and understand about Islam and British Muslims as well as how these misconceptions come about. Moreover, it also suggests that as teachers, governors, parents and carers we should all be aware of what Islam is and what it means to be Muslim, especially if we are to promote tolerance, respect and community cohesion within the school community.

Of course, one bulwark against Islamophobia is educating students about the religion in RS lessons. This is arguably the case at Goffs where all students are taught the life of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in Year 7 as well as the five pillars of Islam, which are the key foundations of the Islamic faith. However, it is also important that teachers in other subjects are constantly aware of misconceptions about Islam – even if they do not come across as malicious or even Islamophobic – as they could create misleading perceptions of Islam that eventually lead to Islamophobic views. Furthermore, it is also important that these misconceptions are avoided at home, too.

A good way of challenging misconceptions is to fully understand the language used to describe Islam and Muslims and to challenge the use of that language when it is misused. For instance, a key example is the use of ‘devout’ and ‘jihad’. These two words often get invoked to refer to extremists and a minority of Muslims committing terrorist attacks, but in essence they are not negative things. Although the former term might not seem controversial, some British newspapers have been censored for referring to extremists as ‘devout Muslims’.
Firstly, a ‘devout believer’ is someone who has a strong commitment to a set of basic religious beliefs, ideas and/or principles. A ‘devout Muslim’ could be someone who is committed to their faith: perhaps praying five times a day; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; regularly going to mosque and having a strong sense of Islamic identity. It is also important to stress that many of these basic values correspond to British values, such as justice and equality (exemplified by the third pillar of Islam – charity). Moreover, in the UK, the Muslim community upholds the importance of British laws. For instance, Muslim scholars have argued that Muslims living in majority non-Muslim countries must adhere to the secular ‘laws of the land’ and have no excuse for breaking those laws. Therefore, we should not mix the terms ‘devout’ with ‘extremist’ as they mean two very different things.

Perhaps the more controversial argument centres on how we use the term ‘fundamentalist’; some commentators suggest that a ‘fundamentalist’ merely has a strict adherence to their faith whereas others equate it to extremism. In many respects the former usage could be seen as completely benign, but due to confusion with this word, especially in the media, it may be better to refer to ‘devout Muslims’ when discussing those that take their faith very seriously, in order to avoid any association with illegal or violent extremism.

(C) Sun Newspaper

Secondly, another key misconception is the idea of ‘jihad’ being extremeor bad per se; interestingly, some scholars have argued that all Muslims are jihadis in the same way that all Christians are followers of Christ. For many Muslims, jihad is simply the religious duty that they have to maintain the religion. This is best explained through a translation of the word from Arabic, which literally means “to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, to persevere”. It can be argued, then, that jihad itself is not a controversial issue when thinking about Islam. It does, however, become an issue if interpreted as a defence of extremist views, such as sympathy with terrorist acts or highly illiberal attitudes towards other faiths, homosexuality and so on (this is where schools’ PREVENT training is vital).

Furthermore, another key element of jihad is distinguishing between the ‘greater jihad’ and the ‘lesser jihad’. The former relates to the personal spiritual struggle that Muslims have to adhere to their faith whereas the latter is the defence of Muslims and the faith from aggressors. It is the ‘lesser jihad’ that has been hijacked by extremists despite the actual rules of ‘lesser jihad’ stipulating that innocent people must not be harmed, ‘enemies’ should be treated with justice and that jihad is a form of defence and not aggression; for example, the Holy Qur’an states, ‘Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors’ (2:190).

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Zayn Malik – photo from Wikipedia

Lastly, when challenging misconceptions of Islam in school as well as potential Islamophobia, it is worth considering common stereotypes. For example, students in majority non-Muslim schools may associate Muslims with the minority of extreme and radical preachers often featured in tabloid newspapers as opposed to practising Muslims (and all round British heroes) like Mo Farah, Amir Khan and Moeen Ali. Moreover, there are plenty of examples of Muslims in pop culture, which is often not associated with Islam, such as Zayn Malik – formally of One Direction – as well as Muslims presenting popular news programmes, such as Mishal Husain on BBC Radio 4.

In conclusion, we can challenge misconceptions of Islam in school by:

  • being aware of the key beliefs of Muslims;
  • using the correct terminology when discussing Islam;
  • and, importantly, challenging stereotypes and highlighting examples of Muslim role models in British society.

Maximising Your Child’s Potential

Posted by Iolanthe Rodman

When a school starts to look at what really works for ‘gifted and talented’ students, the temptation is  to look for a quick fix or a set of requirements which, if implemented, will magically lead to effective provision for able students to attain the highest grades. In reality, schools that are really effective at getting the most out of all their students’ abilities start one step back from this and take as their starting point the purposes of education generally, the role of their school in maximising those abilities and how that relates to the students’ themselves.

Importantly, high achievement is only reached when the right opportunities are in place and when the individual student is confident and motivated enough to respond to them; this should be the case for all students.

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Students are articulate and must be heard

If we are to maximise students’ abilities, we should listen to them discuss their learning. Their have views on their own learning and can help to shape the overall learning offer. This really works when these pupils are at the centre of the learning process taking responsibility for their learning. This is a personalised approach and in sharp contrast to the type of cohort led provision in which students are seen as being a homogeneous group with common needs and common issues. The overall requirements for the cohort which underpin this personalised approach are:

  • Formal recognition of students’ abilities and talents
  • Planned learning opportunities offering high levels of challenge on a daily basis
  • Progress in learning in a way that reflects the stage of learning rather than the age of the pupil
  • Access to enhanced learning opportunities offered outside of normal classroom provision
  • To be seen as a child with social and emotional as well as intellectual needs

Active Citizenship – Goffs ‘General Election’ Results 2015

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© Nevit Dilmen via wiki commons

By Daniel Chichester-Miles

As voters up and down the country cast their ballots in the General election recently,  May 7th saw students at Goffs School in Hertfordshire get their own taste of election fever as 11-18 year olds in the Cheshunt school held a mock election of their own to select which party they would most want to see in Downing Street for the next five years.

Assemblies were held for pupils in each year group leading up to the vote, to learn about the process and some of the key policies of major parties, with members of the school community encouraged to find out more on the internet and news channels in their spare time.  This culminated in Sixth-formers setting up polling booths in the dining room and acting as election officials as students streamed in to make record their votes.

Enthusiasm and turnout ran high with a variety of opinion ranging across the different age groups. This is important as at Goffs we believe it is important to couple academic achievement with a firm awareness of life outside the classroom. An understanding of how our country is governed and our democracy works is obviously a key part of that.  Students said they found it exciting to have the chance to share their thoughts even if it didn’t effect the result of the Broxbourne constituency itself, which was held by Conservative Charles Walker.

The results however, did not entirely mirror the political scene nationally.

While the Conservatives topped the poll, they were closely followed by UKIP only a handful of votes behind , Labour in a respectable third, while The Lib Dems and Greens came a distant fourth and fifth respectively.

How to Help Your Child Cope with Exam Stress

Exam Hall. Credit: Wikicommons

Exam Hall. Credit: Wikicommon

Worried about your child in the run up to exams? Concerned about stress and/or anxiety issues? There are quite a few links giving advice on exam stress coping strategies in the article below (re-blogged from the Guardian Teacher Network). The article is for teachers, but can be useful for parents wanting to help their children cope with exam stress.

Exam stress? There’s an app for that… | TES New Teachers. – Is another useful on blog on helping students with exam stress. Originally published on the TES website. It was written for teachers, but includes practical points.

From the Guardian…

There are some lucky people who relish exams. They enjoy the pressure and, in some bizarre way, it brings out the best in them. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, tests are a source of anxiety and stress.

At a time when schools are already struggling to cope with demand for support as councils cut their youth mental health services provision, it’s even more essential that this year’s exam season goes as smoothly as possible. So as exam season hots up, we have a range of lesson ideas and resources to help you ensure your students keep cool.

One of pupils’ main worries is that they won’t be able to remember everything when they get into the exam hall, according to Elevate Education, an organisation that offers study skills advice. It recommends a number of techniques to help settle students’ nerves including: creating mind maps of information rather than writing out notes over and over again; explaining a topic to a parent or friend; and avoiding a last-minute cram outside the exam hall because it will only lead to higher levels of stress.

Continue reading…

Meditation in Education: An Ancient Remedy for Dealing With Modern Stress and Anxiety

Credit: 'GRPH3B18' via Wikicommons

Written by Andrew Jones. Originally published by the Huffington Post on 15/08/2013.

It’s not easy being young. According to a recent study a third of Swedish teenagers are suffering from chronic stress. In the US an estimated 10% of students suffer from a serious anxiety disorder and in the UK 10% of children suffer from some form of mental disorder, which include anxiety and depression. To make this more worrisome, Canadian academics have suggested that teenage stress doubles the risk of depression in adulthood.

Of course, this is not to mention the day-to-day stress and anxiety that all children face; from exam pressure to friendship issues, it is self-evident that many young people spend a lot of time worrying. This can, for some, be emotionally draining and time consuming; leaving less time for productive thoughts and activities.

However, acknowledging the problems associated with stress and anxiety is nothing new. Over 2,500 years ago an Indian mendicant dedicated to meditating founded a spiritual movement based on the idea of overcoming the stressful suffering caused by our desires, anxieties and dissatisfaction with life. In fact, the first teaching given by this ‘awakened one’, or Buddha, was that all off us suffer due to the pressures of life and, as seen above, this ancient teaching is also very modern.

One of the practices Buddhists use to counter suffering is a form of meditation referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation allows us to be aware of our moment-to-moment experiences; noticing and accepting our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Although spiritual in origin, German scientists have found that non-religious and non-esoteric ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ (MBSR) increases awareness of our emotions and mental processes. In turn, this can improve coping strategies in stressful situations, reduce anxiety and improve our general well-being. Furthermore, other scientists have found that mindfulness can reduce anxiety by almost 40% per cent as well as improving brain functions.

It would be a no-brainer, then, to bypass the usefulness of mindfulness meditation in an educational setting. Whether higher education, high school or elementary school, mindfulness can benefit stressed out kids prepping for exams, falling out with each other or dealing with difficult home lives. For instance, research published in the journal Paediatrics into the use of mindfulness meditation to treat physiologic, psychosocial and behavioural conditions among young people was positive and researchers in California found that mindfulness produced statistically significant improvements in students’ behaviour. Importantly, a whole host of other studies have shown similar results.

In the UK some teachers, including myself, have used mindfulness meditation in Religious Education (RE), which is a subject that is technically compulsory in England. The two state schools I have worked in have both been mixed comprehensives and, importantly, neither are faith schools. Buddhist meditation is taught at both as part of a course on Buddhism for 11 and 12 year olds (they learn about all the major world religions). In one of the schools meditation is also taught to 17 and 18 year olds who have chosen to study RE (focused on Buddhism) in greater depth. The students are not, of course, Buddhist, but they do practice various forms of meditation; including practising mindfulness with actual monks. The overwhelming attitude to participating in guided meditation with both age groups is positive and, despite giggles, most try to take it seriously.

However, this brief use of meditation is limited to schools with creative RE departments and does not offer a long term solution to stress and anxiety among students.

Introducing mindfulness meditation as a serious tool of stress relief and using it in an extra-curricular capacity does happen in the UK, but it is largely a personal initiative; it is certainly not government policy in the way that ‘broadly Christian’ collective worship is. I had seen meditation used effectively in Thai state schools and felt it could adapted as a secular form of ‘quiet time‘ to calm students down in the UK, especially those feeling the pressure of expectations. To that effect, a colleague of mine set up a Zen Club at lunchtime that offered any interested student the opportunity to meditate, sit in reflection or simply escape the commotion of the school day.

Despite the name, Zen Club is secular in its raison d’être and students of all backgrounds attend. Mindfulness is developed through attention to the breath, which has a tranquilising quality; hence the phrase – ‘take a deep breath’. By focusing on the breath the mind has something it can return to if it starts to wonder, to worry or get anxious. The idea is that the mind is aware of these thoughts, worries and anxieties and can better deal with them when they arise. Essentially, mindfulness meditation offers a coping mechanism for dealing with everyday stress and anxiety. Of course, this does not work for everyone and many students decide it’s not for them.

Although the meditation outlined above will be met with pessimism by many and is not necessarily the solution to the most serious cases of stress and anxiety among teenagers, it still offers a way of coping with those issues. Subsequently, more and more organisations are promoting secular mindfulness meditation in schools. For example, Mind Space in the UK offers practical help to teachers, develops resources and conducts research into school based mindfulness meditation. Mental health charities, such as the Mental Health Foundation, are also championing its wider use. Likewise, Edutopia, The Hawn Foundation and Mindful Schools advocate the use of secular meditation in US schools.

It would seem, therefore, that a mendicant in India thousands of years ago taught a form of stress and anxiety relief that can be justifiably used in modern secular settings, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence of its benefits. One cynic once described mindfulness meditation in schools as a ‘fad’, but if it is, it’s a pretty ancient one.

Pop in Classroom: how pop culture engages students at Goffs!

“A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society”, the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote a few years ago in the Guardian newspaper. “It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.”

As a teacher at Goffs, the last part of this statement interested me because one of the aims of our school should be nurturing “educated people”.

Nonetheless, in terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, our dilemma is relatively simple, but not trivial; should we endeavour to reference high culture in our lessons so that our students can appreciate cultural life at its finest, or, in order to engage students and make learning enjoyable, should we litter our lessons with references to what might be perceived as low culture, which is probably best defined as ‘pop culture’ in the context of young people.

Pop culture would probably appeal to most students more as it is culture that is popular, easy to understand and entertaining to the majority of young people. For example, pop music, romantic Hollywood comedies and soap operas. High culture, on the other hand, may include renaissance art, classical music and opera. The latter is arguably more sophisticated, intellectually challenging and intrinsically rewarding.

However, if I am to add ‘educated people’ to society, can I really do it through referencing and advocating fine art, poetry, classical music and opera, or will this just switch the students off?

I feel that the infusion of pop culture into RS lessons has brought the subject alive and made it more relevant. For instance, my lessons have incorporated music from Alicia Keyes (Karma), a unit on medical ethics included readings and clips from My Sister’s Keeper (saviour siblings) and Weird Al’s I Think I’m a Clone Now (genetic engineering), and lessons on wealth and poverty have included games based around Supermarket Sweep in order to assess how altruistic students really are, if given the opportunity to grab what they want.

Relating Christianity to pop culture may be more fruitful, especially as Christianity is evident in hip-hop (Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, for example), novels, such as the Da Vinci Code, and followed by a host of celebrities.

Other subjects have used pop culture in similar ways. Pop music is often used in PE to settle students, I have observed English lessons where social networking sites, such as twitter, have been used to frame questions related to news items and history have used rap to teach about historical figures.

Of course, it is possible to unite the two categories of culture. My colleagues and I have planned lessons on heaven and hell that mixed clips from Tom and Jerry with Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Furthermore, lessons on the suffering include the literature from Elie Wiese and the paintings of Francisco Goya. And, essentially, there are multiple references to the King James Bible.

Despite these generous dollops of high culture, I would not dismiss the effectiveness of pop culture or, rather, low culture in the development of ‘educated people’. Although Roger Scruton may disagree, it is worth remembering that “a shared frame of reference” often centres on what is popular, and accessing it, even celebrating it, is a good way to initially engage learners.

February Briainteaser

Can you figure this out:

At some time in the future, Simon will be 38 years old. At that time, he will be three times as old as Gill. Gill is now 7 years old. How old is Simon now?

Answer to last month’s brainteaser:

Today is the 1st January and yesterday was the 31st December. James turned 8 yeaterday. Obviously, he was still 7 on 30th December and will, therefore, turn 9 this year and 10 the year after.

BLP Focus: using Imagination in the Classroom

Teachers at Goffs are always renewing their efforts to research and develop engaging, exciting and effective ways of learning in their classrooms. Moreover, they endeavour to create lessons that incorporate recent research of how the brain learns in order to further develop the BLP skills that students need for an increasingly complex world.

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Imaginative inquiry is key facilitator here and is one of our core BLP skills at Goffs. Of course, teachers use it in many different ways in different areas of the curriculum and over differing periods of time. One of the key benefits of applying imagination skills in class is the flexibility it allows in planning lessons that cover different learning styles and multiple intelligences.

You can get an example of how effective imagination skills are used in the classroom from Daisy Dewson’s favourite lessons. These examples are from RS and History:

“My favourite lesson is the RS lesson we had when we talked about Heaven and Hell. We talked about whether they exist or not, about what they’d be like if they did exist and about why we thought they do or don’t exist. I liked it because it was interesting and fun, and also because there was a lot of talking and giving opinions and we all got our say about whether or not there was some sort of life after death. 

In year seven we also re-enacted the Battle of Hastings in a history lesson. Over half term we all had to make a weapon for homework. I made a helmet and an axe. In the next history lesson we had to bring them in and we went to the sports hall. We were split into two sides: William’s army, the Normans, and Harold’s army, the English. We had previously had a lesson on the Battle of Hastings, so we knew what happened.  After we’d been sorted into two armies and each side had a king, we went into battle. It was really fun and we all learnt a lot from it because things are much easier to remember when you are put in the situation or re-enact them. Also it was exciting because we did a lot of running around and play fighting with our weapons.”

In RS we also incorporate ‘imagination skills’ into some assessments. Below are examples of Daisy’s “Religion – Do we have a choice?” assessment. The students task was to design their own ceremony to mark joining a religion or a coming of age ceremony that can be compared and contrasted to the religious ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies, such as baptism, Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation. Most students opt for a coming of age ceremony based on a community or group they feel they belong to (or would like to belong to). The assessment allows for students to both imagine the community as well as be creative in its construction. For example, Daisy produced a joining ceremony for a Doctor Who fan club (one that takes itself very seriously), which allowed for all kinds of imaginative joining rituals, commitments and shared values. The ceremony was then compared to the more established religions. Although this may seem a little silly, it does get the students to consider the comprehensive nature of the actual religious ceremonies studied and how much choice we have in joining them.

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Some may argue that these types of assessment are not academically rigorous or challenging enough, but RS teachers are looking for a specific explanative criteria (based on levels) to be met. Using imagination allows students to be creative, apply their knowledge to new situations and further their understanding of topics taught.