Academic journal article English Journal

Creating an Understanding of an Unfamiliar Culture (Islam) through Young Adult Literature

Academic journal article English Journal

Creating an Understanding of an Unfamiliar Culture (Islam) through Young Adult Literature

Article excerpt

We currently exist in a xenophobic cultural moment where people from another culture, particularly Muslim Americans, are regularly marginalized and misrepresented. This, along with changing school demographics and a lack of young adult (YA) literature about characters who are Muslim, suggests a need for public conversation about Muslim representation in YA texts. This article details a project that created space and opportunity to engage in discourse that has the potential to challenge and expand understandings held by students, teachers, faculty and staff, and community members. While scholars have examined the representation of Muslims in literature for children and young adult readers (Torres 191-208) and examined how reading such titles can affect preservice teachers' understandings (Baer and Glasgow 23-32; Sensoy and Marshall 295-311), none have documented the use of this literature in the high school classroom or explored the complexities of this work from a teacher's perspective.

This project centered on perceptions of Islam, teacher development, and student engagement, all through the use of YA texts containing characters that self-identify as Muslim. It focused on a unit that was implemented in a large, urban high school in New England, specifically on one class of 16 ninthgrade students of varying cultural backgrounds. The research team was comprised of the classroom teacher, a professor of English education at a university in the northeast, and two PhD graduate students attending the same university in the northeast.

This article will focus on the implementation of this eight-week unit and ways educators might consider using YA literature featuring Muslim characters, or characters from an unfamiliar culture, to foster meaningful, engaging discussions about individual choices and society as a whole. The classroom teacher introduced students to four YA novels containing characters who self-identify as Muslim, along with activities to engage them in meaningful discussions around those texts while making real-world connections. The four texts and accompanying activities allow for student discussion about topics that have students analyzing today's society. As a result, students were able to better understand and explore an unfamiliar culture. To encourage student engagement from the beginning of the unit, students were given choice in text selection. The four YA novels are summarized here (book descriptions were adapted from Amazon):

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat (Farrar, 2007), a memoir set in Ramallah during the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, captures what it is like to be a child whose world is shattered by war.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Algonquin, 2013) tells the story of Sahar, who is in love with her best friend, in Iran, a dangerous place for two girls in love. Sahar realizes homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman's body is seen as nature's mistake, and sex reassignment is legal. Sahar wonders if saving their love is worth sacrificing her true self.

All We Have Left by Wendy Mills (Bloomsbury, 2016) centers on the September 11 attacks, in which Jesse's older brother died. Jesse begins a journey that reveals the truth about how her brother died. Meanwhile, Alia is a Muslim teenager who decides to talk to her father at his Manhattan office, putting her in danger. In the final hours, she meets a boy who will change everything.

Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai (Simon and Schuster, 2010) focuses on Fadi's family, who makes a decision to illegally leave Afghanistan and move to the United States, but chaos causes Fadi's little sister to be left behind. When a photography competition with a grand prize trip to India is announced, Fadi sees his chance to return to Afghanistan and find his sister.


Before beginning to read their novels, students completed an anticipation guide where they read statements about Islam and Muslim culture (see Figure 1). …

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