The Art of Compromise
BY DOUG BELDEN, Pioneer Press
As violent protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad continue around the world, a St. Paul charter school is quietly negotiating the delicate question of how to teach art to Muslims.
Any depiction of God and his prophets is considered offensive under Islam, and disrespectful representations are even worse, as the recent worldwide outrage over the Danish cartoons has shown. But some Muslims also refrain from producing images of ordinary human beings and animals, citing Islamic teaching.
That presented a challenge for Higher Ground Academy, a K-12 school just west of Central High School on Marshall Avenue that has about 450 students. About 70 percent of them are Muslim immigrants from eastern Africa.
Executive Director Bill Wilson said he had concerns for some time about how to reconcile the school’s art curriculum with the views of Muslim families, but the departure of the art teacher at the end of last school year gave him a window to act.
This fall, he hired ArtStart, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, to offer more options for about 150 kindergartners through second-graders, including visual arts and drumming. But parents were still upset that their children were drawing figures, Wilson said, and some pulled their children out of art class altogether.
Wilson then sat down with teacher and parent liaison Abdirahman Sheikh Omar Ahmad, who also is the imam at an Islamic center in Minneapolis, to work with ArtStart in determining how to meet state standards without running afoul of Muslim doctrine.
“We said, ‘Look, we can do better than this,'” Wilson said.
This is a very progressive approach by the school, reaching out to the parents who, though the school is a public charter school, are its “customers”. They are trying to find a way to educate the children while being sensitive to the majority’s religious tradition.
Of course, no such accomodation would be available to Christian parents who objected to, say, the sex-ed curriculum or to “Heather Has Two Mommies” being on the elementary library shelf. And heaven, or someone, forbid that those two-weeks off in the middle of winter be called “Christmas break”, even if 70% of students are from nominally Christian families because that would be insensitive to the non-Christian minority. There’s no word in the newspaper story about how the new art curriculum is being received by that school’s non-Muslim minority.
Out the window right away went masks, puppets and that classic of elementary school art class, the self-portrait, said Sara Langworthy, an artist with ArtStart. Revamping the curriculum “definitely requires stepping outside of the normal instincts that you fall back on,” she said.
In their place came nature scenes and geometric forms and patterns, said Carol Sirrine, ArtStart’s executive director. This week, the class was cutting out shapes to make into cardboard pouches. Another project involved taking photographs and mapping the neighborhood around the school.
The conversation about what is appropriate is still open.
In a meeting this week, Langworthy asked Ahmad whether the students can do silhouettes of hands. That’s fine, he said.
Ahmad’s involvement has put many parents’ minds at ease, said Said Jama, father of kindergartner Suhyr Ali Jama. Wilson said Muslim enrollment in art has rebounded since the changes were introduced.
Langworthy said she and fellow teacher Katie Tuma don’t police what the students draw, but they do have conversations with students who are drawing figures to make sure it’s really OK.
I’m in favor of parents having the biggest say in their childrens’ education, and I admire these parents’ resolve and ability to get the school to relent. I certainly know many parents, and of parent groups, who’s concerns have been dismissed or who have found themselves being lectured for their supposed narrow-mindedness. The schools don’t seem that concerned about the number of children who’s parents ask that they be withdrawn from an offensive class, though they do demonstrate a tendency to be very forgetful in notifying the parents in advance when these insensitive days are scheduled, even when they’ve agreed to do so.
At Higher Ground, Wilson said he plans to use ArtStart — which is typically hired for one- or two-week residencies rather than long-term relationships with schools — to expand the art curriculum to grades three through five this fall. And he said once the program is fine-tuned, “we’d like to be able to export this” to any school that is interested.
Wilson said Higher Ground has experience in mediating cultural conflicts because of tensions that have arisen between its majority African population and the rest of the student body, almost all of whom are African American. Certain forms of hip-hop dance performed by African-American students at school talent shows are offensive to some Muslim students, for example, but “we’ve always accommodated that with lots of discussion,” Wilson said.
Principals, faculty and coaches are barred from leading prayer at public schools and even individual students are restricted from offering their own prayers at graduation commencements or school programs — all because of the misguided perception that doing so demonstrates governmental establishment of a particular religion. Somehow, developing and promoting this program isn’t a problem, however, and the ACLU is not pouring fire and brimstone down on the school district.
It may surprise some that I don’t have a big problem with Higher Ground adapting its curriculum to reflect the values of its population, especially since charter schools are supposed to be able to give administrators an opportunity to try different things. It is interesting to me, however, that such creativity is appauded regarding Islam, and censured if it concerns Christianity.
Further, it’s not as if I have a direct stake in this since we avoid such confounding applications by home educating our children, and that’s a topic I hope to address tomorrow.