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Conservatives have been outraged to learn that seventh-graders across the state studied Islam in September, in some cases dressing up in robes and playing games about pilgrimages.
"Can you imagine replicating baptisms in the Jordan River by Jesus and John the Baptist? The ACLU ... would be apoplectic," said Ken Connor of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council.
State education officials defend their curriculum, considered one of the first to declare that students cannot learn about the great civilizations without looking at the spiritual forces that shaped them.
"You can't talk about and teach about history without bumping into religion," said Tom Adams, administrator for curriculum frameworks at the state Department of Education.
The course getting all the attention is seventh-grade world history, which runs from the Roman Empire to the late 18th century. The rise of Islam was being taught around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Trouble started in January, with reports from religious news services that students in the northern California district of Byron were dressing up in robes, pretending to go on pilgrimages and taking Muslim names.
Elizabeth Lemings, whose son is a Byron seventh-grader, believes the course crossed the line separating church and state. "I do not want my child to be taught the religious faith and practices of any other religion," she said.
Peggy Green, superintendent of the Byron Union School District, said classroom activities did not stray out of academic guidelines. She said students did not simulate going on a pilgrimage; they played a game where camels were moved across a bulletin board. They were given the option of putting on a play at the end of the three-week unit for extra credit and, for that, some students wore robes and Muslim name cards, she said.
"Basically it's like doing a colonial report and dressing up as a colonist," Green said.
Adams said state guidelines forbid acting out religious practices. He declined to say whether it appeared Byron followed those guidelines because he does not have firsthand information and, in any case, day-to-day instruction is the responsibility of the local district. "Policing the teacher is not our role," he said.
Stacy Yount is the general manager of Interact, a southern California company which provides supplemental materials for the world history course. She said the company cautions teachers against having children act out religious rites, and also advises schools to send parents an informational letter, explaining that the history of religion plays a role in the course.
In general, however, she defends role-playing as a teaching tool.
"Children's retention of the materials is far greater than if they were to just have a lecture and just have a test, Yount said. "We really believe that philosophically this is the right way to teach."
Also coming under fire was the course text, "Across the Centuries," published by Houghton-Mifflin.
San Luis Obispo parent JenT filed an administrative complaint against her district. She objected to an exercise in which her son was asked to imagine himself as a Muslim soldier. She also says the text gives a glowing view of Islam but a critical one of Christianity.
"This book ... is a victim of political correctness gone extreme," said Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative group which helped Shroder file the complaint.
Houghton-Mifflin defended the book, which has been used in California classrooms for several years.
"We try very hard to cover history and religion in a way that's sensitive," said Abigail Jungreis, a company vice president and editorial director of the social studies text.
The text was reviewed by scholars from within the religions covered, as well as First Amendment experts, she said. It does not advocate simulating religious practices, Jungreis said. Asking students to consider events through the eyes of others is a standard teaching tool that helps develop critical thinking, she said.
As for criticism the book dwells on Christianity's grimmer moments, such as the Inquisition, Houghton-Mifflin spokesman Collin Earnst said the facts presented cover the period under study. And, he said, there is positive information about Christianity in the text, such as descriptions of the Roman Catholic church's charitable efforts and teachings to live morally and perform good works.
Suggested classroom exercises include making a story map tracing the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and, later in the course, creating a poster illustration of the life of Protestant reformer Martin Luther.
California's complete world history curriculum, which is taught in sixth and seventh grades, presents a balanced picture, Adams said. In the sixth grade, for instance, students study the significance of the Ten Commandments.
Shroder said her son's sixth-grade class never got as far as learning about the commandments.
California, which overhauled its world history standards in 1998, appears to be at the forefront of a trend toward integrating information about religion into school curriculum, said Shabbur Mansuri, of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, which recently conducted a survey with the Nashville-based First Amendment Center on the subject.
"This is how we learn about the world," Mansuri said. "We don't teach any religion in our public school classroom. We teach about religions."
On the Net:
State education department: http://www.cde.ca.gov/standards/history/grade7.html
Pacific Justice Institute: http://www.pacificjustice.org/BACK TO NEWS INDEX