- McDougle Elementary
Spotlighting Student Voice: Muslim Club at East Chapel Hill
By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist
On March 22, the cusp of Ramadan, an East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) student group, the Muslim Club, explicitly opened their weekly meeting to teachers, staff and administrators to provide more information and answer questions about the ways the month-long religious holiday impacts students’ needs and schedules. By embracing the Strategic Plan Core Value of Engagement, the students also directly embraced an essential aspect of the district’s Mission: “CHCCS believes every individual's unique background and culture enhance our schools.”
The Muslim Club formed last year at ECHHS; their school flier notes, “All are welcome to the Club. Learn about Islam, make friends, find volunteering opportunities and learn about Muslim culture.” The club has more than 15 regular members and a goal to connect with many more students as they seek to build community.
For the pre-Ramadan meeting, students prepared a slide presentation, “Things to Know…” for faculty. Theater Teacher, Hope Hynes serves as the official faculty advisor, and Ceramics Teacher, Melissa Vrooman, is a very active faculty participant in meetings and activities. They are working with the students in their outreach to school and district adults, many of whom are unfamiliar with the specific needs of Muslim students, especially during Ramadan.
“I’m very committed to building relationships with my students through mutual understanding and respect, and in that sense I recognized my own need to learn more about the nature and diversity of our Muslim student population,” Vrooman said. “I thought others might also want to learn more.” She noted that she has unwittingly given studio assignments to Muslim students that require them to depict the human form, which is prohibited by many Islamic cultures. She has created a handout to share with her fellow teachers, “What I am learning from my Muslim students…”, but she also emphasizes the need to speak with each individual student and not make assumptions.
At the meeting, many students chimed in as they shared ways they wish their teachers better understood the expectations during Ramadan. After the period of sunup to sundown fasting begins, students said they often need days for their bodies to acclimate. Many of them go to mosque at sunset before they eat their evening meal. “We might not get home till really late, and then we need to do our homework,” one student said. They wake up at 4:00 a.m. for prayers, eat before the sun rises and then, when possible, go back to sleep for an hour or two.
Students shared their different responses to the initial days of Ramadan. The Muslim Club President, Huseyin Abdullah Tuna said, “At first it’s like you're running on reserves.” Some students said they might have bursts of energy that propel them through their days at school, but others struggle with dizziness, lethargy or sleepiness. In previous years, the winter exam period has coincided with Ramadan, which made the existing challenges of adjustment even more difficult.
The Islamic tradition of prayer five times daily is a religious observance that’s protected as a legal right. Not all Muslim students at ECHHS engage in midday prayers, but those who do have needed to find an appropriate location in the past. Principal Jesse Casey said when he saw someone praying under the stairwell, it hit him that there hasn’t been a specific place available to students. They now gather in the Black Box theater during lunch period, where they can pray and then socialize while other students are eating.
One of the key points the students made during the Q&A is that Muslim families and individuals practice their faith in many different ways, so it’s imperative for their teachers and peers to simply ask direct questions. “We don’t bite!” one student said with a big smile.
Vrooman pointed out that teachers are often inclined and encouraged to interact warmly with students, a handshake or a light touch on the shoulder. But Tuna said even minimal physical contact between the sexes can be problematic for Muslims. “I would love it if more teachers knew that,” he said.
One student said, “It can be awkward, when you refuse to shake hands. I’ve had people stop talking and walk away then.” She laughed as she said, “We learn how to do other greetings– distanced elbow shake or air high five.”
The Muslim Club members seemed to speak in one voice when they expressed their deep gratitude and relief at being seen and heard in their school.
Vrooman said, “My students have been very responsive to my interest in supporting their religious needs, and I have enjoyed getting to know my students more deeply through conversation about their specific practices and beliefs.”
“We are honored that our Muslim students have invited us to hear their stories and learn more about their cultures, their values, and even their struggles,” said Director of Multilingual, Dual Language and World Language Programs, Helen Atkins. “Through a deeper understanding of one another, our community will certainly continue to thrive. We hope others in the district will take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity.”
“I am very proud of the work that the Muslim Club is doing to educate the larger school community and staff about who they are and their traditions and customs,” Casey said. “I realize that I still have a lot to learn and hope to learn even more from our awesome students. I hope that more staff find the opportunity to learn and broaden their understanding of our Muslim students.”
CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at email@example.com.