Backlash against homework assignment to copy Muslims statement of faith closes schools in VA
A teacher in Virginia gave a homework assignment that landed her in the middle of a controversy that has now led to the closing of all schools in the district "out of an abundance of caution."
World geography teacher Cheryl LaPorte assigned her class an exercise in calligraphy that included copying the Muslim statement of faith. One look at that by some parents led to angry outbursts on social media and apparently some threats. The superintendent of schools promptly closed all schools in the district for today.
When the world geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton rolled around to the subject of major world religions, homework on Islam asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
"Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."
The illustrative classical Arabic phrase was the basic statement in Islam. It translated to: "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah."
When students took it home, it was like a spark hitting a powder keg. Some of their parents saw the homework as an attempt to convert their children to Islam.
Calls and emails flooded the school. Some of them demanded the teacher be fired for assigning it.
Cheryl LaPorte had not designed the assignment herself, but took it from a standard workbook on world religions, local newspaper The News Leader reported.
LaPorte told The News Leader that now her job is to get her students through Standards of Learning tests.
The county school system reacted.
It removed the shahada from world religion instruction. "A different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future," it said.
And it issued a statement saying no one was trying to convert anyone to any religion.
"Neither of these lessons, nor any other lessons in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief," Augusta County Schools official Eric Bond said in a statement to CNN affiliate WHSV.
But that hasn't been enough for Kimberly Herndon, who kept her ninth-grade son home from school.
"There was no trying about it. The sheet she gave out was pure doctrine in its origin," she told WHSV.
"I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian," she said.
By Tuesday, like-minded parents and residents of the town of nearly 24,000 gathered in the sanctuary of Good Will Ministries to voice their grievances, including against the teacher.
Whoever designed that lesson plan is clearly out of touch with the sentiments of parents and others in the community. If you're going to teach calligraphy and want an example from Arabic, why not include a quote from the famous Arab poet Kahil Gibran instead of a religious quote?
Having said that, this is a huge overreaction by parents. To be terrified of words is irrational, and the notion that the teacher or the school district is trying to convert kids to Islam by using this homework assignment is silly. And overreacting to the point that violence is threatened is madness.
This is the flipside of what's happening on college campuses – ginned up outrage over nothing. For some of these parents, intent doesn't matter. Any mention of Islam – one of the world's biggest religions, whether they like it or not – breeds hysteria. You can't close your child off from the rest of the world simply because you have a different notion of God or politics. That leads to kids who are half-educated and narrow-minded – hardly a recipe for success in life.