By Jeremy Nash
The teaching of religion in social studies in Loudon County Schools, notably Islam, drew questions from concerned parents Thursday.
Loudon County Board of Education Chairman Scott Newman said he asked North Middle School seventh-grade teacher Erin McNish to attend the workshop so that any misconceptions of what was being taught in the classroom could be clarified.
“It’s what the state had passed a couple of years ago and we’re doing it,” Newman said after the workshop. “I think there are a lot of situations out across the country and across the state where teachers are teaching their own, I guess, opinion or own beliefs. Our teachers are teaching what the curriculum’s wanting them to teach, and it’s vague and they’re not imposing their beliefs on anyone.
“That’s just the way it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s informing our kids. It’s a different day and age and I think sometimes it’s hard for us to understand that.”
A syllabus handed out by McNish during the workshop showed her seventh-grade class this semester will cover everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Age of Exploration. Studies in world geography will include the major religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism.
“We’re teaching about religion. We are not teaching religion itself,” McNish said. “We’re not teaching them how to be a Muslim or how to be a Buddhist or anything like that. We’re teaching about it.”
Board member Gary Ubben said not teaching about the various religions would be “foolish” and keep students from gaining a better understanding of modern world conflicts. Ubben said 50 years ago he taught world religions, which included Islam.
“I think it’s important for our students to acknowledge about world culture and the conflicts that we have in our world today are caused by misunderstanding and disagreements over culture and religion, and it’s important for us to know where our enemies stand and why they are our enemy,” Ubben said after the workshop.
“If Islam is our enemy, or branches of it, portions of it are, it’s important for us to be knowledgeable about it to make a distinction between the different forms of Islam and the radical groups and the religion as a whole,” he said.
“I’m a Christian, those are my beliefs, but at the same time it’s important for me to know where others are and to understand that to help resolve conflict or fight it if it’s necessary, but to be ignorant about them is foolish,” Ubben added.
McNish, entering her 11th year in teaching, said the state standards cover 14-15 items regarding Islam and more than 24 items of Christianity, while about four or five deal with other religions.
Board member Ric Best said failing to cover all the topics listed on the state standards would keep students from being fully prepared for Tennessee Ready, adding “we have that responsibility.”
Greenback resident James Raucci, a Christian, said he was against the Islamic faith being taught in schools, and he worried for his children because the media “glorifies it and says ?hey this is cool and all of this stuff’ and then we have tragedy.” He said he would be fine if scores dropped in the Tennessee Ready test if Islam was not a part of the curriculum.
Raucci said he wanted students to think for themselves and asked the school board to do the same.
“But our teachers and our board members and our superintendents, come on,” Raucci said. “If you’ve got that fire in your belly, if you feel like something’s not right, just an inkling of it, make your concerns known. Don’t be shy. … If you have an opportunity to make a change, do that, because I feel like as parents we don’t have that.”
Loudon resident Jeff Harris, who served on the school board 1996-2004, said he still remembers after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 when a town hall meeting was held at Loudon High School and parents discussed prayer being taken out of schools. He said he had concerns with Islam being taught in schools and wanted to make sure each religion was getting a fair balance in the classroom.
“Don’t ask the school system to do something you’re not willing to do as a parent,” Harris, director of student ministries at Blairland Baptist Church, said. “It’s not the school system’s job to teach them how to pray. If you won’t pray with them – and I asked them at the meeting, ?I want you to raise your hand if you prayed with your kid before they went to school today.’ There wasn’t a single hand raised. Well why do you expect the school system to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself?
“It’s not the school system’s job to teach them the Ten Commandments,” he said.
Director of Schools Jason Vance said those wishing to give input on state curriculum can visit the Tennessee Department of Education website. Feedback is now being received for science, but social studies will be a focus next year.
“State standards are handed to the school system from the state Department of Education,” Vance said. “They dictate what we are and are not supposed to teach on. Now with that being said, as local education associations we can dictate the pace and a couple of different things in regards to how we approach the standards. … I think it’s important to learn about the history, the politics and some of the financial ramifications that come about because of some of the religious things that we encounter on a daily basis.”
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