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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

Idealism and Realism in the Formation of a Culturally Sensitive Classroom

Niquette found she could retain her female Muslim students by thinking "outside the box"

by KayTee Niquette
I have spent the last seven years teaching English to nonnative speakers in the Union Public Schools' Adult Education Program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My classes have always been very multicultural and multilevel. Until three years ago, the student population in our program was predominantly Hispanic. In the last few years, due in part to the growth of large corporations locally, I have seen an influx of students from Vietnam, Korea, Venezuela, as well as a number of countries in the Middle East. The majority of the Middle Eastern students have been men. The Middle Eastern women who first entered the program had husbands who were students at a local school. Students knew that I had taught in Lebanon and have many Middle Eastern and Muslim friends. This drew women to my class.

Many of the women were coming to class in traditional head coverings called a hijab. This did not pose a problem with my non-Muslim students, but, for some reason, the women from the Muslim community never attended for very long. They stayed less than a month in any given English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) class. In July, 2001, I was teaching an evening class. A young Saudi Arabian man, whom I shall call Sam, came to class with his new bride. He was very American in mannerisms, but his wife was very traditional and wore the full black sheath with a hijab that covered to below the eyes. Sam admitted to me that he had no problem with his wife studying in a mixed class, but that she did not feel very comfortable and was going to try the class out.

I made every attempt to make her feel at ease. When we sat down, she sat at a distance from the male students, and when we had a circular group discussion, I made sure the men were on one side and the women on the other. Although I tried to get her to speak in class, I got little or no response. Before the class was even finished she asked me if she could go to see her husband, and I said that would be fine. After a few minutes, her husband approached me and asked if I had an all women's class. I told him very honestly that because the program was funded through a grant from the federal government, we could not run women-only classes. It would be discriminatory.

At that very moment, I realized that the ideal - students from all countries sitting together in a classroom - is not always possible. In reality, some individuals want to learn English, but social customs and dedication to certain religion beliefs prohibit them from learning comfortably in a mixed gender class. Sam explained that many Muslim women were interested in taking classes. He could give me the name of a man who was responsible for the mosque and its facility. I agreed to take his phone number and told him I would contact him with any information I could provide.

Considerations and Interventions
Our adult learning center has always offered mixed gender, as well as culturally diverse, classes. At the same time, the challenge of retaining Muslim women in the classroom was something that needed attention. As a full-time teacher, it is my responsibility to assist all part-time employees, making sure the classes run smoothly and the students do not drop out. My coordinator and I agreed that we needed to find a solution, and we thought that a women's class would be the answer. We also thought that the situation could be a great opportunity for the Union Adult Education Center: we were hoping to create a culturally sensitive class of students whom the nation seemed not to fully understand. Classes would not be able to be offered on school property because of the concerns about segregation or discrimination. The adult learning center, by district policy, would be unable to turn away students interested in taking the class, specifically those who were male. The policy is based on Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

We started thinking about locating a site that had no connection to the school. I was able to offer Sam's suggestion of the use of the mosque run by the Islamic Society of Tulsa. The mosque was a place of religious worship that many of the women would be comfortable attending. We could have use of the mosque library for class. Around the same time (September, 2001), I was chosen to represent the state of Oklahoma at the National Symposium on Adult ESL Research and Practice in Washington, DC. While in Washington, I spoke to the Ron Pugsley, then Director of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), about the class our adult learning center was interested in starting. I explained all the concerns we had and what we had proposed to do. I was worried that there might be a problem, but my fears were quickly allayed. He told me that our learning center had an opportunity not to be missed, and that an all-women's class was not and should not be an issue. With this last bit of affirmation, I was ready to start a class.

Wonderful Response
A call to the facilities coordinator at the mosque about a possible space for classes was met with a wonderful response. I was offered the use of the library, as well as help in finding Muslim women in the mosque who were interested in learning English. One would have thought that September 11th would have affected the class, but it did not. The word spread and the class began to grow. My students were quite surprised when I showed up in class wearing a scarf over my head. I was asked by my students if I was a Muslim, and I told them I am not. I explained that I was wearing the covering out of respect for the culture and for the place they hold holy. All their faces lit up and they began to ask me if I would be interested in a hijab, since the scarf kept falling off my head.

Classes at the mosque are very flexible to allow for prayer changes that occur during daylight saving time. The observance of religious holidays, particularly Ramadan, means that class times may need to be adjusted for one month or classes may be placed on hold. My students may leave for 10 minutes in the middle of a class to pray. Otherwise, my expectations of the students are no different than those I have for my other ESOL classes. The women study the same topics as the other classes, but within a group that affords them the opportunity to express their ideas out loud without worrying about a male presence. Many of the learners are very outspoken and have no problem working in a mixed class, but this class makes them feel more comfortable. The class at the mosque is listed on all our fliers. Should a non-Muslim of either gender wish to attend classes, it would be fine. The classes are not based on religion, but were created because of a cultural awareness of customs.

Today, the enrollment of the class, which is on break for Ramadan as this article is being written, remains stable at eight to 10 learners. In recognizing the need for a culturally sensitive class, I have been given the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of students. It has been a rewarding opportunity to be able to partake in pioneering a class of this nature in Oklahoma. Sometimes, we have found, it is useful to think in what might be construed as a more traditional way to meet nontraditional needs.

About the Author
KayTee Niquette is a full-time teacher-trainer for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (SDE), and a BEST tester in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A native of Vermont, she has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a masters degree in TESL. A love of travel prompted her to teach in Lebanon.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL