As a middle school teacher, Sashi Gorin is mindful that her role in the classroom includes teaching her students about tolerance and diversity. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she became even more attentive to dispelling discrimination, especially toward those from the Middle East.
When school reopens in her West Hartford district, the world geography teacher says, she will be able to more effectively teach those lessons, and more, after participating in the Middle Eastern Studies Summer Institute at Central Connecticut State University, a course that ended Friday.
"I think I will be able to go back and better dispel some of the stereotypes regarding Islam," said Gorin. "And that Muslim does not automatically mean hate."
Other participants, however, characterized the course as "biased" and "unfair," and contended that it presented a warped perspective that would do little to dispel prejudice and misperceptions.
"This was not a democratic class and was anti-American," said Joan Kadish. "It was very one-sided and intimidating for those of us who had another view."
The perspectives of Gorin and Kadish were illustrative of the varying opinions as 72 teachers completed the five-day institute, which was aimed at providing educators with more information on the history, geography, religion and culture of an area of the world that has become a more prominent part of classroom curriculums.
Gorin was one of several teachers who applauded the seminar, saying that it not only provided basic information but gave a wider view of the situation than that depicted in the media.
As an example, several teachers cited women's rights issues in the Middle East as an area of particular interest in the CCSU program and within their own classrooms.
"Students see the reports on women being oppressed because of the veils they wear," said Angie Parkinson, a teacher at Bacon Academy in Colchester. "That's the stereotype. In the class we learned that in some Middle Eastern countries women are proud to wear the veils and it is their choice," she said. "I think the seminar gave us a lot of information that balanced what is being put out by the media. And it's information from someone who has been to those countries, not just from books."
Although university officials touted the class as a timely one that would include "intellectual and academic integrity," Jewish leaders, as well as some class participants, argued that the professors who drafted the course were biased and would not give a balanced presentation. On Friday they contended that their fears were well-founded.
Lorrie Zackin, another teacher who attended the class, said her concerns are that those teachers who are not well-versed on the Middle East walked away with a skewed vision of the culture and the politics.
"It did not provide the expertise a teacher needs to present an objective lesson on the Arab-Israeli conflict," she said. "It was very one-sided."
Many of those attending this week's program were unaware and surprised by the controversy surrounding the program when they arrived at the class Monday. By Friday they were happy with the results that included a mix of fact and opinion they felt is normally expected in a college setting.
"I thought I knew a lot about Islam, but the class certainly broadened my scope," said Jack Issac, a social studies teacher at Pulaski Middle School in New Britain. Issac said he now better understands the importance of Islam to the Muslims.
"I had no idea how much it meant as a part of daily life," said Issac. "Understanding those kinds of things means discussions about the Middle East in my classroom will include more information. It will also allow me as a teacher to better relate to the Muslim students at our school."
Issac and others said that although there were some opinions they had not heard before, it was an experience that had value.
"We should hear differing views if we are going to ultimately understand," said Issac.
Richard W. Benfield, the CCSU professor who coordinated the project, said Friday that he felt the seminar was a positive one based on written reviews from participating students.
"I think a whole lot was learned," said Benfield, "and overall was a positive experience."
Two follow-up sessions, which are also part of the seminar, are tentatively scheduled for November and for March 2003.
"I think it did what it was supposed to do," said university President Richard Judd, who spoke with the participants before they left Friday. "It was appropriate, there were good academics and expertise. I think teachers left with a broad stroke of information about the Mideast and we will be looking forward to see how they will use that information in their classrooms. Their students will certainly benefit."
Judd said there have been requests for a similar seminar featuring lecturers from the Jewish community. He said he would be willing to plan such a class in response to those who felt the summer seminar was too subjective.
Some seminar participants said they felt the controversy was not detrimental, but rather a healthy part of the education cycle.
"There was similar controversy when issues like civil rights, the American Indian or the Holocaust became topics for the classroom," said Jennifer Pompa, a geography teacher at Flood Middle School in Stratford. "I think in each of those cases there was controversy and some reluctance to discuss them. Eventually they realized it is better to listen to all sides."