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Tip: Respecting Religious Celebrations
It’s a fairly simple thing to pause and acknowledge students' family, community, and religious obligations, and to accommodate to the best of our ability.
My first year teaching was at a university in France, where I taught English as a Foreign Language to undergraduates in the school of business. At the end of the first semester, I brought in treats for students during the final exam and made the mistake of offering them to students who were fasting for Ramadan. I remember feeling terribly embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of the religious calendar. Working with international and immigrant students over the past 20 years, I have had many students participate in Ramadan and other religious holidays that are not always recognized appropriately by the academic calendar. Over the years, I have landed on a perspective of trying to acknowledge and accommodate.
I try to acknowledge - both at the beginning of each semester and then as holidays come up over the semester - that students have personal lives and obligations that I respect. While this could involve religious practices, it also means acknowledging that students are people, not just learners; people with family and community caretaking roles. I accommodate by in both proactive and reactive ways. I do my best to not schedule unmissable activities at times when students have religious observances, instead planning activities for those dates that are equally valuable when done asynchronously. This type of proactive planning goes beyond just offering an alternative assignment to attending class; it’s not very fair to ask a student who misses class to replace in-class discussion with writing a paper. While sometimes this type of assignment change is unavoidable, with some forethought about the course schedule many of these conflicts for religious observances can be avoided.
I also try to react to requests from students for accommodations in respectful and supportive ways. I teach classes that typically meet for 2-3 hours at a time, with a break in the middle. As much as possible, during fasting times I plan our scheduled break to coincide with the time students would need to break their fast. When not possible, I encourage students to feel free to step out of class as needed; in fact, I encourage all students to step out as needed for personal reasons. The great thing about teaching adults is I don’t have to give them a hall pass to use the restroom and I don’t need to monitor their location at all times.
If you want to think about how different faith calendars might impact your course planning, Williams College has what seems to be a thorough listing of religious observations along with recommended accommodations, which I think is quite helpful for staff and faculty. For a year-long view of multiple faith traditions, here’s a nicely laid-out calendar created by Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul:
Ramadan this year falls from April 13-May 13, which means Muslim students may be fasting during end-of-semester activities, including final exams. As an educator - and a spouse and parent to practicing Muslims - I have seen how this can be a difficult time to carry on normal school- and work-related activities. I think the graphic below is helpful because it focuses on just a few pieces of information that are particularly salient for staff and faculty working with fasting students to know.
Billions of people around the world celebrate this month with fasting and prayer - but many of them live in communities where their religious observations are supported. In North America, many of our Muslim students do not have this extensive community support, which not only makes the religious observances more challenging but also may lead to more feelings of homesickness or loneliness. It’s a fairly simple thing to pause and acknowledge their family, community, and religious obligations, and to accommodate to the best of our ability.
Ramadan Mubarak to all who celebrate!
For more reading:
Teaching While Muslim is more geared for K12 educators, but still may be helpful
Univ. of South Florida editorial about aligning spring break with Passover