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LA News Archive The Schoolhouse

Learning Virtually
Posted 12/20/2016 10:00AM

Qasim Rashid virtually speaks with Ms. Foster's history class.

by Angela Zimmer

Groton, MA --
It’s one thing to read a textbook, listen to a teacher’s lecture, write a paper or prepare a presentation on a subject. But when students can sit face-to-face with a primary source – someone who’s lived what they’re learning – and have a conversation about the topic, it takes education to a whole new level.

In early December, students in Eliza Foster’s 10th grade Conflict and Change in Society classes welcomed a special (virtual) guest: Islamic scholar Qasim Rashid, an author, attorney and national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. Foster’s students have been studying Islam, and Rashid joined their classes from his home in Virginia, via video, in Lawrence Academy’s Media Conference Center (MCC), to discuss what life is like as a Muslim in America.

“You can study [Islam] for years … and we’re doing it in this limited time of three weeks, so … my goal for the students was for them to have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a Muslim in 21st century America,” Foster explains. “We’re using Islam as this case study to really study religion in general and realize that it’s also about race, and it’s also about identity and class and all these other factors that we’ve talked about a lot.”

Rashid, who is Muslim himself, has studied how race, religion, culture and identity all intersect, and Foster knew that he would be able to answer her students’ questions far better – and from a more personal place – than she could.

“So much of this is about perception or misunderstanding or stereotypes, and as much as I can, as their teacher, explain those to them and explain why they’re wrong, it’s actually much more beneficial and valuable for them to hear from someone who is Muslim and practices Islam, but [is] also very involved in race, class, education,” Foster notes. “I knew that I wanted to have them speak to someone who could really have a personal story behind it … He just happens to also really study and represent that side of it, and so that was kind of a perfect fit.”

Instead of coming up with questions that they might, hypothetically, ask someone like Rashid, Foster’s students got to, in real time and face-to-face, ask Rashid their questions. The experience truly brought what they were studying to life, Foster says.

“[Rashid] doesn’t claim to speak for all Muslims, but I think he has a very clear perspective, and he’s so articulate,” Foster shares, “and what he was able to offer – they came away from that, I think, probably having learned more in that one 50-minute session than they would have reading a whole 500-page history of Islam.”

Some of what Rashid spoke about was more broadly applicable as well: “He even gave them little lessons – not even about Islam, but, like, about how he quit his high-paying corporate job to sort of fulfill this other need,” Foster recalls. “For him to be able to work in those little pieces of advice was, I thought, pretty incredible.”

During Rashid’s chat, a number of other faculty members, as well as Head of School Dan Scheibe, stopped by to observe. Foster admits that, without the MCC, an experience such as this one would never have happened.

“It’s invaluable,” Foster says of the MCC. “It adds a sense of real life, and sort of professionalism … The connection was excellent; we could hear him and see him perfectly … If we don’t have that facility, we don’t have the video capability that we have, then we don’t have exactly what [Rashid]’s saying the world needs: We don’t have the close interaction; we don’t have the human side of hearing those messages and being able to talk to one another and being able to ask a question and hear the answer right away, and then being able to ask a follow-up question …

“It’s really hard to hate someone when you talk to them face to face,” Foster adds, “so in that sort of big sense, talking face to face, allowing the students to engage with [Rashid] face to face, is, quite literally, I think, invaluable.”

Check out the photo gallery from Ms. Foster's class conferencing with Qasim Rashid.

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