GREENVILLE, Va. — Just a few days after more than 100 people met in fury over a world geography assignment by a Virginia high school teacher, the tide seems to have turned with support for the teacher spreading over Facebook.
Cheryl LaPorte, a veteran teacher with Augusta County Schools, asked students to practice Arabesque calligraphy by copying an Islamic statement of faith, known as the shahada, as part of a curriculum on world religions, including Islam. Initial reaction from Christian parents called for extreme actions such as having LaPorte fired for “violating children’s religious beliefs.” However, both the Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it both in line with state standards, as well as not in violation of students’ rights.
Former students of LaPorte, concerned citizens and parents have taken to social media to ask the parents who initiated the case against LaPorte to stop. An event created to rally outraged parents to a forum Tuesday night at a church near Riverheads High School, was taken over with posts criticizing the actions of those who created the event. It was eventually taken off Facebook on Wednesday.
“I keep seeing the word, ‘indoctrination’ being thrown around and, as an RHS alumna, I take great offense to it,” said Kari Watson. “I love this school, and Mrs. LaPorte is a wonderful teacher. It is outrageous to believe she is trying to convert anyone to Islam. Please, choose your media outlets wisely and be aware of what you’re spreading.”
The calligraphy assignment came from a teacher workbook created by teachers called “World Religions.” It was not an assignment LaPorte made up herself. The instructions for the assignment said, “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
LaPorte said her job now was getting her students through their Standards of Learning tests.
In a Facebook group created to support LaPorte, members were asked to write to the superintendent expressing their support for LaPorte and her classroom lessons.
Former student Grace Zimmerman posted in the group saying, “As a community, it is up to us to defend a teacher who is not in the wrong and deserves our support as she supported a great number of us through our high school years.”
Kacey LaPorte Bunch, who identifies herself as LaPorte’s daughter, posted this Friday: “My mother wanted me to share the following message with you:
“I have been humbled by the love and support I have received from so many wonderful people. Thank you all, and please know you put the HAPPY back in my holidays. Mrs. LaPorte”
Climate at Riverheads High School
Increased police presence and national media attention have made for a different week for Riverheads High School headed into winter break. Classes had been scheduled through Friday, before Thursday afternoon’s abrupt decision to end the week early after district offices were hit by a firestorm of phone calls and emails over the controversy.
Augusta County Sheriff’s deputies were in all schools and the front doors were locked, something that the schools came under fire for not doing in a separate controversy earlier in the week. Riverheads Principal Max Lowe said despite these measures, the climate at school this week had been “good” and that he hadn’t heard from students that they were feeling any extra pressure.
Students, however, said things have been weird.
Kimber Murphy, a junior, said that some parents have been concerned because of the police presence, but she has felt safe this week.
“(LaPorte) taught us some interesting things and I learned a lot,” Murphy said. “I think she’s a great teacher.”
Assistant Superintendent Doug Shifflett said the administration was trying to keep “schools out of the public forum,” and with parental concern over school safety, they were not allowing media to speak with students during school hours.
The school division canceled school for all students late Thursday evening as a result of the national attention.
Importance of comprehensive religion studies
LaPorte’s lesson was part of a block study of different religions. When students study a different part of the world, they also learn about that region’s culture, religion and political systems. Students had studied Christianity and Judaism and had moved on to Islam. They also will learn about Hinduism and Buddhism. Comparative religions is part of every world geography students’ required standards for the state’s Standards of Learning tests.
Bridgewater College Professor Nancy Klancher, who teaches philosophy and religion and interfaith studies, said most of her students come from Virginia and many from the Shenandoah Valley.
“A large majority of them are from the Valley, and they don’t know anything about any other religions besides their own,” Klancher said. She has found how important her classes are in exposing students to cultures and ways of thinking they maybe have never heard of before.
Klancher said this is even more important today, and that students need to see accurate representations of religions, not just the extremists.
The difference between education and indoctrination is in the presentation, Klancher said.
“It’s not about think like other people, it’s about understanding other people,” she said.
Ed Martin, director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University, said we live in a pluralistic society and that exposure to other religions isn’t just beneficial, it’s vital. And currently there is a lot of misinformation about different religions, particularly Islam.
“We’re going to encounter it in school, in our work and our social lives,” Martin said. But learning about a religion is not the same as being asked to believe in it or practice it.
“Intellectual presentation is not calling for people to change their religion,” he said.
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