The fifth grade history course is not only an exploration of ancient civilizations, it is also an introduction to world religions. This week, we began to take a closer look at the world’s second most popular religion, Islam. We read not only about the origins and development of Islam, but also the basic beliefs and practices. Understanding Islam is essential to provide a context for our literary companion, I Am Malala by the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Youfsafzai. Malala, currently a student at Oxford University, survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan when she was a young teen. Malala and her father were targeted for speaking out to the press about the right for girls to attend school. I felt it important for students to understand the values of Islam in order to provide a context for the fundamentalist views held by the Taliban and described so candidly by Malala in her book.

We also viewed the documentary, He Named Me Malala in which we saw Malala’s difficulty recovering from the shooting, and her challenging transition to life in the UK. This film also portrays some of Malala’s ongoinng activism including bringing to the forefront the plight of Syrian refugee children and the desperate families of girls who have been abducted by the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram. This documentary, produced by the National Geographic Society, is intended for students and uses both animation, interviews with Malala and her family, and media clips.

Many students had not heard of the Taliban and Boko Haram. Some even found difficult to believe that these groups continue to thrive today in 2018, and that the rights to practice one’s religion (or no religion at all) or even to attend school are freedoms that we take for granted here in the US. It is not easy to hear Malala’s story, the details of the shooting, the violence inflicted by the Taliban, and the oppression and enslavement of women. Hopefully, the fifth graders will continue to ask thoughtful questions at home with you, and at school with me. I want them to feel that they can make a difference in the world, and it starts with tolerance and compassion.