How teachers can support students during Ramadan


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A Malaysian Muslim women is silhouetted after reading the Koran during the holy month of Ramadan. photo by Samsul Said/Reuters.

This piece was originally published for PBS Newshour.

Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims observe fasting from sunrise to sunset. And it can be a difficult month for many to get through, especially students who have to go through a normal school day without eating or drinking. This year, Ramadan will begin on Saturday, May 27, when many schools have yet to finish for the summer. For schools, it’s important to provide an environment for students where they feel safe to practice their religion, but maybe more importantly, one that ensures their well-being during the school day.

Who fasts and why

Not everyone is expected to fast. Fasting is not obligatory for children, until they reach “of age.” There is scholarly debate on what that age might be, though most scholars do recommend that fasting start when one reaches adolescence, anywhere from 13 and up. There are some Muslims who start earlier, or later. For example, I started when I was 9, but I did “half-days,” meaning I fast from either morning until about lunchtime, or from lunchtime until evenings.

Often Muslims are also exempt from fasting if they’re ill or have certain medical conditions, or traveling. Pregnant and breastfeeding moms are also exempt, as well as elderly folks.

Ramadan is considered one of the holy months in the Islamic calendar. Kindness, forgiveness and charity are recommended and often pursued as good practice in faith. It is also a time to be more compassionate and show empathy to those who are in need.

While fasting, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activities. Ramadan is a time for Muslims to make an extra effort to abstain from lying, gossiping and other sinful acts. Many Muslims use Ramadan as a time to reset and start anew, creating new goals and improving old ones to improve oneself and rejuvenate the spirit and the soul. (Here is a quick video I made about some of the reasons I fast.)

Fasting often provides a spiritual perspective for Muslims that allows them to understand the suffering of those who are less fortunate, in poverty, and those in need. It also reminds us to not be wasteful of God’s blessings.

How schools can be supportive

During this holy month, one of the hardest things that I often hear my Muslim students complain about is the lack of space and lack of understanding. Here are several ways to support your students during the month of Ramadan:

Understanding: One of the vital pillars in creating a safe environment for Muslim students in Ramadan is to educate oneself about the month. Many teachers and classmates do not understand why Muslims fast. It’s important to try to form your own understanding about the month, and to not rely on Muslim students to educate the class.

Space: Lunchtime is probably one of the most difficult periods to endure while fasting. Many students will tell you that they don’t care if you eat in front of them, and chances are that might be true. However, hunger often worsens when you’re in a room full of people eating. It might help to have a comfortable space for Muslim students to go to instead of the designated lunchroom during lunchtime. The room can have some iPads, books, magazines and other things to keep students busy. Of course, it’s then up to the student whether they choose to go there or not, but having that as an option, even for students who are not fasting, is usually beneficial.

Physical Education: I have heard that some teachers are not very tolerant of Muslim students practicing Ramadan, and therefore are not very understanding when students cannot participate in phys ed classes. Some students have grades deducted due to their lack of participation during Ramadan. This is not okay. It is within students’ right to practice their religion, while having the necessary conditions for them to succeed and achieve their best potential. Teachers can make accommodations for practicing students, such as assigning a different task/project for students to complete that does not require them to do any strenuous work while they’re fasting.

Empathy: This sounds a bit easy, but having empathy requires one to truly understand the other person’s situation and feelings. When planning school activities and events, think about how it’ll impact practicing Muslim students. Will they feel left out? Will they need to break their fast during that time if it’s during Iftar (i.e. sunset)?

If students have the right accommodations and support from teachers and their peers, it can turn a challenging month into the most rewarding. If you’re still unsure about how to help practicing Muslim students in your school, don’t hesitate to ask them privately what they need, and how you can support them.

Interview with Education Week: Blogging for English Language Learners

Sketch 2016-10-19 23_28_38My interview with Larry Ferlazzo for Education Week:

LF: You write about the concept of “communicative pedagogy.”  Can you elaborate on it here and share some specific examples of what it might look like in the classroom?

Rusul Alrubail:

Communicative pedagogy is the practice in the classroom that centers the importance of interaction as one of the goals to help students with language acquisition. Most English-language learners who are also newcomers worry about day-to-day interactions, and communicative pedagogy allows them to practice scenarios in the classroom that would help to advance their conversational skills. For example, communicative pedagogy would create lesson plans and activities that focus on helping students interact in a supermarket, or at a job interview, or even helping them to purchase a movie ticket. Communicative pedagogy can be practiced orally or through writing.

LF: You also write about “cultural responsive teaching.”  Can you do the same—explain what you mean by that term and what it can look like in schools?

Rusul Alrubail:

Cultural responsive teaching focuses on understanding, fostering, and more importantly, being responsive in creating a safe learning environment for students to excel and succeed, while taking their cultures, ethnicity, and race into account. For example, some English-language learners in the classroom might be newcomer refugees. A culturally responsive teacher would help to understand their backgrounds and lived experience. She would probably need to be very sensitive when discussing the refugee crisis with in class, and take into account some of the trauma they may have or still might be experiencing.

LF: Can you share a bit about your personal background as a refugee and how it might inform your writing and work today?

Rusul Alrubail:

When I arrived to Canada at the age of 11, I spoke no word of English at all. It was one of the hardest things I had to go through in life, even harder than fleeing my home country, Iraq. The reason for that is because language barrier disconnects us from our surroundings and can create such a strong sense of isolation. As a result of this feeling, I want to help other English-language learners, who are going through similar experiences as I did, to recognize that their voices and stories matter.


LF: What are two or three of the most important suggestions you can make to teachers who might want to explore using digital writing with English Language Learners or, in fact, any students?

Rusul Alrubail:

My first suggestion is to explore and do some research. Ask yourself, what do you hope your students to be able to gain from the experience of digital writing?

My other suggestion is to provide choice for students. This will help in giving them the space to write about topics they’re interested in. One of the things I discovered is that often times, when you give students all the choice in the world, because they’re not used to it, they have a hard time choosing something to write about. And even when they do, they still need a bit of guidance. That’s okay. Guide them through the process, and still encourage them to keep going and write down their own reflections and ideas. The more they do this, the easier it’ll be for them to ‘free-write’ next time around.

LF: What do you see as the one or two key potential challenges facing educators who want to use digital writing and how can they be overcome?

Rusul Alrubail:

Tech sometimes can be an issue. Lack of digital access can definitely hinder teachers from introducing digital writing in the classroom. In this case, many teachers work to book a computer lab or a class in the library to write. It is not ideal, but manageable.

Another challenge is the idea that digital writing destroys traditional writing. This concept, or rather, is not backed or supported by research. In fact, research does indicate that the more students write digitally, the more teachers are able to see improvement in critical thinking and writing structure. We need to see the practice of digital writing in the classroom as the development of future communication.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Rusul Alrubail:

Digital writing is for everyone. And for English language-learners, digital writing can truly motivate and engage them in learning the language. It’s important to engage this student population in developing their language to equip them with the necessary tools to express and communicate their thoughts and ideas, in the hopes of being able to positively impact their generation.

LF: Thanks, Rusul!

You can order Digital Writing for English Language Learners here on Amazon. If you also order directly from the publisher website, you can get 20% off using this code: RLEGEN17.


Edit: the title of this post was changed from “why i left #Educolor” to just #educolor because we’re all brothers and sisters and we’re all growing and learning together. It’s all love.

I am writing this post in solidarity with my friend Melinda D. Anderson, who announced her resignation from Educolor this week. I am also writing it, because many loyal Educolor followers and members have questions about my own resignation now accompanied by Melinda’s.

I resigned from EduColor back in March of this year, and I want to share my story as to why I left.

I joined #EduColor in 2014 a year after I started to grow my own professional learning network in the digital space. EduColor was a space for me to speak up on issues that directly impact myself, and many other marginalized groups whose voices are seldom heard.

Continue reading

Book: Digital Writing for English Language Learners

wp-image-1861949011Digital Writing for English Language learners looks at practical ways educators can implement the use of technology in their English and Language Arts classroom for English Language Learners. The book provides a variety of classroom activities and assignments that can be completed with English Language Learners using social media and other digital writing tools. The book also looks at creating a culture that fosters the necessary conditions for student voice to thrive in an English Language Learners’ classroom.

I am really excited about the release of my book. I never thought in a million years that I would be authoring a book to help students who are going through similar experiences as I did when I was an ELL. I am so thankful to the teachers who already ordered it, and if you’d like to get a copy, you can order here on Amazon. If you also order directly from the publisher website, you can get 20% off using this code: RLEGEN17.

Please feel free to leave a review on the amazon site and tell me what you think! I’d be ever so grateful.

Intersectionality: What “Diversity” Really Means

Posters created for Women’s March on Washington, 2017. Women’s Voices for Change.


When we talk about “Diversity” and “Diverse spaces”, what do we really mean?

Do we mean to include some people, and not others? Of course, we don’t mean to do that! After all, who intentionally goes out of their way to be exclusive?

In today’s political climate, we can’t afford to think about what intentions others had in mind when creating spaces for diversity. If a conference that focuses on gender diversity in education hardly has women of colour in attendance or represented, that’s inexcusable. We also can’t afford to hear excuses and defence. We didn’t have time… the topic was not on the agenda…we didn’t know who to reach out to…

Excuses show nothing but sloppiness, inconsideration and a lack of recognition of one’s own privilege.

I get excited to see amazing initiatives that focus around inclusion and diversity, especially when they happen in Canada. So when I came across a conference about women education in Canada on twitter that highlighted women leaders, I was disappointed to see that while their focus was on diversity and inclusion, all their speakers were White, and they even had a male speaker on the panel.

Don’t we have enough White men speaking on almost every issue? It’s time for them to give that platform to people who need to be heard.

This women’s tweet struck me as strange especially considering the fact that this panel could not speak for anyone like myself, much less other marginalized groups. Where are the women of colour doing amazing work in Canadian education? Where are different ability advocates? Are there LGBTQ rights educators represented?

I just wish the panel represented “everyone”.

I am glad someone else noticed, because it’s so exhausting for people of colour to constantly be the only ones who notice and speak out on these issues.

This panel in fact is a great example of what white feminism looks like. If you’re curious about what White Feminism means, please read this list of resources created by the Women’s March organizers.

Intersectionality matters! And that’s why to me this conference and every other conference that brands itself as inclusive and focused on diversity fails when they do not have proper representation of the people.

What does intersectionality mean? Merriam Webster defines intersectionality as the following:

It is not enough to talk about gender diversity, we must also intersect that with race, culture, ability, sexuality, and other types of intersections that go along with being a human being. We must not look to these issues as Black and White issues only, or Women Men issues. There are different intersections that we need to consider in order for us to be truly inclusive.

If you’re curious, I did try to bring up the issue to the organizers of that conference:

I worry that their reaction was more on the defensive side, than willing to learn and own the areas they need to work on and grow from. It’s so important that when we do mess up, or even just not consider an angle of an issue, that we’re willing to hear criticism and learn from our mistakes. Otherwise how do we grow to be better human beings? For me, like I said above, in this day and age, we can’t afford to make an excuse of “not knowing” or “we didn’t have time”.

Diversity is more than slotting a couple of minutes to discuss at a conference. We need to work on this throughout planning, decision making, advisory, outreach, communication, and so many other elements. This issue is systemic, and if we don’t try to work within and really reach into our own systems, and organizations to improve the culture, then we’re not going to improve or change the world.

If you’re organizing a conference, your outreach is the most important aspects to get all stakeholders’ voices included in the conversation. Let’s invite everyone to participate and truly exemplify inclusion and diversity, not just make attempts.

Disruption in Education: It’s a good thing, and it’s more than a buzzword

This post was originally published in International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today magazine. 

Screenshot 2017-04-04 21.52.29

Google defines disruption as a “disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process”. We need to look at disruption as a concept to use and implement in education, not as a problem, but as a strategy to formulate solutions to current problems. Like many other trends in education, we also need to avoid the concept of “disruption” to be a mere buzzword, and we should work towards creating real tangible solutions.

Check out the whole magazine here, and my article is on page 36.

Meet @BlairImani the activist fighting for intersectionality and rights for those on the femme spectrum

Blair_Imani_Chinatown-39This interview was published originally on The Tempest.

Blair’s activism and presence on social media and in real life has been an inspiration to many women of color everywhere.

I connected with social justice activist Blair Imani after we both tweeted using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow, which was created by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, after Donald Trump alleged that Ghazala Khan’s reverent silence was due to Muslim women “not being allowed” to speak. Blair rose to prominence on social media after her infamous arrest last summer in Baton Rouge at a #BlackLivesMatter protest.

The image of her arrest, being dragged by two white cops, went viral on social media and really demonstrated the amount of violence, both mentally and physically, that Black people encounter on a daily basis.

Blair’s activism goes beyond social media: she works with Planned Parenthood as a Press Officer, developing communications strategies for their ongoing campaigns to help women have access to safe and legal health care. She also founded Equality for HER, a non-profit organization that seeks to uplift marginalized voices of women and people on the femme spectrum.

The Tempest: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what inspired you to enter the activism space?

Blair Imani: Growing up in America, we are taught to put ourselves in a box to survive. My parents always taught me that this ideology was flawed and unnecessary, and for that I am grateful.

I was introduced into the world of activism and advocacy from a very young age, due in large part to my younger sister, Chelsea. Chelsea is two years younger [than me] and has always been a confident free spirit. Chelsea is on the autism spectrum and also has bipolar disorder. She didn’t speak in full sentences until she was four and had tantrums well into our elementary school years.

Growing up I didn’t understand why…my friends, family members, and teachers didn’t accept her. My parents were Chelsea’s constant advocates in a world that did not want to accommodate her. Preschool was a particularly difficult time. Chelsea was kicked out of two different schools. The private school I attended accepted her but would send her home when she had a tantrum, as we lived across the street. One teacher callously told my mother, “we don’t deal with this kind of behavior.” It seemed like everyone was eager to discard Chelsea.

I want to create an intersectional feminist space, one that valued different voices.CLICK TO TWEET

My parents always reinforced the notion that absolutely everyone, no matter their differences, abilities, etc., should be treated with respect and honor. When I was seven we moved to a new neighborhood and enrolled in a public school in southern California, K.L. Carver Elementary. The principal at the time, Liz Hollingsworth, [and] a team of teachers ensured that Chelsea would have all of the resources she needed to succeed. Chelsea was able to get free speech therapy, free sensory integration therapy, modified curriculum, and more. Now, Chelsea is 21 years old and runs her own Etsy store. She is a high school graduate, enrolled in higher education courses as she decides what she wants to do next.

Read Next:  32 people who prove #DisabledandCute is our favorite hashtag of 2017

I strongly believe that had it not been for the relentless advocacy on the part of my parents, DeWalt and Kristina, Chelsea would have been cast aside like so many members of our community who struggle with their mental health.

Tell us about Equality for HER. What inspired you to start this organization?

In 2014, I started Equality for HER, which stands for Health, Education, and Rights, because I was in a lot of different women spaces that were hegemonic. People had the same backgrounds, culture, language, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was really discouraged by the lack of intersectionality in the women’s groups to which I had access.

I don’t fit in a lot of spaces. And I was tired of it. People who are cis-gender were very welcomed, but if you were nonbinary or trans*, you weren’t welcomed. I wanted to create a feminist space that was intersectional, one that valued those voices who are different.

What are your goals for this organization? And do you have any upcoming projects planned?

Women/Femme History Month through Equality for HER. I like to be as inclusive as possible so instead of “women everything”, which is very cis-centric, I created a campaign that also features all members of the feminine identifying community. We use “femme” to make it inclusive for all genders. Monique Le is an artist who’s going to be doing all our artwork, and Glendon Francis will be doing all the bios for our different features. This year, we’re going to be making calendars, and we’re also going to be doing an e-book (inshallah).

This is a historical and systemic problem.CLICK TO TWEET

Working in Planned Parenthood, I am learning how nonprofits work and I am also learning how to sustain an organization with a larger movement, and that’s been very valuable for me.

What do you think needs to be done for women of color and folks on the femme spectrum for equality to become the norm in our society?

If any group is given access to the resources that they need to be successful and be their full potential, the equality question kind of evaporates. Take for example the Great Migration, a time when Black Americans fled the violence and racism of the south, only to be confronted with a new form of racism in the North. These families ended up being cut off from having homes, jobs, and resources because of the systems and barriers in place. This is a historical and systemic problem.

Where Black women were able to carve out opportunities for themselves, they were thwarted by very targeted laws such as mandates against running small businesses out of publicly funded housing. Studying this chapter of American history, it becomes very clear that  so many communities have, and continue to be, cut off from resources that they need to succeed in this society.

Can you share with us the backstory about what led you to convert to Islam?

I converted in 2015, and before I converted it really upset me that people felt that Muslim women were oppressed and were forced to wear hijab. I met Myam Mahmoud, who is a rapper and breaking down barriers wearing a hijab, and being around so many kickass, welcoming, and amazing Muslims activists inspired me to convert.

Who are some of your favorite activists currently doing similar work? Who do you look up to in the field?

I look up to my contemporaries like Linda Sarsour, DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett and Sam Sinyangwe. I also look up to Angela Davis, a lot of my activism in college was informed by a desire to be like her. In trying to be like her I found myself. And of course John Lewis!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Social Justice Activism in the Digital Space

17039310_1202455816540800_1423831378427276039_oTwitter recently has added a new feature, where you can mute any account that doesn’t have verified profile information, like a photo, phone number or email address. This feature is particularly helpful for activists on Twitter. If you’ve ever tweeted about social justice issues, GamerGate, Trump, or any other political issues, you’d likely have come across an egg troll account that is specifically made to harass people.

This feature comes in particularly handy over the past few days, since I’ve tweeted about a counter-protest that’s happening in Toronto’s City Hall to unite against islamophobia. My Twitter account was mobbed by White Canadian nationalists. They were attacking me and writing about my activism on Twitter. This makes me feel very afraid for my own safety, and more importantly the safety of my family. 

The fact is the US Muslim ban and the new US administration’s anti-Islam rhetoric is rippling over to Canada. And this hatred and bigotry is beginning to show Canada’s racist roots that still need to be treated.

I spoke to a representative from Amnesty International last week. And they advised me on not crossing the US border at this time for my own safety. Muslims are being detained, mistreated, and harassed on Canadian soil. This is real, and non of this is “fake” news.

If you’re a social justice activist, or you want to get into this work, my biggest advice to you is to take care of yourself, first and foremost. I have my Twitter account now locked, because the harassment and abuse is very intolerable. And no one should have to go through this. I also suggest you take appropriate measures to communicate through private messaging apps. I was introduced to Signal actually by the Amnesty International representative, and quickly learned that several of my fellow news editors use it to communicate about their work. Here is a great article from Teen Vogue about how to keep your messages private.

Here are a list of things to think about if you’re an activist in the digital space:

  • Take good care of yourself: Know when to take a break from it all, and give yourself time to focus on you, your mental and physical well-being. This is the most important thing to consider.
  • Make sure you are connected with a supportive network: Having people to reach out to who know this work and how to handle difficult situations can be so helpful to keep you going in this line of work. 
  • Communicate using private messaging apps when organizing: Signal and Whatsapp are just a few examples.
  • Block and report: do not engage with trolls. Use the block and report options liberally. 
  • Don’t be discouraged: You are making a difference.

Despite what racists want me to do, I will be attending today’s protest at City Hall with many other organizations uniting against anti-Islam groups that are currently on the rise in our country. What they want, is for us to be fearful and silent. But they will not win.

Community Initiative: Solidarity Ribbon Campaign

One morning, after I dropped off the kids at work, I noticed a few white ribbons were tied around my neighbours’ trees and a couple of other neighbouring houses.


On the ribbon it had three words “All Faiths Welcome”. This was a couple of days after the Quebec shooting. It was also a couple of days after the executive order was signed to ban Muslims from 7 countries, one of which was our home country, from travelling to the US. Seeing the ribbon brought tears to my eyes, the fact that our neighbours were thinking of us in those difficult times meant so much to me, my husband, and our family.

I spread the word, so did my neighbours, who also told their neighbours, and a few days later, I saw many of them on the other side of the street. People were really desperate to do something, and I think the ribbons spoke to many, because it’s such a small and simple act of kindness, but also a strong symbol of solidarity.

Friday morning, my neighbour and I visited CBC News to talk about the white ribbon campaign that she initiated in our neighbourhood to help combat and raise awareness about Islamophobia after the Quebec shooting. The ribbons spread so the message is getting across to many of our neighbours, and community members.

My neighbour was so kind to start this campaign, but we need to keep the momentum going as she mentioned to me this morning. It’s important to remember that Islamophobia and bigotry has been something we learned to deal with our whole lives here. It’s nothing new. I am glad that there’s more awareness about it, but we still need to organize and build stronger communities together that explicitly fight this hatred.

If you’re interested in spreading this message in your neighbourhood, please check out the Solidarity Ribbons Facebook page. And if you’d like to listen to our 8 minute interview with Piya on Metro Morning, you can access the podcast here.

In the spirit of love, solidarity, and justice,