Dordt College News

What does it mean to love a neighbor?

January 23, 2012

Marra takes her teaching to the elementary classroom

“Can someone tell me what this is?” asked Dordt Education Professor Gwen Marra, pointing to a giant creature on the screen.

“Is it a dog?” asked one fifth-grade student.

“Yes, it’s an Afghan hound,” said Marra.

The class of fifth-grade students erupted in whispers. “That’s from Afghanistan?” said another student. “So the kids in Afghanistan might own one of these? That’s so cool!”

Animals are not the only aspect of Afghan culture about which Sioux Center fifth-grade students learned during a unit on Afghanistan that Marra helped teach last fall. Marra was working on a graduate school project on how to teach students about social justice issues. She decided to focus on Afghanistan because she knew that many area churches had supported and prayed for soldiers from the community stationed in Afghanistan.

“There were a lot of misunderstandings about the people of Afghanistan, so I wanted to help students shed some light on that,” she said.

Marra considered how she might create a lesson plan for fifth-grade students, and she decided to focus on neighborliness and helping students to “develop a heart for others.”

Marra received approval from her graduate school instructor to teach the unit at Sioux Center Christian School. She approached Curt Van Dam (’04) and Josh Bowar (’05), two fifth grade teachers who each teach approximately 20 fifth-grade students.

“Curt and I jumped at the opportunity because we knew that it would be a beneficial and powerful learning experience for our students,” said Bowar, who has worked at Sioux Center Christian for four years. “We knew it would give the students a chance to learn about the perspectives and lives of others, which would also help them to learn about themselves.”

For the next three weeks, Marra partnered with Bowar and Van Dam to teach the students about the country and culture of Afghanistan by addressing three questions: “Who am I? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to serve God and love my neighbor?”

The students admit that, prior to Marra’s unit, they knew little about the Afghani people and their culture.

“I first thought that Afghanistan was in Africa,” said fifth-grade student Alex Koops.

They also knew little about Islam.

“I didn’t know they had to point east and that they had to bend down on mats,” added Josh Westra.

As the weeks progressed, though, the students began to read books such as Tony O’Brien and Mike Sullivan’s Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan to learn more about the everyday lives of Afghan children. The students worked in teams to research topics like food, animals, and religions; they also created a classroom wiki where they shared what they learned about the Afghan culture.

“I wanted to incorporate a lot of writing, so students journaled about what they learned,” said Marra. “We wanted the students to connect things they learned about Afghanistan to their own lives.”

Marra said that students connected not only with sports and games of Afghani children but with poverty and work, creativity and passion for religion.

To take learning beyond the classroom setting, Marra invited speakers to class. One such speaker was First Sergeant Scott Dorhout of Le Mars who spoke about his experiences in Afghanistan, where he has been deployed three times since 2004.

“He showed cool pictures,” said Westra. “And it was cool how he helped with the policemen in Afghanistan.”

Charles Veenstra, professor of communication at Dordt, spoke with students about some of the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity.

“The students were lively, engaged, and interested,” said Veenstra.

The students appreciated the speakers’ contribution to the unit.

“I liked how he showed the scarf on his head,” said fifth grade student Erin Wieringa, referring to the Muslim headscarf known as a kaffiyeh that Veenstra brought to class.

When the unit was completed, the students were more aware that, as neighbors, they could reach out to those who are nearby and far away.

“We talked about donating clothing, shoes, food, and money to help our neighbors in our area and in Afghanistan,” said Marra. “We also talked about being friends with people from other cultures.”

The students seem to have learned much about Afghan culture and about themselves, according to Bowar.

“One thing that I know the students have learned is that children from Iowa and children from Afghanistan all want the same things: peace, a family, friends, a chance to learn,” he said.

Wieringa agreed. “I feel like we know a lot about Afghanistan because of Mrs. Marra and this class,” she said.

Even though the unit is over, Marra would like students to continue to learn about Afghan culture.

“I’ve had students come up to me and tell me what they saw in the news about Afghanistan,” she said. “They have developed a heart for others, and they are becoming more aware of the world outside of Sioux Center.”


Media Access: Download Word Version | High Resolution Image: 1 | 2