After completing a 12-week-long comprehensive study of medieval Islamic society, eighth grade students demonstrated what they learned at Ross’s annual Islamic Banquet, a full-day event in which students put themselves in the shoes of the people and culture they’ve studied. As part of Ross School’s Spiral Curriculum, which emphasizes integrated learning across all domains, the Golden Age of Islam unit focuses on a rich medieval world comprising refined achievements in art, science, the humanities, and technology, as well as the time period’s and culture’s lasting influence.
In Cultural History, students explored pre-Islamic tribal society, religion, and sociopolitical and economic structures. They learned about the life of Muhammad, the birth of Islam and Muhammad’s successors, and the schism that created the Sunni-Shi’a split. They also studied readings and media to become informed about contemporary events in the Islamic world and issues facing Muslims.
An interactive learning experience required students to assume the identity of a Muslim luminary of that era and craft a historical memoir. During the Islamic Banquet, students then staged a series of press conferences in character, in which they answered questions about their characters’ lives and legacies.
Students’ presentations were also informed by their studies in Science, for which they delved into astronomy before the invention of the telescope, as well as the work of medieval Islamic alchemists, whose controlled experimentation with the transmutation of metals, precise observation, alchemical notation, and careful data documentation served as a precursor to the scientific method.
The Wellness unit integrated with their Golden Age of Islam studies led the eighth graders to examine significant advancements made in health, hygiene, diet, medicine, leisure, and sport during the time period, driven by prophetic statements from Islamic religious texts. They created a medieval Islam herbal and nutritional medicine guide using their knowledge of the era’s predominantly plant-based diet and halal principles, actions and objects that are permissible according to Islamic law. In addition, students learned about social health and the destructive societal effects of stereotyping and religious persecution.
To further reflect the culture of their objects of study, students re-enacted the Muslim tradition of performing the salat, traditional Islamic prayers offered five times a day, during the Islamic Banquet. They also practiced Sufi whirling, a rhythmic form of meditation, led by Director of Teacher Development and Certification Debra McCall. Later, students engaged in enduring leisure activities from the Golden Age of Islam by playing tournaments of games like checkers, chess, and backgammon.
A much-anticipated highlight of the Islamic Banquet each year, and one shared by the whole Upper School, is a Middle Eastern–themed feast prepared by the Ross Café. This year’s menu consisted of jannanayya, a 13th century western soup from Andalusia; a shaved fennel and artichoke salad; lamb kofta; chickpea tagine; saffron rice; and cauliflower frittata with Andalusian tomato vinaigrette. A dessert buffet included Mediterranean treats like honey rosewater cake, figs, dates, and blood oranges. The meal was augmented by a slideshow of artwork produced in the students’ Visual Arts class. After studying the work of Cindy Sherman and Shirin Neshat, female artists who are renowned for their ability to reference identity in the context of culture, students created photographic statements reflecting their own personal beliefs, supplementing photography with calligraphy and elements of graphic design while thoughtfully exploring the contrasts between medieval and contemporary, East and West, and concepts of “self” and “other.”
The challenges of looking deep into the origins of a religion and culture that are often the subject of controversy in today’s society did not go unremarked. Mark Tompkins, eighth grade team leader, reminded the students, “You had the courage to spend 12 weeks learning about what mainstream culture has defined as an other.” He further explained that, as valued leaders of the future, just as the four commandments of the Quran teach, students should strive to keep faith, work for justice, seek truth, and practice patience.
The activities were well received by the faculty and students, who value the integrated and in-depth educational approach as inestimably beneficial to students and society at large. “It was an inspiring day,” said Dan Roe, an alumnus who also works for the Media department of the school. “This is the education everyone should get.”
Debra, who has spent decades with Ross School in various roles, agrees: “I hope we don’t look back on this day as a rare moment,” she said, “but one that thrives and endures.”
Click here to see photos of the Eighth Grade Islamic Banquet.