June 2007
Literature and Literacy

Muslim classes come alive

MALAYBALAY, BUKIDNON‘Ustadz! Ustadz! Ustadz!’ Repeated shouts pepper the air as the children call the teacher’s attention. The teacher has just asked a question, and it seems everyone wants to answer. Finally, the teacher calls out a name, and the rest of the children settle down.

MALAYBALAY City Central Elementary School is the biggest primary school in the capital of Bukidnon. Of its 2,900 students, 120 belong to Muslim families. [photo by Vinia D. Mukherjee]

It looks just like an ordinary class here at the Malaybalay City Central Elementary School (MCCES) in the capital of Bukidnon. After all, as in any other class of young boys and girls, this one is noisy, with the teacher hardly able to keep her pupils in their seats. This class also has them all: the bright, the know-it-all, the fidgety, the sleepy. If this class stands out, it is because it is one of two in this school that provide Muslim students with lessons on Arabic language and Islamic values.

For the Muslims of Malaybalay, the Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program in the city’s biggest elementary school is indeed welcome in a place where their community constitutes a small minority. Of the MCCES population of 2,900, 120 pupils belong to Muslim families.

“It is important for our Muslim children to learn the language of the Holy Qur’an and the beliefs and values system of our religion,” says Saripah Samporna, one of two asatidz (plural for ustadz, or teacher) in the MCCES.

Saripah’s fellow ustadz and husband, Esmail Datu, echoes her thoughts on the benefits of ALIVE. He adds, “These classes help our pupils to have a better understanding of their differences so they can learn to live in peace, whether Christian or Muslim.”

In the Philippines, the teaching of Islamic values and Arabic used to be done only in madaris (plural for madrasah, or Islamic school). In 2004, however, the Department of Education (DepEd) ordered the mainstreaming of these lessons in the curriculum for elementary public schools. The order mandated the teaching of Islamic values and Arabic language in public elementary schools with at least 30 Muslim students.

In Bukidnon, MCCES is one of three elementary schools to engage in the program so far, and the first to do it.

When it issued its order three years ago, the DepEd noted that public schools did not include in their curriculum the teaching of Arabic language and Islamic values, “making the Muslims ignorant of their religion and the language of the Holy Qur’an.” At the same time, DepEd said, there was “no uniformity” in the curricular offerings of madaris across the country. Neither did madaris follow the Philippine education curriculum, “thereby turning students into virtual foreigners in their own country.” Furthermore, the teachers were found to be unqualified and sorely lacking in training.

DepEd’s order thus mandated the standardization of Muslim education in public elementary schools and in private madaris. The program requires teaching Muslim grade school pupils Arabic language and Islamic Values, apart from the basic subjects of English, Mathematics, Science and Filipino. Teachers were trained, and with help from the World Islamic Call Society of Libya, textbooks for grade one were printed and distributed.

It was, for the education department, part of a bigger “roadmap” for the upgrading of Muslim basic education in the country. For Manaros Boransing, DepEd undersecretary for Muslim Affairs, it simply means making the public-school system “Islamic-friendly for all Muslims.” In turn, Boransing says, the education of Filipino Muslims in “Islamic-friendly” schools contributes to “the eradication of separatist sentiments” among them.

AT THE very least, ustadz Saripah says she feels that Muslims are now being “appreciated” more in the community since the ALIVE classes began in June 2006. She and Esmail firmly believe that they are contributing to peacebuilding efforts with their handling of ALIVE classes, even if these take only an hour and a half each school day.

Confirms school principal Lorenzo Capacio: “The program is part of the overall efforts to strengthen unity among Christians and Muslims and help establish peace in the locality.”

“Whether we like it or not,” he also says, “Muslims and Christians may harbor negative notions about one another. We want to teach our children to live with each other in peace.”

Indeed, while the program targets primarily the Muslim students, even non-Muslims are encouraged to take the subjects. At the time of PCIJ’s visit, there were non-Muslim pupils who would pop by and take a peek. A few of them stay for some time, and listen and observe.

If anything, remarks ustadz Saripah, the classes have promoted awareness among the children that they are living with others who may have a different religion from theirs.

For sure both Muslim and Christian communities are not really native to Bukidnon, which used to be under the control of the lumad (ethnic groups indigenous to Mindanao that are neither Muslim nor Christian). But Christians do outnumber the Muslims here, with heavy migration from the Visayas in the postwar era rendering the lumad a minority. Migrants from Marawi and other parts of Muslim Mindanao probably came more recently.

Jamila Magantor, mother of 11-year-old Jalil who has been learning Arabic in Saripah’s class, says that her family moved from Marawi to Bukidnon six years ago in search of a job for her husband, a carpenter. “We didn’t have much luck there,” she says of their life in Marawi. But today ALIVE lessons are even allowing her son to become a better Muslim, says Magantor.

“When the time comes,” she says, “that we move on to our next life and we are asked if we read the Holy Qur’an and lived according to our beliefs, we can say yes.”

Magantor, 33, says she dreads the possibility that her son will take to the ways of city children and lose sight of their “own culture.” She notes, “Those who have spent too much time in the city often have no knowledge of our Muslim culture, what is bad for us, because we are different.” Believing the ALIVE classes would help her son see the differences, she makes sure he attends them without fail.

“Other children are hardheaded about going to class,” she says, “but I tell my son that this is important to us.”

IT’S AN attitude that is obviously a relief to Principal Capacio. ALIVE’s early days were not easy, he says. “There were parents who did not welcome the idea that their children will have to work for longer hours,” Capacio says. Eventually — and with the efforts of the asatidz who worked to convince those parents — the classes began logging higher attendance.

SCHOOL officials hope more pupils will attend the Arabic language and Islamic values classes. [photo by Vinia D. Mukherjee]

Still, not all of the school’s Muslim pupils show regularly for their ALIVE classes. At the time of PCIJ’s visit, one class had only 22 attendees, and the second, 44. Asatidz Saripah and Esmail are hoping that if they are able to institute the program such that the classes will no longer be seen as a “burden,” then more students will attend.

When Capacio asked ALIVE Coordinator Babai Baguinda to examine the initial implementation of the program, she came back with a report that noted in part the lack of interest among the pupils and their parents. “For them it is a waste of time,” says Baguinda. She theorizes that one reason could be the absence of an “incentive” in the form of a grading system for the ALIVE classes. Perhaps, she says, if students attending the ALIVE classes were graded in the same manner as in their regular schoolwork, they would be better motivated to participate more regularly and study in a more earnest manner.

But that’s not the only problem the program is encountering at MCCES. With classrooms in the entire school, in general, in short supply, the ALIVE teachers have had to resort to “borrowing” the classrooms from the teachers of the regular classes so they can have a place to hold the classes. Recently, 14 classrooms were gutted in a fire. “Our students are cheek-by-jowl in their classes here,” says Capacio.

For the two asatidz, the lack of dedicated classrooms is a clear liability for the program. “We don’t even have our own place to keep our books and other teaching materials,” laments Saripah.

Baguinda is also recommending the payment of a higher honorarium for the two asatidz. At present, the school can afford to pay each of them only P2,500 every month. According to Capacio, the amount may soon rise, since DepEd’s Boransing promised that ALIVE teachers would be included in the department’s plantilla beginning this school year. That would mean DepEd would be providing a counterpart amount of P2,500 to what the asatidz are now receiving as honorarium from the district office.

Recognizing the inadequacy of funds provided by the local school board, Capacio has also started lobbying local government officials for more funds, as well as tapping the assistance of private entities. He is optimistic about ALIVE’s chances of survival, pointing out, “We’re just starting. And every problem has a solution.”