Sharing the Meaning of Ramadan With Students
The author, who worked as a teacher in the Middle East, shares ideas and activities for teaching about Ramadan that will engage upper elementary and middle school learners.
Ramadan is a holiday I look forward to teaching about all year. As a first-year educator, I created a lesson that compared Ramadan with other well-known holidays. It wasn’t until I experienced my first Ramadan as a teacher in the Middle East that I understood how truly unique this holiday is.
For planning the lesson, I found that googling “free Ramadan coloring pages” or “free Ramadan crafts” brings a lot of useful results. Pinterest and YouTube are full of ideas, and the site A Crafty Arab is hosting a 30-day craft and recipe challenge with ideas from around the world.
Like many of the ideas I share here, these come from Muslim teachers and Arab schools. I’ve also found that local mosques are happy to share ideas and answer any questions I might have.
I start my lesson by teaching students the Ramadan greetings Ramadan Mubarak, which means “Blessed Ramadan,” and Ramadan Kareem, which means “Generous Ramadan.”
These greetings are used by both Muslims and non-Muslims. As we move through the lesson, I ask my students why these greetings are more appropriate than simply “Happy Ramadan.”
Origin of Ramadan
The observance of Ramadan is written in the Quran and has remained unchanged since the days of early Islam, providing a link between past, present, and future. While Ramadan commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, it is so much more than that.
During Ramadan, Muslims seek to build their relationship with Allah, their families, and their communities. Ramadan is a time of deep personal introspection that Muslims may not want to discuss with everyone, so when teaching Ramadan, I focus on the observances my students are most likely to encounter.
The Islamic or Hijri calendar is lunar, so Ramadan cannot begin until the crescent moon is sighted over Mecca. Ramadan is a lunar month or 30 days. Since a lunar year has about 354 days instead of 365 days, the date for Ramadan changes every year. This year Ramadan begins the evening of March 22.
A fun math assignment is to let students calculate when Ramadan will start in different years and if there will ever be a year with two Ramadans.
During Ramadan, Muslims go without food or water from sunrise to sunset. There are many reasons why Muslims fast, but the most important is the desire to draw closer to Allah. Muslims also use fasting to develop self-control and experience what it’s like to be poor. Because the Hijri calendar changes, Muslims experience fasting in all the seasons.
Children (until they reach puberty), and others for whom fasting is a health risk, don’t have to fast. I usually ask my students to think of a situation where a Muslim might not fast and why. It helps them understand that fasting is a personal decision.
Muslims start their fast with suhoor, a family breakfast before dawn, and end it with iftar, a special dinner at sundown. This dinner is with family and friends and features many traditional foods to remind people of their cultural heritage. If the weather’s nice, people eat on the balcony or throw open the windows. Restaurant buffets add to the festive feeling, and friends, family, and neighbors visit with each other late into the night. At times it can seem like the entire city and even the whole country is having dinner together.
I like to have my students plan an iftar. What foods would they choose to remember their heritage and tradition? Whom would they invite? How would a month of dinners and visiting together change how they felt about their friends, neighbors, and people they meet every day?
I have the students draw a table with place settings and food, label the food, and show who will sit where, and then journal their ideas or share them with their classmates. It helps them understand how suhoor and iftar bring people together. They can also write about their iftar in a short essay.
Giving money to the poor is a part of Islam all year. Muslims believe that zakat is especially blessed during Ramadan. They give money to their local mosque, or masjid, for the poor in their community and to charities, such as the Red Crescent, to help others around the world. Mosques also host special iftars for those who are unable to afford it. I ask my students how sawm, fasting, might influence the practice of zakat.
I have my students research online what percentage of the world doesn’t have clean drinking water or adequate food. I also have them research hunger in their local community. This can be very eye-opening for students. Ramadan is a good time for a food drive for a local food bank. It helps students experience the spirit of zakat for themselves and makes them feel connected to so much of the world that is doing the same during this special month.
Muslims pray and meditate in salat five times a day throughout the year. They also make personal supplications, called dua. During Ramadan, many Muslims read the Quran and pray after iftar. This is called tarawih.
Since Ramadan commemorates the first of the revelations that would become the Quran, Muslims often read one of the 30 juz, or sections of the Quran, each night. Muslims also often pray special duas during Ramadan.
Eid al Fitr (Breaking the Fast)
Eid al-Fitr is the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and starts with prayer at sunrise. In many countries, schools and businesses close so that everyone can spend time with their families. Muslims and non-Muslims alike greet each other with “Eid Mubarak” and a new feeling of unity and friendship before returning to their everyday lives.
There are many ways to end this lesson, but my favorite is to make paper fanous Ramadan lanterns with my students. As we work, we discuss how Muslims use Ramadan as a way to bring light into the world.