Teacher of Islamic Studies Dispels Biases

Carl Glassman

At Millennium High School, the Lower Manhattan school founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Corey Pickering is determined to do her part to end Muslim stereotyping.

Last month, she received national recognition for her efforts.

Pickering, 31, teaches one of the few Islamic studies courses in the city’s public schools. She designed the course following her travels last summer in Turkey. The trip, paid for by a Fund for Teachers grant, changed her own prejudices about the religion, she said.

“The imagery that has been pounded into our brains has had an effect and it had an effect on me, too,” she said.

Out of the more than 500 teachers around the country who traveled on the grant, Pickering won the National Plank Fellowship Award based on an essay she wrote on the impact of the Turkish experience on her teaching, and on herself.

A Kentucky native with an infectious exuberance for her subject and her students (“They’re so funny. They make me laugh all day”), Pickering has taught global studies at Millennium for four years. She introduced Islam to the school two years ago with an elective for juniors and seniors that first dealt only with art and architecture.

It was a safe way, as she put it, “to approach Islam from the side.”

“But when I came back from [Turkey] I decided, no, the class works much better when we tie the conversation into foreign policy and modern conflicts and current events.”

At the risk of upsetting some students and parents, Pickering wanted to explore all aspects of the Muslim world. Many of her students, now juniors and seniors, were 4th and 5th graders in Downtown schools who were personally affected by the attacks. But for them, in particular, she said, the course is important.

“Part of the founding of this school was based on 9/11 recovery,” she said, “and it was just so relevant locally, and for this student population.” The school’s connection to the renewal of Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 also opened the course to controversy and criticism. Pickering credits the school’s principal, Robert Rhodes, with the courage to support her.

“The fact that my principal trusts me at a public school to teach this kind of content, and would stand up and back me if anybody challenged it, I think that’s very brave on his part.”

Rhodes said he received half a dozen calls from parents who were concerned about the course.

“I invited them to look at the curriculum and talk to me but no one has taken me up on it,” he said.

Pickering said she does not shy away from discussing the violent and oppressive strains of Islam, but tries to separate the politics from the religion and what is-and is not-true to Muslim tradition.

“I don’t want to demonize anybody,” she said, “but I also don’t want to devilify anybody either.”

In interviews, many of Pickering’s students said the class, and especially a trip to a mosque on 96th Street that included a meeting with an imam, transformed their image of Muslims.

“This class changed my whole entire view,” said senior Lena Hong. “When I got to learn about their religion, how they prayed and why they believed in stuff it opened me up—it has opened my mind.”

Another student, Robert Corrales, said it is not just what Pickering teaches, but how she teaches it, that makes her stand out.

“It’s obvious how much she cares about her students and how much she cares about being a good teacher,” Corrales said. “It’s really the career she wants.”