1) We shouldn’t refrain from doing anything out fear of retribution.
My colleagues and I were working on an interdisciplinary unit that included a giant timeline that traced certain historical themes within each region of the world along side of one another, including politics, economics, art and literature, science and invention, and social history. As we were brainstorming what themes to use, I said, “Oh, yeah, don’t forget religion.” Now, I had grown to love and respect these colleagues over a long period of time, and we could pretty much say anything in our meetings and know that we wouldn’t be judged, but when I suggested that groups of students would research and plot the development of the major religions of the world, you’d have thought I’d suggested we convert the 8th grade class to Islam.
The awkward silence ended with everyone reassuring me that religion would be covered within the other themes. Finally, they conceded we could have a religion theme but we would not call it religion. We could call it “culture.” What I took away from the discussion was not that my colleagues were against teaching religion. They were against the idea of us being accused of teaching religion. It was an reflexive reaction to a very real fear that we were entering territory that gets teachers in big trouble. We are so hardwired to avoid what might upset even one or two parents or correspondingly raise the eyebrows of our principal. I know I am guilty of the same. I might navigate a little closer to the boundaries (or a lot closer, to my detriment), but I have refrained from “doing the right thing” many times to avoid the political aftermath of the decision.
The implications of the way we, as teachers, censor ourselves are far-reaching and frightening. We have got to find a way to put those fears on the shelf when we reflect and make decisions about all aspects of our practice, including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, classroom culture, discipline- at least long enough to think about our practice on its own merits of appropriateness, importance, and relevance. We know that religion a perfectly legitimate and important subject to study, but we avoid it out of fear of retribution. That means we are depriving our youth of important knowledge they are entitled to receive. And we are allowing extremists and the under informed to dictate what we do and do not teach, without even making them lift a finger, before there is even a issue to resolve. If we are supposed to be teaching our youth to be active citizens in their society, we need to model those behaviors more often.
2) We heard somewhere that teaching about religions was a violation of church and state, but it is not.
I don’t know how this “rumor” got started, but once misinformation is out there, it’s very difficult to undo it. It reminds me of when I taught about the most recent Iraq War. To this day, students who were old enough to remember the Iraq War believe that we went to war because Sadam Hussein was behind 9/11. After readings, discussions, debates, essays, even numerous pop quizzes with just that very question on the quiz, some kids were still resistant to stating that Sadam Hussein was not directly behind 9/11. Once we get an erroneous idea in our head, it’s very hard to get it out. You would hope we would be better at it than 12 year olds, but that is not always the case.
The Supreme Court has been very clear about studying religion in school. It’s allowed. What we can’t do is give one religion special attention over the other or promote a particular religious text as a singular truth. Religion can be included in our curriculum in a myriad of ways. We can study it as history, as literature, as art and architecture, as part of the study of a contemporary society or culture (including our own), or as it influences or is influenced by a current political or social issue. We can even teach entire electives, called Religious Studies. The Constitution and the Supreme Court give us very clear license to allow students of all ages to become students of the religions of the world.
3) We shouldn't shy away from curriculum that could get a little dicey where we have to navigate in volatile waters.
Just because studying religion is perfectly legal doesn’t mean teaching it may not get a little challenging, at times. The same can be true of other important subjects, such as politics, sex education, racism, bullying, and conflict resolution. I've found most of the challenges don’t come from legal boundaries at all, but more from the stigma attached to discussing religion in the classroom. Most students think we’re not supposed to talk about religion, so they may react emotionally and impulsively if we don’t prepare them. Having a discussion before hand about what separation of church and state means, and what limitations do exist and what limitations do not exist, could eliminate unnecessary fires and reactions when we start discussing the actual subject matter.
I use the word, discussion, a lot because whole group and small group discussions, talking circles, or Socratic seminars, is powerful pedagogy that shouldn’t be avoided when we hit sensitive subject matter. Having said that, it is essential that students have already practiced important dialogue guidelines that have been clearly established prior to the exploration of religion. Having said that, all the preparation in the world won’t prevent some kids from going straight for the gusto, the topics sure to trigger a response from their peers. For example, some will be anxious to talk about their own religious beliefs at the first opportunity. Some will find a way to bring up the very issues we "pray" won't come up- creationism, abortion, who doesn't get to go to heaven, etc. I usually allow these attempts at shock and awe to play out as long as they stick to the rules of respectful conversations, which include staying on topic, using I statements, among others. By allowing the discussion, it usually demystifies the idea of talking about such taboo topics. Then we can get on with it, and the process becomes more fluid and on point. The key is to be underwhelmed by the topics they bring up, and strictly adhere to the rules of respectful discourse, which would have already been practiced with other units and topics.
There are lots of other mine fields we could walk into. There is always the awkward potential for Sally to go home and tell her parents she much prefers the tenets of eastern Buddhism, thanks to her ____ class, to her Methodist upbringing and she'd like to make a temple in the back yard and refrain from going to church from now on. That never happened to me, by the way, but it could, and it'll be totally awkward, but that's okay, because of reasons #4, #5, and #6. The importance of the subject matter transcends having to live with a little uncertainty and unpredictability.
4) The subject matter is very important if we are going to understand other people and other societies.
Just like any subject we teach at school, studying religion shouldn’t be the study of a series of isolated facts, but sometimes some very basic knowledge offers perspective and opens up a whole new world that they hitherto didn’t have a chance to know about. Most students, no matter what the age, predict that the majority of the world is Christian. It’s very interesting to them and exciting to uncover a more realistic perspective about the world. And then the questions just start flowing. They want to know who was Buddha, who was Abraham, are Catholics Christians? and so on..
Comparing and contrasting religions offers enormous opportunities to not only see fundamental differences but also similarities, which students can analyze and draw conclusions about. I remember the kids especially enjoying choosing between ways of knowing between an indigenous and non-indigenous world view, or eastern and western religious world views, then we uncover which views belonged to which group. We unpack what it all might mean for us in understanding other groups, our own culture, and our own values. They also like studying the similarities of the religions within the Western and Eastern religions. They read quotes from various sacred texts and try to make conjectures on whether they are Eastern, Western, or Indigenous then they try to guess which religion they most sound like. They also really liked a lesson that I retrieved from Teaching Tolerance showing the Golden Rule of Christianity also being the Golden Rule in every major religion. We read the original text and the translation and discuss the implications of these similarities.
Finding correlations, connections, relationships, and causation in relation to religion is an essential component in understanding much of what has occurred in history, politically, scientifically, artistically, in literature, personal relationships and economics. When studying a culture, historical or contemporary, we can’t begin to understand a group of people without knowing their beliefs. And a group’s fundamental beliefs about matters of ultimate concern are connected to all other beliefs and behaviors within the culture. We can’t look at politics, economics, art, social relationships, science, our environment, or religion, without looking at how they interact with each other. An indigenous spiritual world view might impact our treatment of the environment and our economic system. It might affect what one eats, how much one produces, who gets what, and so on. This, in turn, will impact how much time we spend with our families, how we treat Elders, and other social relationships.
#5 The subject matter is very important if we are going to understand ourselves.
Students can see the long term effects of ideas and beliefs that permeate cultures today that arose from religions and world views of the past. If those ripple effects happen to be part of American history, we are really learning about layers of ourselves and assumptions about the world that we can now “unpack”, evaluate, then either embrace, reject, amend, or leave them to percolate as we continue our quest for self-identity, our beliefs, and our role in society. Students are fascinated to learn of the Puritan work ethic, pre-destination, and the “city upon a hill” mentality that has rippled into our economic and political systems today. They also learn the rich history of the Quakers and their firm and early stance against slavery, the subjugation of women, and the suffering of the poor. The Quakers, too, are part of our identity that they rarely have a chance to learn about.
#6 The subject matter is very important if we want to eliminate prejudice, intolerance and hate. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, creepy ideas aren't just for extremists. Better words for creepy might be intolerant or dangerous, but when I hear some of the flawed belief systems that kids will share if they are allowed to express how they really feel, and when I know these kids to be otherwise kind and loving people, the word that comes to mind is creepy. It’s one thing to here these statements come out of the mouths of a Ku Klux Klan member, but it’s quite another to come out, in chorus, from the majority of any given classroom of beautiful children. The incredibly good news is that a real education allows students to explore these prejudices and come out the other side completely transformed, but we have to have the courage to dive in and take on these powerful and difficult issues.
The only thing as poignant and powerful as watching someone discover their way out of a previously held prejudice is to watch someone who has been discriminated against and oppressed become aware of their predicament. We must provide a forum for to study all kinds of prejudice, including religious persecution. We must speak of the origins and effects of these prejudices. If we don’t kids automatically assume there is something wrong with them and there is something wrong with their family and their community, without ever verbalizing it. They assume this is the way of things, so they have a good chance of continuing the deeply entrenched destructive cycle of prejudice. But when those kids start to become aware of the direct causes that created the problems they are experiencing in their lives and communities, their consciousness emerges into an empowered individual who is no longer chained to the patterns they see around them. Naming oppression is the first step to liberation, and we as educators, have an absolute obligation to provide that space in the curriculum for our students; otherwise, we are being not only irresponsible, but we are promoting institutional racism and prejudice, much of which has its origins in religious persecution.
#7 Kids can deal with it.
Often when I promote the idea of dealing with complex sensitive issues with kids, a common reaction is that kids are too immature to deal with all that. That may be fine for college students, but not high school, certainly not middle school or elementary. I believe we don’t give kids near enough credit. The earlier kids start learning about the world realistically in an educational setting, the more mature and reflective they become as adults. We can’t expect to shield them from thinking, and then expect them to start when they turn 18. Moreover, we are fooling ourselves if we think our kids are sheltered from important issues of any kind. They see, live with, see others live with, and wonder about far more than we can imagine- not to mention what is experienced via television, internet, and music. If we don’t provide a safe environment to learn to make sense of the world, we end up with kids who don’t have the tools to cope, who suppress and ignore or react, or who follow their parents lead, never quite knowing how to process and develop their own views. There are wonderful units and lessons out there already and yet to be created for kindergarteners through 12th graders that appropriately integrate and embrace the study of religion in a way that nurtures curiosity, inquiry, and growth.
Making religion an integral part of the fabric of our curriculum may not be easy, but it is certainly legal and well worth the effort if we want to help our kids become independent tolerant critical thinkers who seek to understand and improve themselves and the world in which we live.