“We Are Not Myths…”

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mayan women at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and a woman I deeply admire for her courage, said of the indigenous people she represented, “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected.” Her statement affirms one of the main goals of my teaching when it comes to indigenous religions: to make it clear that these are living religions, parts of existing and present cultures.

A friend of mine recently posted this clip from the Daily Show interviewing Washington NFL fans about their team name. The fans have trouble identifying the name with little more than a piece of ancient history–one asks, somewhat disbelievingly, “Do you know any Native Americans?”–seemingly oblivious to the many Native Americans that live and work in our country today.

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I tried to make that title into a pun. It didn’t work so well.

This week I’ve been teaching about Mayan religious beliefs as an example of an indigenous religion. I found this wonderful website from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian to use.

Three reasons why it is fantastic:

1) It has several 3-5 minute video clips that are perfect for breaking up a lecture.

2) Each video has a PDF transcript–we used the creation story one as a reading in class, but also great for students with IEPs.

3) It has connections to a lot of great visual resources that you can use as well.

I definitely recommend checking it out!

Creation Story of the Maya | Living Maya Time.

Analyzing the Religious Landscape at Our School

In my last post, I mentioned that this year I wanted my students to feel like they were doing something to build community in our classroom. I thought about our school, which is known for its diverse student body, and I thought about how little we actually know about the religious representation there. I know, anecdotally, that we have Sikh students and Hindu students, a variety of Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They’ve showed up in my classroom and shared over the years. But what does that picture really look like?

Public schools don’t regularly collect data on religion, so I set out to have my students do the legwork. Now, I am not a statistics teacher, but I’m going to state with a 95% confidence interval that the way we organized this study was not scientific. It probably would have been improved if we used the internet to administer the survey, both in improving our numbers of respondents and preserving anonymity. But I wanted my kids to learn to have polite conversations about religion with others, and also, I wanted ot give them a chance to stretch their legs. 90 minutes of class is a long time.

So I we surveyed ourselves, as a class, and then sent them off in groups to interview anyone they could that wasn’t working or in class at the time. In total they surveyed 176 folks, so less than 10% of our school population of students and staff. Again, probably not data that would be usable in a research study. But it was good enough for us!

After returning with the data, I gave the kids the following assignment:

Newscast: How can we promote religious understanding at our school?

  • Your team will have 1 set of statistics to use as a basis for your newscast.
  • Compile the information—what headline can you write based on this information?
  • Develop a script that is 1-2 minutes long addressing the question above and incorporating the statistics that you found.

–If you would like a chart in your news background, let Ms. H know.

–You may have 1 or 2 news anchors on screen.

–Practice! Be prepared to read it for the camera and turn in a draft of your script.

After some practice working with statistics in order to pull out meaningful information–we used the Pew Religious Landscape Maps for that–the kids got to work on their own scripts for the news.

The backdrop. A student pointed out we might have some copyright issues. I hope NBC has bigger fish to fry.

The backdrop. A student pointed out we might have some copyright issues. I hope NBC has bigger fish to fry.

The kids presented their scripts in front of a news backdrop I projected onto the whiteboard, and we recorded a few. They also worked on graphs that they could use to support their key points. While, again, the numbers are a little sketchy, some of the conclusions that they drew to support their points were awesome.

Check out the stats in the gallery below. The kids noted that while a large majority of the population identified as Christian, that we had great diversity both among Christians and among the other religions mentioned. They also pointed out that we have a lot of students who said they strongly believed in a higher power. In their newscasts, they tried to promote using those strong feelings as a point of connection and encouraging dialogue between the groups. I’m hopeful we can think of some ways to put their plans into action in the future.

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I learned a lot from trying out this new lesson–mostly that in the future I would take more time! The kids struggled, in some cases, to connect the numbers to a meaningful story about the climate at Jordan. Groups that I encouraged to include graphs and personal interviews created better final products and drew more meaningful conclusions from their numbers.

Have you ever done this kind of research in a social studies class? It was tougher than I thought! I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Getting Kids to Talk about Religion

One of the things that sticks with me from my adolescent psychology class, way back when, is that students need to take risks in order to learn. A skilled teacher, then, has to create an environment where students feel safe doing that–balancing comfort (a sense of safety and acceptance) with discomfort (a challenge to tackle new ideas, voice opinions, and ask questions). It’s when students are able to connect something new, an intellectual reach, to something they have already processed, that they are truly able to assimilate that information and learn.

Creating a sense of discomfort in the World Religions classroom is easy–students are constantly being challenged by the new beliefs that they are exposed to throughout our study. But creating that sense of security and a welcoming atmosphere is especially important in an elective class like this. Because students come into this class from many different grade levels and walks of life, there isn’t necessarily that natural connection and ease that sometimes happens in an 11th grade Honors history course, for example, where many of those kids have known eachother for years. That rapport has to be built, and that takes time.

The first thing we do is take some time to get to know each other–ice breakers, ice breakers, ice breakers. But we also set the expectation early that we will celebrate diversity in this room. I like to use www.polleverywhere.com to set up free surveys of the class–we can see, anonymously, what religions are represented in the classroom, what questions folks have about the school year, and their feelings on particular topics. Without fear of identification, student voices are heard. And, bonus-from-the-student-perspective, they get to talk out their cellphones in order to participate!

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What Can You Teach About Religion?

When I first started teaching this class, I was really nervous that I would get frequent calls from parents, or the principal, or the superintendent for that matter. I wanted to be clear about what I could and could not teach, and I decided to share that pretty openly with the students as well. We spend a day at the beginning of each year reviewing the first amendment clauses protecting religion, their religious rights in school, and the school’s limitations in terms of what it can and can not do. I figure if we all know the rules, than we can call each other out if we are not following them! The following resources have been extremely helpful in planning and creating those lessons:

Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion

Your Right to Religious Freedom: an ACLU published guide aimed at students

Religion in the Public Schools: a guide from the Anti-Defamation League

Religion in the Public Schools: Center for Public Education overview (this one has some interesting scenarios that we use as discussion points in class)

Religion in the Public Schools: Pew Forum Report

I hope these are helpful to you! For the record, the only complaint that I have ever recieved in regards to this class was from a parent after we did some yoga stretches to warm up one day before a lecture on Hinduism. Based on my understanding of the law, my understanding of yoga (can you really force someone to do yoga, really?) and the fact that it is totally optional, we still do the stretches. One of the golden rules of teaching: you will always be surprised.

Teaching about Atheism Is Hard

Well, not so much the main concept: atheists don’t believe in god. Got it?

Let’s not move on so fast, though. In a country where more people would refuse to vote for (or let their child marry) an atheist than any other subgroup, I think it’s important to expose students to an atheism that is open and nonjudgmental. This can be difficult when so many of the big name atheists out there don’t aim to be quite so friendly (see R. Dawkins and his Tedtalk on militant atheism). Or simply do a search for atheists on Youtube). Atheism can seem, at the very least, cold and judgmental. For many, it seems to carry with it an attack on religion or others’ beliefs.

It’s also a hook–kids want to know about atheists. Especially kids raised in the South, in primarily Christian areas. They want to know about atheism in the same way that they want to know about Satanism, heavy metal, light drugs, and other things their parents disapprove of. And so I hit it first, just after we’ve discussed what religion is, and then think about what it means to live entirely without it. We also consider the rights and protections that religion has in the United States (thanks, First Amendment!), and debate whether atheism also deserves the same.

Morgan Spurlock’s show, 30 Days, has a great episode on an atheist mother who goes to live with a Christian family. It’s awesome–she meets with their bible study group, then they go visit with a group of Secular Humanists who describe ways in which they feel discriminated against. The two mothers bond over being mothers, and when the kids visit, they all head to a Christian rock show. It sheds light on the other things that make teaching about atheism difficult. After you establish that there’s no god or afterlife, students start to wonder how that affects the way an atheist lives his or her life. The woman on the show reveals an atheism that emphasizes morality, caring, and appreciation for this world. She’s relatable and helps us to begin answering those questions as a class.  Her statements, and the opinions of the family whom she lives with, always lead to a good discussion after the show ends.

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Required Courses?

Last night I was doing a search to see if there were more classes like mine out there, and trying to figure out where they might be. I came across this article about a course in Modesto City Schools (California), where the class is required.

The required course came about due to three factors described in the article: complaints about geography and basic religious knowledge; problems with bullying; and controversy over Sikh students carrying religious daggers. I love, love, love, that this class was developed as a solution. The process of building the course sounds great too–the district clearly used plenty of the resources that were at their disposal, including local religious authorities and universities:

They invited religious leaders from the community to weigh in. “That was instrumental,” she said. The First Amendment Center and Anti-Defamation League gave assistance in teaching sensitive subjects without controversy.

Teachers visited the Islamic Center of Modesto, Congregation Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Greek Orthodox Church and other religious centers. But teacher training was done by professors of California State University, Stanislaus – purposely removed from faith practitioners, she said.

“We’re not learning how to do it,” Sweeney said; they were learning how to teach it.

I’d love to have a training like that, instead of feeling the way in the dark (as I sometimes feel I am). But I wonder how a required course would go over here in North Carolina? How might some teachers respond to being forced to teach it as a requirement?
Anyone know about other districts that require World Religions courses? Or simply other similar courses? I’d love to create a section on the blog linking to those classes.

How do you stack up?

One of the ways I start the year is by offering an explanation of why it is so important to me to teach this course. One of the many reasons I give is simply that as Americans, we tend to state that we are very religious, but we don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about religions, especially those other than are own. I give the kids this 15-question quiz from the PewResearch Religion & Public Life project and we compare their personal results to the survey results. I’m happy to say that after 6 years of teaching this course, I came in at 100%. How’d you do?

Dan Dennett and I agree on a few things…

I was trying to find some easier ways to talk about the origins of religion with my students when I came across this TED talk by philosopher Dan Dennett, where he challenges Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life, makes a case for teaching world religions to all students (love!), and provides a brief look into the evolutionary aspects of religion.

I decided against using the video in class, as I think presenting the attacks on Warren would be a little unfair without also introducing his point of view, and the discussion of the evolution of religion a bit hard to follow for teenagers. But Dennett’s insistence on teaching all children about the world’s religions (around 4:16) and his statement that good can exist without god truly resonated with me. At the end of his talk, he states:

If you are like me, you know many wonderful, committed, engaged atheists, agnostics, who are being very good without God. And you also know many religious people who hide behind their sanctity instead of doing good works.

Is it wrong to state that one of my goals in this course is to help students learn to see past the labels we place on people (both good and bad) and simply see them for not only what they believe, but what they do?

Has anyone read Dennet’s book, Breaking the Spell? It’s on my list now.

Defining Religion

Last night, I opened up Zadie Smith's book of essays l"Changing My Mind" to these two thoughts. Perfect for this blog's beginning days.

Last night, I opened up Zadie Smith’s book of essays “Changing My Mind” to these two thoughts. Perfect for this blog’s beginning days.

Teenagers like definitions. And they like them to be concrete, printed in black and white text, unyielding and unchanging. So I start the year trying to give them what they want, while sneaking in loads of room for interpretation.

The very first day of class, I ask students to write down their own definition of religion and to try and determine a list of “requirements” that a religion must fulfill. Usually this takes just a minute or two, and as we share out I hear lots of ideas about god or gods, moral systems, and followers. I have them compare answers with each other, combining and refining their lists of characteristics. And then I introduce them to the definition that we will use for the year:

A response to the sacred in life, as shaped by institutionalized traditions.

This is a paraphrasing of the description offered up in the textbook we use, Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher, 7th edition. It’s a simplification, sure, and I think there might be a hundred more definitions out there. But I like it because as a class, we can break it down into 2 core parts:

1) A response to the sacred or unknowable in life. The questions unanswered by science or those mysterious, unexplainable happenings in the world.

2) Institutionalized traditions. Meaning there is an “institution”–the kids can think of this as a physical building, a community, or an organization that carries beliefs and practices on. This explains how religion differs from spirituality, how it holds on to traditional ways of living while evolving in modern times.

We also use Ninian Smart’s seven characteristics of religion to help create a checklist to use with various religions or ways of thinking. There is an excerpt here, for those interested. We use the acronym MR. SNEED (or MRS. NEED, depending on the day. These include: Materials, Rituals, Social, Narratives, Ethics, Emotional Responses, and Doctrines. A key point here is htat a god or deity is NOT a required component of a religion. This can be tough for some kids to wrap their heads around, but I think it’s important to address before we delve into different traditions. Using this checklist becomes an integral part of our class. When we discuss atheism, we compare some of the structures of atheism today to this list; when we study Buddhism, Judaism, and any other belief system, we use the checklist to review what we have learned. It helps identify similarities and gives the students something firm to work with, while proving enough flexibilty that we can sneak in some new and perhaps challenging ideas.

What about you? How would you define religion?