Building Trust in the Classroom–Back to School Time

As we head back into the school year and I think about one of my new roles, mentoring teachers online, I have been thinking alot about how one builds trust among the disparate groups of individuals that end up sitting in your classroom (or online mentee group). In an elective course like World Religions, the strings tying students to one another are much more tenuous–they are not necessarily all from the same grade or same social set, and you can’t even count on the fact that they all have a shared interest…remember it’s a high school elective course, which means some have been placed there just to fill a hole in their schedule. So what are some things you can do not just to build trust between you and the students, but between the students themselves?

  • Icebreakers and name-games. I thought these were silly at first, but they are SO important. No one wants the moment (which I’ve had, sadly) during a class discussion when one students says, “Yes, I agree with….[awkward pause]…what’s your name again?” Come up with some silly name games and getting to know you activities (I like this list here) and use them frequently in the first few weeks, especially as kids are getting added and dropped from your class. They are worth the time–you have to know someone in order to trust them.
  • Show vulnerability. As I wrote in this early post, religion is a sensitive topic and students need to know that diversity and differences of opinion and belief will be valued in your classroom. I tell a funny story about a religion that I made up as a child. You don’t have to do that, but I’d encourage you to share about your own experiences in a genuine way. Why do you like teaching this course? What are some silly mistakes you have made in the past? Showing students that you are not perfect (yet still an authority in your subject) is an important way to get them to view you as a caring human and not just a teacher-robot. Further, get them to share moments and questions with each other. One idea is to have students chat with a partner about questions they have regarding a topic before you discuss it as a class. Not only does this get them thinking about the subject, but it gets them to show one another that we all have something to learn.
  • Create shared experiences. A “shared experience” can be as simple as an assignment that everyone does that you can refer back to often, but it can also be something more complex that they will distinctly remember. One of the activities I do early in the year to talk about the limits of archaeology as  a mode of study is to mimic an “archaeological dig” by gathering strange objects in bags and placing students into “dig groups” to analyze what has been found. In their groups, students try to determine what the items (which are often just bizarre things I’ve found in my house–egg slicers, small statues, books in foreign languages) reveal about the society they come from. I also use this as a way to review the elements of religion that we discuss early on in the school year. The dig takes the better part of a class period, which may seem like a lot of class time for a “fun” activity, but it also serves as a reference point for future lessons, an experience that can be reflected on by all members of the class, and an opportunity to meet and talk with new people. Which leads me to my last point…
  • Create groups and change them often. Teenagers are creatures of habit and they will work with the same people over and over and over. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but you are missing out on opportunities to improve the classroom dynamic AND improve learning. Especially at the beginning of a school year, I think it’s important for students to learn the names and quirks of the people around them, and you will may have to force those moments of interaction by assigning groups. This also allows you to create heterogenous or homogenous groups based on your goals for the lesson (I often differentiate by reading level using groups or think about the skills each student brings to the table). I frequently have intern teachers who feel they are being “mean” if they assign groups–not so! Rather, you are being intentional about the social and learning interactions that happen in your classroom, and giving students the opportunity to make a new friend! 🙂

Of course, this will change a bit for me as I figure out how to replicate these principles in an online environment. I’d love to hear any advice you may have! Good luck to all of you starting out your year in the classroom soon!

P.S. I’ve just started a store on Teachers Pay Teachers and will be uploading much of my World Religions content there. Yesterday I posted one of the icebreaker Bingo activities that I used. Feel free to check it out if you are interested!

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times.

Quick read on new questions of religious liberty that have developed in response to the gay rights movement. It seems to me that a shift is underway from citing religious liberty as a protection for action’s that affect one’s self (declining to attend public schools; claiming conscientious objector status) to name it as your reason to limit the rights of others (to purchase contraceptives). That shifts seems to move us away from the very intent of these laws to ensure freedom and protection for individuals.

This topic has always been an interesting talking point with students–I find that teenagers are highly preoccupied with infringements on their rights! I would be interested to hear their thoughts on what private companies can or cannot do.

Hello there, Pittsburgh!

You may have noticed some silence on the blog…in the past few weeks I’ve moved to a new/old city of mine, Pittsburgh, PA, and that has taken up much of the time since the school year ended. Turns out it is a lot of work to pack up all of your belongings, move them across state lines, while selling one house and buying another.

A first craft project in the new house--1950s postcards of Pittsburgh.

But, we made it! Along with the move comes a change in occupation, of course, and mine is a little free-form at the moment. After ten years of teaching, I am taking break from the classroom for a few reasons. The first is that it is frighteningly difficult to get a good Social Studies position in the Pittsburgh area (this is what higher pay gets you, NC State Legislature, if you’re listening: almost zero teacher turnover). The other, more exciting reason is that my fiancee and I are expecting a baby in November, and I wasn’t feeling confident about starting at a new school only to take several months off beginning late fall. As a result, I’m piecing together work that I find interesting and challenging. I hope to devote more time to this blog (several post ideas in the works!), will be working as a Program Assistant at the Frick Art and Historical Center, working on developing Library of Congress resources for an AP US History timebook, mentoring newer AP US History teachers online with the College Board, and continuing to write content for TE21, an assessment company based out of Durham. I can only imagine that adding a baby into the mix will make this all even more interesting and challenging!

So wish me luck on my new adventures (and feel free to check out my new professional website here) and I hope to be writing more as the days go by. Thanks for sticking with me!

The Sound of Silence

One of the things I love about my yoga class at Durham Yoga Company is that there actually is a spiritual component. It’s not heavy, but it’s there–Mira, the teacher, shares her own spiritual wonderings and wanderings and is very knowledgeable about Buddhism, Sanskrit, and more. She encourages us to reflect on our practice, our lives, being better people–in my book all good things. She’s also an incredible teacher of yoga who has clearly put a lot of effort and time into becoming a talented instructor.

There are also so many wonderful people that come to the class–“a full Durham”–to borrow a phrase my parents coined when they lived here. About a week ago, Mira had two friends visiting and she mentioned, off-hand, that they had recently finished a three-year silent meditation retreat.

A three-year. Silent. Meditation. Retreat.

For someone who often has to be reminded to use her inside voice, this blew my mind. How could one commit to three years of silence? Especially undertaking that with a partner–the first thing I thought of was how hard it would be not to compare notes as the experience went on. Also, what do you do all day, besides meditate? I am sure it varies from place to place, but I did a little research to get an idea.

This description from Spirit Rock was the best that I could find, especially when it came to the daily routine:

The daily rhythm of a retreat usually involves alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, eating and work meditations, as well as interviews, Dharma talks and rest periods. The first sitting usually begins at about 6 a.m., and a typical day includes seven sitting and six walking periods of 45 minutes apiece. Each morning the teachers offer continuing meditation instructions for the day. The whole retreat is a succession of mindfulness training, breathing practices, deep awareness of the body and environment, meditations on the nature of feelings, and awareness of mind and the laws that govern it. These are the same fundamental teachings of insight meditation offered in the traditional Buddhist monasteries of Asia.

To me, it sounds incredibly difficult. In an interview with Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works–A True Story (let’s work on that title length, Dan!), he states that on his week-long silent retreat, this was all “just as horrible as you think it sounds.” But then he talks about reaching a point of euphoria. His description reminded me of a runner’s high–you are slogging through all of the work of paying attention to your thoughts, patiently, somewhat painfully, and then finally the moment hits where it stops being work?

Is a three year retreat then the equivalent of an ultra-marathon? Could you do it?

P.S. Some talks from the three-year retreat at Diamond Mountain. I guess there are breaks in the silence, sometimes!

I call that a success!

As I was grading final exams, I came across this.

Question 1

Question 1

Question 2

Question 2

Not the best student, and in fact, a student who in his original journal post stated that he would be working to try to help me accept Christianity this year. Glad that I’ve helped him grow more accepting too.


When the Course Swerves…

Sometimes courses, or particular classes, take on their own particular theme or direction. This year’s unit on Islam made an unexpected shift to include a heavy dose of media literacy, partly because we had covered Islam through so many current events throughout the year already, and partly because the students and I both recognized it as being at the root of so many misunderstandings.

For the past few years I have assigned a project about Myths and Misconceptions in Islam where students take a belief about Islam that is incorrect or oversimplified and work to both explain the source of that misconception and the truth they would use to explain it. Noticing flaws in what previous years’ works had resulted in, I decided to pay a little more attention to the selection of resources as students researched their topics–and in so doing I think I unknowingly planted a seed that blossomed when they turned in their finished works.

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On Field Trips and Flexibility

I know…it’s been forever since I’ve written. Spring break and lots of life have gotten in the way, and I apologize.

Class, however, has been marching on. We have made it through our Christianity unit, which always feels like a challenge to me. It’s challenging because there are always a few students who have been raised on the Bible and know its passages far better than I do. It’s also challenging because it’s one of those religions that students think they know everything about before we get started. And because trying to expand students’ notions of Christianity (or expose them to divisions within it) can push some buttons for the firm believers in my classroom in a way that investigating a religion that they are less attached to does not.

As a result, while I do spend some time reviewing the core beliefs of Christianity and analyzing passages from the New Testament (I especially like the Sermon on the Mount for the way it helps differentiate between “old ways” and Jesus’s teachings), I allocate most of the unit to understanding the historical development of the religion (helped by useful Eduportal videos like this one) and looking at its diversity. It’s my hope that students end the unit with the firm grasp of the concepts that all Christians share, but an understanding that all Christians are not like the ones they know.

I have a couple of strategies for doing this. We spend a few days looking at Mormons, and I ask the students to answer for themselves the question of whether Mormons are Christian or not. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints says, unequivocally, yes. (See the most recent shift in their logo, below). 

 But others question if a group that adds new books to the Christian canon can truly fit in. I have found the PBS video on the Mormons to be an excellent supplement here, and a more sober approach than the South Park episodes and broadway musicals that my students tend to be more familar with.

We also spend some time looking at other Christian groups: the Amish, Christan Scientists, Quakers, Christadelphians, and more. Again, we focus on the defining beliefs of Christians: monotheism, belief in Jesus as a savior, an emphasis on love, forgiveness, hope, and grace, and the practices of baptism and communion. Then I ask students to consider what makes each group different and unique.

We ended the unit with a sort of transitional field trip–a trip to a mosque and a church. This year we visited Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman and Resurrection United Methodist Church. Chosen both for proximity, their welcoming attitude, and the variety of experiences they provide, I found this year’s pairing to work especially well. Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman is in a small, low building that was clearly never intended to be a mosque. In fact, it shares a parking lot with a store-front church. For many of my students, this is a different kind of religious building than they have been to, in that there is absolutely no fancy architecture–the emphasis is solely on the creation of a community space for worship and study. The students were shown to the library and listened to a presentation by a member of the congregation. This was interesting too–the imam, Mowlid Ali, is very young, somewhat quiet, and had to leave early to lead Friday prayers in a neighboring city. His colleague was an older gentleman who was very chatty and eager to share his understanding of Islam. The contrast between the two men was almost comical–but again I appreciate that the students had an opportunity to hear from two voices. 

Following that, we visited the church where Reverend Alan Felton shared with the students about Methodism, a denomination we had not encountererd yet. I thought the kids were fading a little–we had arrived late and lunch was waiting–but was impressed by how they perked up with questions about the Eucharist and the little ways in which the ceremony differed from some of their own experiences. It was clear as they asked about the things that they saw that they were building a comparison in their heads. 

It was a fitting and pleasant end to a unit that I always have a little trepidation about teaching. Today, on the way in to work, I heard a piece on NPR that helped me articulate my approach to teaching this section on Christianity, and really to how I hope to approach much of my teachings. The snippet was about Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a Catholic who has been teaching about Islam to students in both Catholic and Muslim universities. He states at one point, when addressing a room of devout Muslims: “I said to the students ‘I’m not here to teach you anything — I’m here to help you to learn, and to understand your own religion better.” Like Fitzgerald (although I am sure his expertise in the field of religious studies is far far greater than mine), I recognize that it does me no good to try to teach my students what they may already know, but rather to lead them to questions and ideas they may not have encountered yet, to give them opportunities for new experiences, and tools for engaging with them. Hopefully, with this unit, I did at least a little of that. 

Spring Rites

The Vernal Equinox has come and past, and although I hear it is still snowing a few states north of here, the buds and blooms around in NC. This year I tried out two new spring rituals–some self-education that will perhaps spill over into the classroom someday.

Homemade hamantaschen.

Homemade hamantaschen.

The first was an attempt at hamantaschen, the traditional cookie of Purim. Celebrated on March 4th and 5th this year, Purim marks when Queen Esther defeated Haman’s plot to kill the Jews of Persia. Apparently what originated as a fairly minor holiday has now developed into something more meaningful, a marker of how so many times throughout history the Jewish people have survived and thrived despite persecution. The celebration itself is joyful–in Jerusalem there is a carnival aspect as people dress up in costume, use noise-makers, and drink and feast. The cookies are meant to represent Haman’s tri-cornered hat. I used the recipe found on Judaism 101 (a wonderful general resource for information on the religion, from an Orthodox perspective), but there are many online. One of my favorite cooking blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has a few different versions–more options to try next year!

Right around this time in my classes, my students were presenting projects on different rituals and holidays in Judaism. Many of them kept showing Sesame Street video clips dealing with Jewish topics that they found online. I had no idea where they came from, but when reading about Purim I found the source: Shalom Sesame. An American version of an Israeli version of Sesame Street, the show aimed to introduce Judaism to kids unfamiliar with Hebrew, the show has a number of famous guest stars and your favorite traditional Sesame Street characters. Apparently, Cookie Monster LOVES hamantaschen!! The clip below was great inspiration for my baking.

The other ritual I took part in was far more spiritual, for me, but was also very much a physical practice. I read that a local Methodist church was setting up a labyrinth during the Lenten season and was opening it up to the public. I’ve always been curious about walking labyrinths: how has the tradition survived since the Middle Ages? What does it represent? How does the physical movement encourage reflection and prayer?

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