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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.