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. 

Greetings from the Gurudwara!

Not exactly–it was over a week ago that I had the pleasure of taking my two World Religions classes to the Sikh Gurudwara of NC. This is the second year that I have taken students there, and our host, Kulpreet Singh, has also come to my school in the past to speak with them. It is, every time, a wonderful experience.

The gurudwara peeking out from behind the trees--picture courtesy of Google Earth.

The gurudwara peeking out from behind the trees–picture courtesy of Google Earth.

The gurudwara is located behind a Baptist church on the other side of town from our high school. The building itself is eye-catching on the outside, but fairly simple when you enter. The students make their way in through the ground floor into the langar hall, where the Sikh community gathers for food and fellowship. There the kids work on covering their hair and taking off their shoes (wrapping the scarves can be a tricky feat if you’ve never done it before). Then Mr. Singh takes us upstairs into the worship hall.

We are incredibly lucky in that our host, Mr. Singh, is warm, honest, and funny. He is an incredible teacher and introduction to the faith. I’ve taught his son, who shares the same silly and kind nature. Mr. Singh gives a very brief introduction to the beliefs and worship practices, and then lets the students guide the conversation. Every year, it is no problem filling up an hour and a half with this exchange of ideas.

Mr. Singh does a lot to emphasize the commonalities among religions, and among people. He uses the analogy of droplets of water in one big ocean to illustrate the way that we are all one. His message, a colleague pointed out, was especially meaningful to hear now when so much of the news has been focused on black vs. white and the powerful vs. the oppressed. While he shows the kirpan (the small sword that all Sikhs wear) and walks students around the Guru Granth (the scripture that is revered as the last guru), well aware of how eye-catching these items are, mostly his message is about how his faith emphasizes respecting the perspectives of others, finding commonalities, and reaching for equality. Again, his description of the kirpan as a reminder to fight against injustice, anywhere, was a timely one. How inspiring for a faith to wholly emphasize the protection of others.

The rest of this week has been a whirlwind of testing and grading, wrapping things up before everyone heads home for three weeks of much needed rest. My students that were unable to join us that day completed their own, online, version of the trip by doing this Ted-Ed lesson that I made. Today, after their test on Indian religions, my students wrote thank-yous and reflections on the past unit. Their notes reflect a sense of gratitude for the opportunities we have in our community, to visit with people of other faiths and other cultures, and to bring that learning back home with us (and also an appreciation for getting a couple of hours off of school). I echo those feelings, and am also further impressed by how welcoming the various faith communities in this city are–I have never failed to hear back from a house of worship or a speaker, but rather am always overwhelmed by the time and care given by those that share with my classes. Thank you.