It’s been a long, long, time.

Hi friends. I haven’t been posting here in many many moons, but I wanted to share a few details about why, and a few resources for where you can go to find great (and similar) content on teaching World Religions.

The why: So many things! But mostly motherhood (the little peanut is almost 8 months now) and a new position as a coordinator and coach for the Smithsonian Learning Lab. It’s a entry-point into the Smithsonian Institution’s digitized resources (including video, artifacts, images, magazine articles, texts, and lesson plans), designed for teachers and students to explore and create their own collections. It’s been a really interesting adventure into the world of learning with digital media and a great opportunity to work with wonderful museum educators and classroom teachers.

The plug for where to go: I’m still so interested in learning more about World Religions, and I keep my blog feed stocked with several sources. The best one out there has got to be World Religions by George S. Coe. He has a teacher’s eye and does a wonderful job of finding interesting and accessible resources on a variety of religions. I encourage you to check his site out.

In addition, I’ve pulled together some collections of World Religions materials within the Learning Lab site, and I’d love to share those with you:

One of the great things about the site is its flexibility. Each of the above collections are designed so that students can independently access museum materials and learn from them. However, there are also a number of collections that are aimed at teachers and gather materials and teaching ideas around particular topics. I’ve created one of these on Sacred Texts that might interest some readers. You’ll also just want to explore–there is so much to engage with and excite your curiosity!

So, this is goodbye. Thanks so much for all those that read my posts over the past few years and shared ideas here. I’m sure I’ll keep writing somewhere, just not here, so I’ll borrow a closing line from one of my favorite podcasts: “see you on the Internet!”

 

Teachers Pay Teachers and My Ambivalence

Teachers Pay Teachers, the website described as “sharing economy”  for teaching professionals, has always felt a little strange to me. One of the joys of teaching, for me, has been developing and sharing materials with other like-minded colleagues–that has been one of the impetuses for this blog, after all. I believe in the quality of my materials, but I also believe in professional collaboration, and I learned, through the years, that sharing in the labor of developing lessons and assessments makes both the more mundane tasks of teaching less tiresome and the more creative tasks more invigorating. Therefore, I’ve never felt that I need to sell them in order to feel they have worth, or that sharing them freely is a mistake.

There’s also just my own cheapness. Why would I pay for a worksheet I can make myself? (Which is basically how I feel whenever I do my own googling for lesson ideas and come across something that someone has posted on TpT). That makes it hard to believe that others would pay a buck or two just to save time, but the reality is, many teachers will. Some don’t have the support of colleagues or many resources at their disposal, and some just would rather spend a couple of dollars than reinvent.

A few things recently have caused me to reconsider TpT, and (spoiler alert!) open a store of my own. First, I have two friends that are total pros: History Gal and Writing by Rachel. Their materials are high-quality, their stores are professional-looking and complete, and they enjoy the creating that they do for the site. Second, I’ve been out of the classroom and I don’t have many opportunities to share work, collegially, with friends. While I wholeheartedly believe that new teachers shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel, I also like to share with folks who are contributors, who I trust to use the materials well, and who will genuinely appreciate the help. (My Dropbox files are open and available for any former colleagues meeting the aforementioned description–my items are free for you). But why shouldn’t I take advantage of a platform where maybe I can help those teachers who are short on time or in creativity and perhaps make a little fun-money on the side? (Emphasis on “a little” bit…most items sell for $1, of which you might take home 85 cents. I’ve made about $9 in two months).

So, I’m selling some of my teaching materials. My teaching experience has been so collaborative that it can be tricky to separate out what is mine and what belongs to others, but I try to be strict about using only what I produced myself, and what I haven’t already shared with my district or created for other grants (an issue discussed in this earlier NYT article on the subject). It’s also hard because you realize that so much of classroom magic is not in what’s put down on the handouts or in the assignment description, it’s in the live-action bits: the class discussions, the lectures, the bad jokes…the reasons that teaching can’t simply be reduced to a computer interface or workbook of exercises. A lot of what I have used in the past simply can’t be put into a format that will sell on the site–it wouldn’t make any sense.

It’s tough to advertise, too, when honestly I would give away most of it to anyone who asked nicely. But perhaps the few friends who are reading this might share it with a few more friends who need good United States History or World Religions resources, and they might pass it along (or pin it! or tweet!) We’ll see how it goes, and I have faith that the fun-money will add up eventually, and I’ll be able to buy some new books or something!

Oh yeah, the link! Creative Instruction. Check it out!

P.S. Also, if anyone from TpT is reading this, why is it so cumbersome to add new materials? The worst part is labeling what type of resource it is and what subjects you teach. Instead of a drop-down everytime, it should recognize that most teachers reuse the same labels each time and allow you to choose from those. Just an idea! Thanks!

P.P.S. Anyone out there reading have a store? Or thoughts on TpT? I’d love to hear–please leave a comment below!

Maureen Fiedler is my hero.

I’ve talked about her radio show before, Interfaith Voices, which is wonderful and informative. But today as I listened to a recent podcast, I heard her challenge Ben Carson and Donald Trump on their bigotry, and was just inspired again by her intelligence, feistiness, and open-minded approach to religion and religious issues. Nuns are awesome, aren’t they? Truly, I admire her independence, her thoughtfulness, and her curiosity about the world and I always learn from her show.

Read her editorial here: No religious test for public office | National Catholic Reporter History nerds will note an allusion to my favorite Abraham Lincoln speech and a great rundown of religion in politics.

Enjoy!

Preservation with Purpose

Since moving to Pittsburgh, I’ve been thinking a lot about historic preservation. Everything here is old–from the house we bought to the streets to the infrastructure (see: falling apart Greenfield Bridge. Thanks for the press CBS!). And there are an enormous number of former churches and religious buildings that have been both preserved and repurposed, in a way that I had not seen much of in the South. This makes sense, right? In the Triangle, the population is growing rapidly and there’s lots of space, so you see storefront churches and megachurches and new religious buildings all of the time. Pittsburgh, while it may be currently on the rise, has suffered from population loss and as congregations dwindle, folks must decide what to do with the buildings they once used.

In our neighborhood alone, Highland Park, there are several examples of religious buildings that have been repurposed, many of them former synagogues.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive buildings, now used as a charter school by the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

Former Congregation B’Nai Israel, now a charter school.

As you can see, there have been almost no changes to the exterior. This picture is from the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other synagogues in the neighborhood have been put into private use. The one below, Torath Chaim, was the last to close in Highland Park and is now in use as an artist’s studio. This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article shows some interior pictures from more recent years, while some from 1980 are available at the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Heinz History Center.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

Others in the area are now, as far as I can tell, private homes.

Former Machsikei Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

Former Machsikei
Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

And of course, there is the Union Project a former church now realized as community space for art classes, yoga, gallery shows, and more.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Highland Park is one of many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh where these transformations are taking place. Neu Kirche is a Northside gallery slated to open soon, housed in a former Methodist Church. There are hotels, restaurants/breweries, and even the Altar Bar and Mr. Small’s Funhouse, where you can catch some decidedly unholy [musical] acts. Depending on where you live, seeking out this type of reuse could be an interesting class activity. What does it say about population changes or religious communities in the area? About changing values within the urban landscape?

Using the built environment like this also encourages students to really consider the meaning and symbolism in the buildings themselves. Does a congregation, in any religion, need a building to create space for worship? Or can the community itself create that space. Judaism answers this with a hard and fast rule–all you need is ten adult Jews to make a space fit for public worship–nothing is said about the state of the building. In other religions, there may be no set number, but the facility is often secondary to the people that would use it. (Are there exceptions to this in certain faiths?)

Generally, I like these examples of creative reuse. In most cases, they allow the buildings to continue to serve as community meeting places and often act as shelters for new projects and new ideas.  But, this could also be a point of discussion among students. Is it right to use old religious buildings for certain purposes (a bar, for example)? Is commercial development in these formerly sacred spaces in poor taste?

Some additional resources I found regarding reusing religious spaces:

  • Partners for Sacred Spaces is an organization dedicated to helping congregations determine what to do with their buildings and how to best preserve them
  • Repurposing Dying Churches by Ministry Matters argues for using development or repurposing as a way to save buildings and congregations–some spaces can be used part-time for worship and part-time for other activities
  • Hagia Sophia, the original example of repurposing. Might be useful in making the point to students that this is not necessarily a new idea.
  • fancy modern architecture version that is just beautiful to look at.
  • And an opposing point of view, if you want to discuss why some people might be against the redevelopment of sacred spaces.

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.

Understanding the Responses to Charlie Hebdo, part 1

My World Religions class is an elective course, which gives us a chance to stray when the world provides us with “teachable moments.” As a result, this blog gets a chance to stray once in a while as well. Below is a summary of the lesson I developed about the Charlie Hebdo attacks–it’s long, so feel free to skip around (or bypass altogether!).

Rationale

In the responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the controversy a bit closer to home at Duke University just a week later, I saw an opportunity to connect my students with the news around them and also to get them thinking about how they could contribute to the conversations about these events. The terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the controversy at Duke over using the university bell-tower for a Muslim call to prayer were only loosely related by religion, but both events prompted a bewildering array of media commentary. In regards to Charlie Hebdo, I was somewhat fascinated as various hashtags, used to show solidarity, spread quickly across social media. When I read about the situation at Duke, I was appalled by some of the comments I saw posted. As I thought about how to implement discussions about these events in my own classroom, I realized that my goals were to build understanding of the variety of responses to said events and to help students develop their own opinions while navigating the sea of information and editorializing that is out there.

In the course of developing these lessons I also came across this blogpost by Emma Pierson on women’s comments on online media sites. To sum up briefly: women are far less likely to comment in online forums. Reading the post continued to make me think about the question of whether online forums are truly a meaningful place for debate and/or how we could make them into more thoughtful centers for discussion. So much of my students’ worlds are online now—how can we get them to think critically not only about big media, produced and delivered by such giants Fox News and the New York Times, but little media too: the comments and tweets that they write, read, and repost oh-so-regularly? Pierson rightfully links the reluctance to contribute online to a reluctance to speak in classrooms during childhood and adolescence, and suggests advocating for “speaking up as an act of leadership:  a way to advance a cause worth caring about.” Pierson’s follow-up recommendations include not only encouraging women to speak up more, but for men to “talk less.” While I did not overtly discuss the gender dynamics of this in my classroom (we’ll save that for another lesson!), I think the concept of thinking more carefully before engaging in discussions, both online and in real life, would benefit many of my students, while others could certainly be encouraged to let go of fears about the imperfections of their contributions. Reading Pierson’s piece shifted my lesson to include direct and explicit conversations about the tone and format of our debates about complex issues.

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What’s going on?! A brief run-down of the last few weeks

Photo by Nikolas Wall

It’s not what it looks like. Photo by Nikolas Wall

It’s been kind of a long week. Or two, actually. It started for me last week, with the non-indictment in Ferguson. While not entirely surprised, I was, and continue to be, pretty broken-hearted about the situation. As I shared with my students, to watch images of protesting and anger and to know that so many people don’t feel safe in this country, protected by the police, or served by its government, makes me incredibly sad. That the experience of life (and justice) in this nation for blacks is so different from my own experience isn’t news to me, but last week’s events were a stinging reminder.

The non-indictment led to a heartfelt and thoughtful discussion in my first period class the next day. School teachers (and maybe journalists) are the only people I know who have to read about the news and formulate a response and a way to discuss it with thirty teenagers before 7:30 that morning. Our talk was good, heartfelt and honest, but given the subject matter it was not particularly happy.

What was happy, though, was my 3rd period World Religions class and the moment you see captured above. I mentioned this in my last post, but Reverend WonGong So came to visit our class and delivered an awesome presentation on Won Buddhism. The best part, though, was when she got 36 kids to stand up and led them through walking and moving meditations. My favorite times teaching are when you can get students to completely abandon their teenage self-consciousness and fully embrace a goofy learning moment. (And you can see that they did! They were doing arm circles in that picture, not heiling Hitler, which unfortunately it kind of looks like).

Fortunately, last Tuesday was followed by a relaxed and wonderful visit home with family. Coming back this week to little annoyances (unruly kids, progress reports), and more examples of the troubling state of race relations in our country (the Eric Garner non-indictment and the story about Lennon Lacy in Bladenboro, NC) have been a bit of a let down, but hopefully there are some good things coming up. Next week, World Religions goes to the Sikh gurdwara, and I think we’re making progress in APUSH. I’ve got some projects in the work for the blog, as well. Stay tuned, and thanks for putting up with my emotions this week!

Question, because I am curious: How have you dealt with the Brown and the Garner cases in your classrooms?

What You Don’t Know (according to Stephen Prothero)

I’ve slowly been working my way through two Stephen Prothero books this fall: God is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. While I’m using the first as a resource and referring to chapters when they complement my teaching, the latter I read straight through. Upon reading the introduction, I felt a sense of satisfaction (the feeling you feel when someone incredibly smart agrees with your point of view). Parts of Prothero’s introduction read like a much better written version of my course syllabus. As he argues for the promotion of religious literacy, he states:

…I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen. My purpose is not to foster faith or to denigrate it. Neither is it to advance the liberal arts or to boost high school students’ SAT scores (though these are both laudable educational ends to which religious literacy might be put). My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world which religion counts. (p. 15).

Yes!!! Like Prothero, I encounter huge gaps in my students’ religious knowledge, both in my elective course and as I try to wade through the American history curriculum. And, like Prothero, I strongly believe that increasing religious literacy is critical to building better citizens (and just better people). But while we agree on the problem facing America today, and I appreciated his scholarship on why exactly religious literacy has declined,  I do differ with Prothero when it comes to the solutions he suggests.

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Teaching Vocabulary

It took me way too long to realize that one of the major things that my students struggled with in World Religions wasn’t the broad concepts, but the simple vocabulary. It’s a lot of new material, and so much of it is in different languages that students are not familiar with. Over the years, I’ve become better about defining and refining which words my students really need to know in order to understand a religion, and worked to incorporate more ways to teach and assess understanding of those vocabulary words without boring my kids entirely.

(I think my fear of teaching vocabulary comes from those spelling lists we all had in elementary school. They were seemingly endless, and without any reward except for the satisfaction of a good grade on the quiz. I don’t want these word lists to be like that…)

Teaching vocabulary is also a challenge because this year I am differentiating between students earning Honors credit and those earning Standard in the same classroom. That means that an assessment that might have just checked recall or comprehension of words before now needs to have some options that up the difficulty level. Recently, for a quick quiz, I projected the same word bank up on the screen. The kids taking the class for standard credit had a list of definitions to match them to, fill-in-the-blank style, while the kids taking it for honors had to write a paragraph incorporating ten of the terms in a meaningful, with an additional credit for what I called synthesis. That meant their paragraph had to actually make sense and flow, rather than being just a list of definitions. I thought this was a good way to hit different difficulty levels, but the kids who wrote the paragraphs did MUCH better than those who did the matching. I’m unsure whether this was due to the assessment, or the preparation. Any thoughts? I will keep working on ways to do this better.

One assignment that I’ve really liked doing with vocabulary is a Pinteretst board. I print out paper templates for the kids who want to do a low-tech version (I actually found the online template for this on Pinterest. Don’t roll your eyes and just do a search). Some of these actually come out really neat, as the kids that like to draw have a chance to be creative, and others often take the time to make a collage of sorts. For others, who have easy access to a smart-phone or computer, I let them do it online and they can simply send me a link to the board. The instructions are fairly simple–they have to draw or find a meaningful image for each term, and then they have to offer an explanation that reveals how the term is used for the religion. I usually do this with the Hinduism unit, because it’s the first time they are really challenged by the words-all that Sanskrit!

world-religions-

This is a screenshot of a very well-done board. I love it because this student took the time to find photos that she loved and that related to the material, and then explained the connections!

It’s important for me to spend some time on the vocabulary early on in the Hinduism unit, especially because many of the religions that follow use the same terminology: karma, moksha, samsara. I’ve thought about the “word wall” idea, but I think it still feels a little elementary school to me. I would like to come up with some activities that allow students to categorize these terms though, and think about how they flow throughout the Indian religions but also change in their meaning.

How do you approach teaching vocabulary in a way that’s meaningful and not painful for you and the students?