The Untouchables (or, Those Subjects Which We are Hesitant to Teach)

Scrolling through my blog reader feed Friday afternoon, I was struck by an image from Scott Schuman’s street style blog, The Sartorialist. The image is captivating: a young woman sweeping the street in Delhi, her face covered with bright sheer scarves, a floral tunic/kurti bright against a muted backdrop of two others in western dress. I stopped to take it in and noticed the title given by the blog’s author: “The Untouchables.”  I pressed on then, reading through the comments, interested in the response that such a post would draw.

On the Street…The Untouchables, Delhi « The Sartorialist.

The points brought up by readers of The Sartorialist were interesting, if not entirely surprising. While the blog typically includes shots of fashion editors and stylists pre-shows, more and more Schuman has been traveling to worlds away from Milan and Paris and capturing the essence of local style. Typically, I find these images more engaging–I think he has a way of capturing the sense of pride and ingenuity that people from all classes and locales can express in their own clothing. But there are those who comment that these images are out of place on the blog, or out of touch with the realities of life for people in these locations;  that they show a superficial view of the locale. In this case, readers expressed concern about the ethics of such a shot, of evaluating it for beauty, questioning why it was supposed she was an “untouchable” (something I wondered, too), and, from one commenter named “Nina” stating: “Basically, please don’t go to India and be all “wow, look at the poverty, so sad.””

I’m not entirely sure what Schuman was thinking by posting his image, but I am sure he was aware that it would invite questions and perhaps criticism. It reminded me of the challenges I feel when addressing the issue of caste, India, and Hinduism in the classroom. Whenever I ask students what they know about Hinduism, caste is one of the first things that comes up. But I’m never entirely sure how to handle the caste system and its role today in India: I have no firsthand experience of the nation. I find myself, like Schuman, raising more questions than giving answers and I worry about perpetuating stereotypes or misconceptions and even about offending Hindu students in the room. However, from what I can tell based on conversations and readings, there is still discrimination based on class and race in India (as in every other country in the world) and it is connected to, if not reflective of, Hindu beliefs. Therefore it merits discussion in the World Religions classroom.

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Colors and Sounds

One of the amazing things about Hinduism, like many faiths, is the way that its rituals and practices awaken the senses. I’ve found a couple of good video resources that help share the sights and sounds of the religion, injecting a human presence into our study of its beliefs and practices.

The New York Times produces a variety of beautiful short videos that are great for lessons. My favorite for teaching about Hinduism is this one about the sadhus, or holy men, at the Kumbh Mela festival (which is an enormous Hindu religious gathering). Not only are the sadhus visually arresting–as they shed their clothes and paint their faces out of reverence for the gods–but the video hints at their controversial position in Indian society as either revered men or crazies on the fringe.

Another great video for teaching about India is from the series Around the World in 80 Faiths. This BBC show traces the path of an Anglican vicar, Peter Owen-Jones, as he travels the world to learn about other religions. He’s a perceptive and sensitive host, and in each episode he really works to understand the people he encounters. He doesn’t shy away from stating his own biases or skepticism, which I think is part of why he is relatable. In the India episode, for example, he questions how men really walk on hot coals and is just impolite enough to ask them if he can check out the soles of their feet. He also finds some amazing rituals and experiences, from talking with an aghori who lives in a cemetary to visiting with an ascetic Jain nun, they are opportunities that many of us are unlikely to have first-hand.

The series has eight episodes, and I show clips from it throughout the year, but I take the time to show the entire one on India. It is great for the diversity it reflects while still focusing on religions that developed on the subcontinent. The shows are all available on Youtube, although I would gladly buy it if I could find it on DVD (are you listening, BBC?). It makes me want to take a similar journey!

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!

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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?

Catching Up

It has been TOO long since I have posted on here. I’ve thought about it often, but a busy field hockey season, a chapter on the Meuse-Argonne offensive in WWI (a project I hope to be able to share with you soon), and, you know, teaching and grading got in the way. I’ve now planned and taught my entire unit on Hinduism, and would like to spend a few posts catching up on what I enjoy and find particularly challenging about teaching that faith. I also hope that this post can be the start of a return to a more regular posting schedule–I’m aiming for twice a week: Saturdays and Wednesdays. Hold me to it, fans!

In addition to posting more regularly, I have also been trying to integrate a more consistent yoga practice into my life. For me, it’s an opportunity to take some time to do something that makes me feel physically stronger but also gives me some time to check in with myself mentally and emotionally. While most yoga teachers I know don’t delve deeply into the faith of Hinduism, they use the sanskrit terms, they chant the universal sound (om), and they recognize the importance of cycles and balance. Further, most teachers recognize that in yoga there is the idea that everyone’s practice is different, but all are right (I think this is a sincere belief, and not just something they tell me to make me feel better about my tight hamstrings). This is true for the larger Hindu faith as well, and is the part of Hinduism that personally I connect to the most–this idea that there are many paths that can all take us to the same place. It’s the same wonderful quality that Yann Martel references in his book Life of Pi, when he describes how Pi meets Christianity and Islam through Hinduism. For example, here he explains a moment where multiple faiths come alive:

“I entered the church, without fear this time, for it was now my house too. I offered prayers to Christ, who is alive. Then I raced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on the right—to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in my way.”

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