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!”


Good advice on Digital Literacy from EdSurge News

Last spring, I wrote about lessons in my World Religions class that veered away from simply being about religion and religious bias to thinking about how we read, interpret, and interact with what’s on the web. This article reminded me of some of those lessons and gave me some ideas to take it farther next time. Enjoy the excerpt below and keep reading at the link…

Twenty-five years ago, the term “literacy” was synonymous with the printed word. Today, that definition has evolved and being literate necessitates more than simply interacting with text. We must be digitally literate, too…

Source: Three Techniques for Teaching Digital Literacy | EdSurge News

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.

Zoroastrianism: Beginnings and Endings

Lately I’ve been trying to teach my World Religions class about Zoroastrianism. I say trying because in the past two weeks we’ve had only 1.5 days of class, meaning I have only seen my WR students once. So what is typically a short unit on Zoroastrianism, an introduction and/or foundation for the ethical monotheistic faiths that will follow, has now been drawn out over sixteen days. I think they will hardly remember anything about this faith when we get to day 2.

But, I’ll persist for two main reasons: in Zoroastrianism, we get a sense of important beginnings and get to explore the fears that surround possible endings. By beginnings, I mean the basic ideas of monotheism, heaven and hell, and human free will that exist within Zoroastrianism and are seen in later monotheistic faiths. Studying Zoroastrianism gives us a chance to talk about these ideas in an unfamiliar context, and maybe consider them more objectively. But the number of adherents to faith is also dwindling, and by looking at the contemporary state of Zoroastrianism, we get to think about how religions grow and fade, and what factors might lead to their demise.

On day one, we focused on the beginnings and the basics of the faith, via some videos, a lecture, and readings. I try to emphasize those foundational ideas that I mentioned earlier: monotheism, good vs. evil, Heaven, Hell, and free will. The ideas are incredibly familiar to the students but the names of the god (Ahura Mazda) and the force of evil (Angra Mainyu–best name ever), the use of water and fire in practice, and the locations and traditions all make it something different and intriguing.

On day 2, whenever that happens, I hope to have students complete a webquest reviewing the practices of Zoroastrianism as well as investigating the question of intermarriage. As a rule, the practice of marriage outside of the faith has been discouraged, but not barred, and so the numbers of children born into the faith are dropping over time. In response, old-fashioned Zoroastrian matchmakers and more new-fangled singles Zoroastrian websites have emerged.

A Temple of Silence, or dakhma, used for interring the dead without polluting the earth or other elements. One of the more unique features of Zoroastrianism.

A Temple of Silence, or dakhma, used for interring the dead without polluting the earth or other elements. One of the more unique features of Zoroastrianism.

Intermarriage is one factor, but there is also the simple struggle of practicing a minority faith far from home. This video from the NYT captures this challenge and the efforts made by current generations to maintain the practices and traditions (there is an accompanying article, too). So, in this small religion (less than 200,000 adherents today), we witness the advantages and disadvantages of a faith readily adapting to new countries and new eras, and we also learn about the big ideas in religion and philosophy that began to dramatically change the world 3,000 years ago. Here’s hoping I actually get to teach this lesson Monday!

P.S. I’ve taken some of my snow-day time to update the Resources and Reading List pages. Check them out! (I’ve also taken some of my snow-day time to sleep in and play with the dog, don’t worry!).

Five Ideas for Teaching East Asian Religions

Whew! My classes have made it through our unit on East Asian Religions, taught half by my student teacher and half by myself. Hopefully they saw past the shifting teaching styles and gained some understanding of Confucanism, Daoism, and Shinto. Here are some ideas I thought worked well:

1) Is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy? This was a discussion led by my student teacher that linked back to our conversations earlier in the year about what it means to really be a religion. She used excerpts from a Useless Tree blog post that responded to this article by Peter Berger, as well as another short excerpt from Prothero’s Book, God Is Not One. While I think the readings themselves can be challenging for students, I enjoyed how they got students to re-evaluate the question of what is a religion. While Useless Tree notes that “there is little, if any, concern for cosmological origins or after lives” in Confucianism, I would challenge my students (and Useless Tree) to consider whether spirituality must be confined to questions of our beginnings and endings. Like Prothero, it seems to me there is some sense in a spirituality that aids in the “individual transformation” (his words) that is the mark of our living experience. On the heels of learning about Buddhism, which, depending on the branch, can be similarly removed from deities and the cosmos, and as we prepare for diving into the religions deriving from the Middle East, this conversation was particularly useful as a means for discussing what it means to be a religion and to stretch our original definitions even further.

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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!).


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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Lost in the Supermarket

A few years ago I came across an article about Noah Levine, a so-called Dharma punk. The article made the assertion that punk music was a natural fit for Buddhism, from the anti-establishment and anti-materialistic ethos to the lack of attachment to physical well-being shown in the mosh pit. Intrigued, I asked around and came up with some ideas for songs that were clean enough to bring into the classroom but rocking enough to catch the kids’ attention. I liked the idea of challenging them to think about Buddhism not simply as a quiet, meditative, path, but as a set of understandings that could emerge in any “scene.” The title of this post comes from one of the Clash songs that I like to play for them–a contemplation of life in the dissatisfying ‘burbs and our material world. Translating the universal truths that Siddhartha taught to punk rock rebels helps set the stage for later conversations about Buddhism “in the world”–and the rebellions for justice led by monks in Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, and elsewhere (great, old CNN video on Buddhist activists here).

The thing is, so few of my students are punks these days that, while they were interested in the article and music in sort of an anthropological way, they didn’t really connect to the spirit. As a result, this year I did some crowd-sourcing via Facebook and added to my list of tunes. Just where else do we see Buddhist themes emerging in pop culture today? Both my dad and sister recommended Gone Going’ by Jack Johnson and the Black Eyed Peas. I started class off with that one, and to my surprise one of my students immediately began singing along. (Apparently my dad and sister are much more with it than I am. I had never heard the song before). Listening to the lyrics, the students were able to make connections to suffering, impermanence, and “no-soul,” and the fact that the first one was such a hit let me get away with playing some more, less well-known tunes.

I love this activity because it gives us a way to talk about some of the more challenging concepts, using the song lyrics as guideposts to test our definitions or understandings of anitya, anatma, and dukkha against. It also lends itself to fun extra credit: right now students are working on picking out their own songs to share with the class that similarly represent Buddhist values. I’ll share those with you soon!

Sallekhana and the Decision to Die

“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.

The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:

When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.

Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.

When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.

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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!


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?