In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day…

Or Columbus Day, depending on where you live in the United States and what your political leanings are, one more post about my Indigenous Religions unit. Have you ever used this article about the Nacirema?

Written by Horace Miner in 1956 and published in the American Anthropologist, it’s an academic look at an unusual and oddball culture–our own. I give a shortened version of it to my students as we start the unit on Indigenous Religions, as if its a group we’re about to study. This year I asked kids to reflect on the group and whether or not they could relate to the Nacirema.

A direct student quote: “The Nacirema were so weird. It surprised me just how weird they were. I could not relate at all.”

And then the big reveal! This article about the super-strange Nacirema? It’s about US! The group name is actually a play on words, and the rituals that Miner describes (bathing, brushing teeth, etc…) are in fact practiced by everyone of my students (well, most days).

It’s a good reminder that when encountering new cultures, their practices can seem quite different and even bizarre. But we should approach things with an open mind. We all have rituals, practices, and strange beliefs. Once students realize that the article is about them, they laugh and try to “decode” it. It’s a nice exercise in close reading, and starts a good conversation about anthropology and the study of other cultures.

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Getting Kids to Talk about Religion

One of the things that sticks with me from my adolescent psychology class, way back when, is that students need to take risks in order to learn. A skilled teacher, then, has to create an environment where students feel safe doing that–balancing comfort (a sense of safety and acceptance) with discomfort (a challenge to tackle new ideas, voice opinions, and ask questions). It’s when students are able to connect something new, an intellectual reach, to something they have already processed, that they are truly able to assimilate that information and learn.

Creating a sense of discomfort in the World Religions classroom is easy–students are constantly being challenged by the new beliefs that they are exposed to throughout our study. But creating that sense of security and a welcoming atmosphere is especially important in an elective class like this. Because students come into this class from many different grade levels and walks of life, there isn’t necessarily that natural connection and ease that sometimes happens in an 11th grade Honors history course, for example, where many of those kids have known eachother for years. That rapport has to be built, and that takes time.

The first thing we do is take some time to get to know each other–ice breakers, ice breakers, ice breakers. But we also set the expectation early that we will celebrate diversity in this room. I like to use www.polleverywhere.com to set up free surveys of the class–we can see, anonymously, what religions are represented in the classroom, what questions folks have about the school year, and their feelings on particular topics. Without fear of identification, student voices are heard. And, bonus-from-the-student-perspective, they get to talk out their cellphones in order to participate!

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Defining Religion

Last night, I opened up Zadie Smith's book of essays l"Changing My Mind" to these two thoughts. Perfect for this blog's beginning days.

Last night, I opened up Zadie Smith’s book of essays “Changing My Mind” to these two thoughts. Perfect for this blog’s beginning days.

Teenagers like definitions. And they like them to be concrete, printed in black and white text, unyielding and unchanging. So I start the year trying to give them what they want, while sneaking in loads of room for interpretation.

The very first day of class, I ask students to write down their own definition of religion and to try and determine a list of “requirements” that a religion must fulfill. Usually this takes just a minute or two, and as we share out I hear lots of ideas about god or gods, moral systems, and followers. I have them compare answers with each other, combining and refining their lists of characteristics. And then I introduce them to the definition that we will use for the year:

A response to the sacred in life, as shaped by institutionalized traditions.

This is a paraphrasing of the description offered up in the textbook we use, Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher, 7th edition. It’s a simplification, sure, and I think there might be a hundred more definitions out there. But I like it because as a class, we can break it down into 2 core parts:

1) A response to the sacred or unknowable in life. The questions unanswered by science or those mysterious, unexplainable happenings in the world.

2) Institutionalized traditions. Meaning there is an “institution”–the kids can think of this as a physical building, a community, or an organization that carries beliefs and practices on. This explains how religion differs from spirituality, how it holds on to traditional ways of living while evolving in modern times.

We also use Ninian Smart’s seven characteristics of religion to help create a checklist to use with various religions or ways of thinking. There is an excerpt here, for those interested. We use the acronym MR. SNEED (or MRS. NEED, depending on the day. These include: Materials, Rituals, Social, Narratives, Ethics, Emotional Responses, and Doctrines. A key point here is htat a god or deity is NOT a required component of a religion. This can be tough for some kids to wrap their heads around, but I think it’s important to address before we delve into different traditions. Using this checklist becomes an integral part of our class. When we discuss atheism, we compare some of the structures of atheism today to this list; when we study Buddhism, Judaism, and any other belief system, we use the checklist to review what we have learned. It helps identify similarities and gives the students something firm to work with, while proving enough flexibilty that we can sneak in some new and perhaps challenging ideas.

What about you? How would you define religion?