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!”

 

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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!

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

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.

I call that a success!

As I was grading final exams, I came across this.

Question 1

Question 1

Question 2

Question 2

Not the best student, and in fact, a student who in his original journal post stated that he would be working to try to help me accept Christianity this year. Glad that I’ve helped him grow more accepting too.

#summersalmosthere

When the Course Swerves…

Sometimes courses, or particular classes, take on their own particular theme or direction. This year’s unit on Islam made an unexpected shift to include a heavy dose of media literacy, partly because we had covered Islam through so many current events throughout the year already, and partly because the students and I both recognized it as being at the root of so many misunderstandings.

For the past few years I have assigned a project about Myths and Misconceptions in Islam where students take a belief about Islam that is incorrect or oversimplified and work to both explain the source of that misconception and the truth they would use to explain it. Noticing flaws in what previous years’ works had resulted in, I decided to pay a little more attention to the selection of resources as students researched their topics–and in so doing I think I unknowingly planted a seed that blossomed when they turned in their finished works.

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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). 

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 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.