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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Spring Rites

The Vernal Equinox has come and past, and although I hear it is still snowing a few states north of here, the buds and blooms around in NC. This year I tried out two new spring rituals–some self-education that will perhaps spill over into the classroom someday.

Homemade hamantaschen.

Homemade hamantaschen.

The first was an attempt at hamantaschen, the traditional cookie of Purim. Celebrated on March 4th and 5th this year, Purim marks when Queen Esther defeated Haman’s plot to kill the Jews of Persia. Apparently what originated as a fairly minor holiday has now developed into something more meaningful, a marker of how so many times throughout history the Jewish people have survived and thrived despite persecution. The celebration itself is joyful–in Jerusalem there is a carnival aspect as people dress up in costume, use noise-makers, and drink and feast. The cookies are meant to represent Haman’s tri-cornered hat. I used the recipe found on Judaism 101 (a wonderful general resource for information on the religion, from an Orthodox perspective), but there are many online. One of my favorite cooking blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has a few different versions–more options to try next year!

Right around this time in my classes, my students were presenting projects on different rituals and holidays in Judaism. Many of them kept showing Sesame Street video clips dealing with Jewish topics that they found online. I had no idea where they came from, but when reading about Purim I found the source: Shalom Sesame. An American version of an Israeli version of Sesame Street, the show aimed to introduce Judaism to kids unfamiliar with Hebrew, the show has a number of famous guest stars and your favorite traditional Sesame Street characters. Apparently, Cookie Monster LOVES hamantaschen!! The clip below was great inspiration for my baking.

The other ritual I took part in was far more spiritual, for me, but was also very much a physical practice. I read that a local Methodist church was setting up a labyrinth during the Lenten season and was opening it up to the public. I’ve always been curious about walking labyrinths: how has the tradition survived since the Middle Ages? What does it represent? How does the physical movement encourage reflection and prayer?

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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!).

Wu wei, the Pooh way, and New Year’s Resolutions

It seems like every article, blog post, and Pinterest “pin” I see right now are about which resolutions to make, or not to make, this year. There’s a lot of wisdom out there on how to improve ourselves. Usually, I’m quite in favor of New Year’s resolutions. I enjoy the opportunity to take stock of the year that has gone by and to think about how I would like to adjust my routine and ways in the coming days. This year, however, I didn’t have anything great in mind when New Year’s Day rolled around.

Even before the  New Year’s rush, I’d been contemplating meditation (or contemplation!) and been making some attempts to fit it into my life. I even downloaded an app, Headspace, that I enjoyed using occasionally to help guide me through that practice. However, I found that I wasn’t feeling like I really gained much, or gained enough to keep doing it on a regular basis.

And then we started our unit on Daoism. My wonderful student teacher has picked up my World Religions class, which gives me the opportunity to observe the class and to think about the concepts in a more abstract way. As supervising teacher, it’s less about how we will fill 90-minutes and more focused on the bigger ideas that I want to help her convey to the students. Glancing through my materials, I was reminded of the Daoist concept of wu wei. Continue reading

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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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!

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!

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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Mayan-gnificent!

I tried to make that title into a pun. It didn’t work so well.

This week I’ve been teaching about Mayan religious beliefs as an example of an indigenous religion. I found this wonderful website from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian to use.

Three reasons why it is fantastic:

1) It has several 3-5 minute video clips that are perfect for breaking up a lecture.

2) Each video has a PDF transcript–we used the creation story one as a reading in class, but also great for students with IEPs.

3) It has connections to a lot of great visual resources that you can use as well.

I definitely recommend checking it out!

Creation Story of the Maya | Living Maya Time.