What You Don’t Know (according to Stephen Prothero)

I’ve slowly been working my way through two Stephen Prothero books this fall: God is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. While I’m using the first as a resource and referring to chapters when they complement my teaching, the latter I read straight through. Upon reading the introduction, I felt a sense of satisfaction (the feeling you feel when someone incredibly smart agrees with your point of view). Parts of Prothero’s introduction read like a much better written version of my course syllabus. As he argues for the promotion of religious literacy, he states:

…I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen. My purpose is not to foster faith or to denigrate it. Neither is it to advance the liberal arts or to boost high school students’ SAT scores (though these are both laudable educational ends to which religious literacy might be put). My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world which religion counts. (p. 15).

Yes!!! Like Prothero, I encounter huge gaps in my students’ religious knowledge, both in my elective course and as I try to wade through the American history curriculum. And, like Prothero, I strongly believe that increasing religious literacy is critical to building better citizens (and just better people). But while we agree on the problem facing America today, and I appreciated his scholarship on why exactly religious literacy has declined,  I do differ with Prothero when it comes to the solutions he suggests.

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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?