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?

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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Teaching about Atheism Is Hard

Well, not so much the main concept: atheists don’t believe in god. Got it?

Let’s not move on so fast, though. In a country where more people would refuse to vote for (or let their child marry) an atheist than any other subgroup, I think it’s important to expose students to an atheism that is open and nonjudgmental. This can be difficult when so many of the big name atheists out there don’t aim to be quite so friendly (see R. Dawkins and his Tedtalk on militant atheism). Or simply do a search for atheists on Youtube). Atheism can seem, at the very least, cold and judgmental. For many, it seems to carry with it an attack on religion or others’ beliefs.

It’s also a hook–kids want to know about atheists. Especially kids raised in the South, in primarily Christian areas. They want to know about atheism in the same way that they want to know about Satanism, heavy metal, light drugs, and other things their parents disapprove of. And so I hit it first, just after we’ve discussed what religion is, and then think about what it means to live entirely without it. We also consider the rights and protections that religion has in the United States (thanks, First Amendment!), and debate whether atheism also deserves the same.

Morgan Spurlock’s show, 30 Days, has a great episode on an atheist mother who goes to live with a Christian family. It’s awesome–she meets with their bible study group, then they go visit with a group of Secular Humanists who describe ways in which they feel discriminated against. The two mothers bond over being mothers, and when the kids visit, they all head to a Christian rock show. It sheds light on the other things that make teaching about atheism difficult. After you establish that there’s no god or afterlife, students start to wonder how that affects the way an atheist lives his or her life. The woman on the show reveals an atheism that emphasizes morality, caring, and appreciation for this world. She’s relatable and helps us to begin answering those questions as a class.  Her statements, and the opinions of the family whom she lives with, always lead to a good discussion after the show ends.

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