How to Teach About World Religions in Schools

6 minute read
Wertheimer is a former education editor of the Boston Globe and the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance.

The slightest misstep on a lesson about the world’s religions—in particular, Islam—can cause chaos for a public school teacher.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take an error for such lessons to lead to national publicity and skewering. Teachers are facing a public both increasingly fearful of Islam and somewhat skeptical of educators’ ability to handle religion as an academic subject. If anything, teachers are entering a more volatile atmosphere this year, given how Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has helped increase fear-mongering of Muslims. In a salvo in his speech in August in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump continued his call to bar Muslim immigrants from the United States and proposed a vetting system that would include screening immigrants for “values” to keep out those with radical viewpoints.

As the school year progresses, teachers could learn from the experiences of their colleagues. Like the Virginia teacher who drew barbs around the country for asking students to practice calligraphy by using the Muslim statement of belief, known as the Shahada. The outcry became so threatening that the Augusta County school system decided to shut down for a day. Teachers before and including last school year also found themselves in the national news for letting students try on hijab or burkas, inviting guest speakers on Islam and for creating worksheets that asked children to put the words “same God” to refer to Allah and the God Jews and Christians worship. Allah is Arabic for God, whether the believer is Muslim or Christian or from another faith.

I reported on many such controversies for my book, Faith Ed. But I also saw how school systems recovered, stood their ground and designed ways to avoid problems they could control in the future.

Here are ten ways teachers can include religion as part of the lesson plan:

  • Just observe on field trips. If you plan field trips to houses of worship, be sure students, parents, chaperones and all other teachers know that the goal is to observe rather than participate in any form of ritual. Better yet, avoid putting students in a situation where they might simulate or practice ritual on a public school field trip. Go to the house of worship when there is no service in session. Advise tour leaders not to hand out yarmulkes in a temple, for example. In a mosque, students can dress modestly out of respect, but avoid taking the next step of requiring girls to cover their hair.
  • Pick someone neutral and knowledgeable for guest talks on religion. It’s tempting to ask a clergy member of a certain religion to give a guest talk, but clergy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, come in with a built-in bias—toward their own faith. Teachers often ask Hindu, Jewish or Muslim parents to give a talk, too, but how knowledgeable are they? Think of asking religion scholars from a local university.
  • Be an active moderator of any guest speaker on religion, including parents. When teachers invite guest speakers, they should be ready to step in if a speaker crosses the line from providing information into proselytizing. They should correct misinformation or stereotyping, too, if they hear it.
  • Avoid dress-up exercises in the classroom. For 15 years, a Lumberton, Texas, geography teacher brought in a variety of clothing, including a burka and hijab, for students to try on. It caused no controversy till 2013, but educators should consider this: When you ask students to try on an item related to another religion, it can be problematic on several fronts. It can be like simulating ritual. It also could offend followers of that faith.
  • Stay away from anything else that resembles simulating ritual in class. Trying on clothing is problematic. Simulating prayer in a classroom is even more so. Having students write out another religion’s statement of belief seems innocent, but writing the Muslim statement of belief in calligraphy is a religious act for a Muslim.
  • Know the First Amendment and what its Establishment Clause means. The First Amendment Center, a part of the Newseum, has a wealth of resources for teachers trying to sort out where the line is when it comes to religion in the public school classroom. Teachers obviously cannot lead prayer, but what about students? They can lead prayer, provided an adult is not the one pushing the idea.
  • Choose textbook, supplementary materials carefully. The Pluralism Project and the Religious Literacy Project, both based at Harvard University, are safe bets for teachers looking for good materials about world religions. So is the California 3Rs Project, developed with help from First Amendment Scholar Charles C. Haynes. But there are few K-12 textbooks that dig deeply enough or show the diversity within a religion. Ask yourself, How well does the textbook portray a religion? Does it emphasize the most orthodox, conservative form and promulgate stereotypes?
  • Train students how to talk about religion in the classroom. Look to Modesto, California’s, required world religions course for high school students as a model on how to teach students to talk about religion in the classroom. Teachers, as I observed while reporting on Modesto for my book, spent part of the unit emphasizing respect when talking about another religion. Don’t say, “Gee, that sounds so weird,” in reference to another religion. Try, “That sounds interesting. Could you explain more?”
  • See teaching about religion as more than just teaching the facts. Yes, teach, don’t preach. But educators can easily incorporate lessons about stereotypes. Use facts and common sense to explain why it’s wrong to say all Muslims are terrorists, for example.
  • Be culturally sensitive to the religions practiced in your community. While schools cannot give off days for every religion’s holiday, they can at least acknowledge them in a simple way. Indicate when holidays fall on the school- or district-wide calendar as a nod to religious diversity in your community and our world.
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