Teaching Religion in the Secular Classroom: Tools from the New York Public Library

In our work at Tanenbaum, we regularly come across public school educators who believe that they are not supposed to talk about religion in the classroom. On the contrary, we feel that teachers can and should teach about religion.

In fact, the American Academy of Religion recently published its Guidelines for Teaching about Religion because religion is embedded in curriculum standards across disciplines, and religious illiteracy fuels prejudice and antagonism, hindering efforts at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence and global citizenship. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated: “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
 
That's why we feel it is heartening to see how many students have participated in The New York Public Library's "Faith on the Street" photography project, which is an off-shoot of its current exhibition, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, now on display at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street.

Inviting the public to submit photographs of contemporary expressions of faith and religion in New York City to the "Faith on the Street" gallery helps to normalize the inclusion of religion in how we view ourselves and society. It is just this kind of practical application that we at Tanenbaum believe is necessary to work toward the vision that people of all beliefs, from the most religiously devout to the most committed atheist, can live, learn, and work peacefully together in a spirit of true respect.

“Faith on the Street” is a fantastic example of how religion and faith can be brought into the secular classroom. As a class assignment, the project can act as a catalyst to valuable classroom conversations and stimulating curiosity, by allowing the students to personalize the experience as they are the artist and witness to whatever they choose to photograph.

"Faith on the Street" is also a useful tool for teachers even if students don't go out to take their own photographs. Whether or not students submit their own work, it is certainly worth it for young people to view the gallery to spur conversations about the ways that religion and faith−broadly defined– appear all around us.

 
What’s wonderful about the gallery is that faith is interpreted in many ways. A couple of entrants submitted photos of their siblings and friends with moving captions explaining where the student saw faith in this. There is also a photo of Halloween as well as many traditional images of religion. Questions educators could consider asking after viewing the gallery could be: How do you see faith represented in this picture? What do people consider faith to be? What is considered religion? What faiths and religions were represented in these photos? Which weren’t? How do we see atheism and agnosticism represented in contemporary society?

It is imperative that educators and students are able to have conversations that include religion as an aspect of culture. The New York Public Library, through the Three Faiths exhibit and the “Faith on the Street” project, has provided a wonderful lens through which to explore these topics.

A version of this post has appeared on the NYPL website.

On Feb. 5, Tanenbaum, The New York Public Library, and Facing History and Ourselves will host a free educator workshop examining religious tolerance historically and in the contemporary classroom. The workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (registration begins at 9:30 a.m.) at NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Please RSVP at education@tanenbaum.org.

Facing History and Ourselves will begin the conference by looking at religious tolerance in America’s early years based on a 1790 letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Building on this, Tanenbaum will address current issues of religion and religious freedom in the classroom using our "Seven Principles for Inclusive Education." At the end of the workshop, participants will have an opportunity to enhance their learning by exploring the Library’s exhibition Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

Previously, Tanenbaum joined The New York Public Library for a panel discussion called "Teaching the Sacred in the Secular Classroom" held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Oct. 26, 2010.