Religion as Academic Content

Authored by Teaching Tolerance
Sara Wicht

The First Amendment defines the parameters of including religious content in U.S. public school classrooms, but teachers still wonder: What does religion as content look like?

This year, Teaching Tolerance is teaming up with Tanenbaum to bring educators a series of five webinars about religious diversity in the classroom. After each webinar we’ll post follow-up blogs to address specific participant questions more deeply.

The first webinar in the series, What’s law got to do with it? (and the accompanying after-session pack), helped participants understand the legal parameters of teaching about religion and provided instructional tools and strategies to ensure teaching about religion is constitutionally sound and academically responsible. Participants learned a lot about the legalities of teaching about religion and asked several practical questions:

  • What does religious content look like in an academic setting?
  • What is the difference between a moment of silence and quiet reflection?
  • Can teachers display religious symbols in the classroom?
  • Can a teacher talk about her faith with her students?

We’ll begin by looking at religion as academic content and address each of the remaining questions in subsequent posts.

Religion as Academic Content

These three approaches to teaching about religion can help clarify some of these questions and guide you in successfully including religion in your teaching:

  1. The Historical Approach. This approach is commonly used by social studies teachers. Historical study reveals political and cultural influences that are often related to religion. Critical to this approach is connecting historical content to contemporary relevance.
  2. The Literary Approach. This approach is commonly used by English language arts teachers. Historical and religious allusions are frequently used in literature. Student understanding of those allusions is an important element to identifying how culture influences literary style and text.
  3. The Cultural Studies or Traditions-Based Approach. This approach is commonly used in elective courses such as comparative literature or world religions. An explanation and examples of this approach can be found here.

In this resource, published in 2010, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) offers a deeper explanation of each of the above approaches as well as snapshots of what they look like in the classroom.

Here are a few classroom examples offered by AAR (reprinted with permission):

The Historical Approach in an elementary classroom

Mr. Y’s fourth-grade social studies curriculum focuses on North American geography and peoples. His students learn about the lives of native communities in the U.S. and Canada before and during the time that European explorers and colonists began to make contact with the continent. He is also eager to include contemporary representations of the communities he is exploring and selects a few for students to research in groups and to present reflections regarding how the traditions have evolved and changed over the years and how core values have been interpreted and preserved.

The Literary Approach in an elementary classroom (AAR)

Ms. X decides to do an oral storytelling unit with her first-grade classroom. Each day she reads aloud a Native American story from a different tribe to her class. Afterwards, she asks them to return to their desks and draw what they remember of the story. After several stories have been shared, each student chooses her or his favorite and is assigned to learn it and retell it to a friend or family member. Throughout the unit, Ms. X discusses differences between oral, written and visual representations and encourages her students to practice all three skill sets. Her students are exposed to both variety in the beliefs, subjects and settings of Native American religions and many different forms of literacy.

The Literary Approach in a high school classroom (AAR)

Before reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Ms. R has her eleventh-grade students research the life of Hesse to introduce them to his cultural context and the influence that led him to write his most popular novel. While studying the text, she introduces students to reading from John Strong’s The Buddha: A Short Biography and Strong, ed., The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations to give her students tools to compare Hesse’s interpretation of South Asian Buddhism with a scholarly account representing a variety of different perspectives. She helps them explore these diverse interpretations and how different genres shape perception.

Want to dive in and begin planning to use one of these approaches in your classroom? Consider these recommendations for getting started.

  • Allow substantial planning time to prepare for students’ questions about unfamiliar religions. Teachers who rely on personal religious experience when answering student questions are outside the legal parameters.
  • Evaluate units and lessons for potential religious influence. Create a chart that lines up unit topics and list potential religion influences that could be included. Once all units have been evaluated, assess whether a variety of religious and nonreligious beliefs will be represented throughout the year; if not, make adjustments.
  • Make it clear to your students that including religion in academic instruction is not intended to indoctrinate anyone with a particular belief or nonbelief, but rather to enhance understanding of religious and nonreligious worldviews that are elements of our society.

Stay tuned for more posts on What’s law got to do with it? and for the next webinar in this series in which we will examine the classroom characteristics that are essential to including religion in the content.

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.