Don’t Threaten My Religion!

By: Sara Wicht

Editor’s note: Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum produced a free, five-part webinar series on religious diversity in school. The Religious Diversity in the Classroom Webinar Series and accompanying resources examine how awareness of religious diversity affects global citizenship, and how teaching about religion across grade levels and subject areas can help meet important academic standards.


In the webinar Applications for High School Educators, we offered practical suggestions for teaching about religious diversity in ways that reduce prejudice, promote mutual respect and help students prepare for college and their future careers.

One concern participants expressed was that teaching about faiths other than students’ own faiths would somehow undermine their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

It’s natural to worry that inclusive teaching may be perceived as a threat to some students and families—but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Here are recommendations for maximizing those benefits.

Include Religious Perspectives to Meet Common Core Demands

According to the Common Core State Standards, students who are college and career ready actively seek to understand perspectives and cultures other than their own through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds. We want our students to evaluate multiple points of view critically and constructively. To reach these goals, curricula need to expose students to a variety of time periods, cultures and worldviews.

The Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards emphasize preparing students to participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners. Lessons that leverage perspectives from diverse religious beliefs and practices are an effective way to meet these standards. Rich, age-appropriate lessons on religion’s role in literature, history, culture, philosophy, politics and current events prepare students for participation in an increasingly diverse workforce and enable them to negotiate worldviews and experiences different from their own.

Include Religious Diversity to Meet Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Demands

When introducing religious and nonreligious belief systems into academic content, consider developing essential questions that focus on individual student identity, the value of diversity, the interaction of religion and justice, and how beliefs can inspire action.

The Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework (ABF) is one way to approach these topics. The ABF allows educators to set social emotional learning goals grounded in 20 anchor standards that can apply to a range of anti-bias, multicultural and social justice issues. The ABF supports prejudice reduction work through the Identity and Diversity domains, and collective action through the Justice and Action domains.

Identity and Diversity

Instruction aligned to the Identity and Diversity domains aims to reduce prejudice and help students—and families—open up to learning about worldviews different from their own without perceiving their beliefs to be under attack.

For example, you can align a question to Identity Standard 5: Students will recognize traits of the dominant culture, their home culture and other cultures and understand how they negotiate their own identity in multiple spaces.

A question to help students think about the world’s diverse belief systems might be: What part do culture and history play in the formation of our individual and collective identities?

This approach will help students position themselves in relation to diverse belief systems without having to rank or justify that position and without feeling their own beliefs are being threatened.

Like the Identity standards in the ABF, the Diversity standards also foster social emotional learning and prejudice reduction.

You may consider aligning a question to Diversity Standard 8: Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

A question to help students think about diverse belief systems using this standard might be: What are the challenges of celebrating what we have in common while also honoring our differences?

Justice and Action

The Justice and Action domains of the ABF also lend themselves well to essential questions that can drive student inquiry about diverse religious worldviews without causing students to feel threatened. These domains recognize that students need the knowledge and skills related to collective action.

The Justice standards aim to build student awareness around individual and systemic bias and injustice. For example, Justice Standard 13 states: Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today.

The Action standards work to build students’ skills and confidence to take a stand against bias and injustice even when it’s not popular or easy. One example is Action Standard 18: Students will speak up with courage and respect when they or someone else has been hurt or wronged by bias.

Communicate With Families

Strong communication between school staff and families is important in any school, and it is especially important in schools committed to anti-bias education. Set a tone of inclusion and respect through early communication and transparency. You can find suggestions for how to make sure communication is culturally sensitive—along with ways to include family and community wisdom, increase connections among families and use local resources—in the Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education guide from Teaching Tolerance.

Instruction grounded in these academic outcomes presents religious and nonreligious voices through a framework of literacy and SEL. These approaches reduce the risk of proselytization and, in turn, help reduce the fear some students and families may feel. They can also make learning about diverse belief systems a positive experience that contextualizes—rather than diminishes—their own beliefs.

 

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