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Engaging in Religious Dialogue and Reflection with Middle School Students

Guest blog post by Caroline Turner, School Counselor and Respect For All Liaison at MS 890


The new middle school in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, known as MS 890, is taking the initiative to understand differences in a diverse neighborhood.  In conjunction with the 6th Grade Social Studies curriculum, we have been exploring the question: “What role do belief systems play in society?” We have been learning about world religions and how they have affected world history. One focus is on comparing similarities and differences across the spectrum of belief systems and the influences different belief systems have on cultural practices and current events.

To expand on student learning, Joseph Sixta, a 6th grade Social Studies teacher at MS 890, suggested that we visit religious sites before the curriculum starts to learn how religion is practiced in New York City and specifically in our Brooklyn neighborhood. Students at MS 890 come from religiously, culturally, and economically diverse backgrounds and we wanted to hear from diverse religious leaders to get some first-hand basic understanding. We emphasized on the field trip form and in the parent chaperone orientation that the purpose of the visits was to continue to embrace diversity, inclusion, and understanding and not to promote any religious affiliation.  A goal was to reduce prejudice towards different religious practices. We recruited 19 volunteer parent chaperones from a sixth grade class of 90 students.

We decided that starting with three monotheistic sites would be easiest for both student learning and adult logistics. Luckily we live in New York, so we had many different sites to reach out to. The three sites included an Islamic center, a Protestant church, and a Reform Jewish temple, all within a mile of MS 890. With the recent Solidarity March against Anti-Semitism and the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, our field trips were timely and poignant.

In preparing for the visit to the Reform Jewish Temple, our students asked questions such as: “Are we going to be safe?” and “Is it going to canceled?” after the recent escalation in Iran. We discussed the questions, which triggered teachable moments and underscored the educational value in making the visits. At the temple, students wanted to know why they had so many security cameras.  Other students wanted to know how they kept the yarmulke on their heads.  Cantor Snyder described how Judaism is both a religion and ethnicity and this led to conversations around the recent anti-Semitic attacks. The Cantor said that after each attack, attendance at services increases in a show of solidarity.  He then mentioned that his mother asked him not to wear his yarmulke in public because of the anti-Semitic attacks. This comment resonated with some of the student’s fears of safety while visiting the temple.

At the Islamic center, students complained when they were asked to remove their shoes, but they rebounded when they were greeted warmly and treated to donuts. Imam Saud spoke about his diverse upbringing in Bosnia, Germany and Saudi Arabia. His childhood experiences led him to an appreciation of all religious viewpoints, not just his own. Students asked about the clothing worn by practicing Muslims, and about “the women who wear all black and all I can see is their eyes?” Other students asked questions about halal meat, and many asked about Ramadan and Eid.

At the Congregational church, one student asked: “what was it like growing up in your spiritual or religious background?” Reverend Tilliard described his upbringing in various black Christian churches and conversion to Islam in his early adulthood. Much of his faith intersected with advocacy work around racial inequalities at the time. He eventually returned and was ordained in the Christian faith. The pastor described the influence of the church in various racial equity movements in the United States and referenced the Old Testament story of the Israelites rising up against slavery in Egypt as an inspiration.

Caroline Turner, School Counselor and Respect For All Liaison at MS 890

The majority of the students participated in asking questions of various hosts. Prior to our visits, the various houses of worship seemed shrouded in mystery and may have given some students a sense of discomfort or perhaps fear of the unknown. Visiting the sites allowed the students to gain a better understanding of the three religions and their common goals. It also opened up conversations between and among the students when asking about their peers’ different clothing, customs and beliefs. While the intended audience for learning was the MS 890 middle school students, all of the adults also had an appreciation for the learning experience in a realm that sometimes divides us but is seldom formally discussed in middle school.

To culminate the world history curriculum, our students will participate in a panel discussion with Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu leaders, and we are open to all others. Our guest speakers answer pre-determined questions such as: “Can you describe your unique experiences of growing up in your religious community?” “As an adult, what motivated you to do the work you are doing now?” “What is the biggest misconception about your religion that you want to correct?” Each guest speaker was briefed on First Amendment rules in the context of public education. Most of the guest speakers had been selected from higher education sources or through local interfaith organizations to ensure that they are well-versed in this interfaith format. We look forward to continuing to allow our students to grow and ask questions to prepare them to be global citizens.

Guest blog post by Caroline Turner, School Counselor and Respect For All Liaison at MS 890