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Promoting Religious Literacy and Respect for Differences: A Teacher’s Recommendations

An Interview with Chris Murray by Tanenbaum’s Kim Keiserman, Education Program Associate

In today’s multicultural, interconnected world, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of teaching about religious and cultural diversity.  But many teachers express reluctance to address these topics in the classroom, fearing that they may stumble into controversy.

Chris Murray is an educator who is committed to expanding his students’ knowledge of religion and religious diversity.  As a social studies teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, he has taught World History for 11 years and an elective course in World Religions for six years.  This year, Chris began planning a week-long, 45-hour course to train other teachers to address religion as part of their curriculum.  The course will be offered to 30 educators in June 2016.

I spoke with Chris in November to find out what motivates him to teach about religion, how he approaches this complex and important subject, and what advice he has for other educators.

KK: How did you become interested in teaching World Religions?   

Chris Murray

Chris Murray, Educator

CM: I first became interested in teaching the course because of my personal interest in religion and its role in history.  I was able touch upon religion in my World History class, but I wanted to spend more time on it–and learn more about it myself.  Once I started teaching the course, I was taken aback by my students’ lack of religious literacy—although they actually scored a bit higher than the national average on the Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge Quiz.  I realized that most students had never had a conversation about religion with someone from a faith other than their own.  I wanted to change that.

KK: Briefly describe the content of the course.  What religions do you cover?

CM: When I first started the course, I took a geographical approach.  I started with South Asia and covered Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.  Then I moved on to East Asia and covered Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism.  I ended the course with religions that originated in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i.  Over time, though, I focused less on history and more on the role religion plays in the 21st century.  I try to increase students’ religious literacy by bringing in polls [about current-day religious attitudes] from the Pew Research Center and arranging Skype calls with experts like Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center.

KK: What are your major objectives?

CM: I want students to not only gain a basic understanding of the major world religions, but also to be able to identify misconceptions about them and understand why these misconceptions persist.

KK: What resources do you recommend for other educators?

CM: Tanenbaum’s Seven Principles for Inclusive Education provide a framework for my teaching.  I don’t try to portray myself as an expert; instead I reach out to well-respected scholars within the major world religions.  I try to tap into the great expertise that is available out there.  When I am teaching about Hinduism, for instance, I use resources from the Hindu American Foundation.  When teaching about Sikhism, I go to the Kaur Foundation and the Sikh Campaign.  For Islam I have found good resources at the ACMCU Workshops and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Regardless of the subject area, I think it’s important for teachers to be honest about what they don’t know and willing to seek out great resources.  Right now, I am focused on getting conversations going through Face to Faith [an international video conferencing program that allows students to engage in cross-cultural, interfaith dialogue.]

KK: How do you handle incidents of violence in the name of religion such as the recent attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris?

CM: I want my students to feel safe bringing up questions about religion and extremism.  I want them to be able to express their own misconceptions without being labeled.  With regard to terrorist attacks such as those committed by ISIS, my approach is to help students differentiate between Islam and violent extremism.  My goal is to help them dissect these events and break them down into understandable pieces.  In any discussion of religious extremism, I think it’s important to expose students to the work of religious scholars rather than the rhetoric of politicians.

KK:  How would you handle parental complaints if you ever encountered them? 

CM: I would feel comfortable knowing that I am teaching about religion from an academic perspective, which is not only constitutional, but encouraged by state standards.  I would be able to stand my ground because I have the support of my administration and district.

KK: What would you say to parents in Tennessee, Georgia and elsewhere who have expressed concerns about their children learning about Islam?

CM: I would try to show that I understand the basis of their fears.  I would respond by demonstrating the intention of the course: Building students’ knowledge and understanding of the people in their own communities.  I have taught World Religions to 1,000 or so students, and I have never had one come to me and say that he or she has changed his or her faith due to learning about other faiths.

KK: What is the most important thing for other educators to know about this work? 

CM: First, it’s constitutional [to teach about religion.]  Second, you don’t have to be an expert, as long as you take advantage of the great resources that are out there.  Third, it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you’re continually reflecting and open to change.  For example, as I have learned more about Hinduism, I realize that some of my early teaching on the subject was inaccurate.  My teaching of Hinduism has evolved over time.  Finally, I would emphasize the importance of the subject matter.  We live in a world in which people are affected by religion.  Being knowledgeable about religion is not about personal spiritual growth; it’s about being a good global citizen.


 

We hope this will be the first in a series of interviews with educators who are committed to promoting religious literacy and respect for differences.  Are you a teacher who is working to incorporate lessons about religion and religious diversity into your curriculum?  Contact us at education@tanenbaum.org to share your experiences, insights and favorite resources.  We will pass them along to other educators!

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.

Families Have Much to Share

By Sara Wicht of Teaching Tolerance

Overview: Use these ideas to include the religious and nonreligious diversity of students’ home lives in your practice.

Many educators want to teach about religious and nonreligious diversity, but introducing content about belief systems into curricula may seem scary or dangerous. Some teachers worry that families will object to the content and that these objections will isolate or marginalize students. This was one concern we heard from our audience recently when  Tanenbaum teamed up with Teaching Tolerance to provide the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Middle Level Educators (the fourth in a free five-part webinar series on religious diversity in the classroom).

Because communicating with families about controversial subjects is clearly of concern to educators, we decided to offer some try-tomorrow practices to make teaching about religious diversity less daunting.

Ask families and students.

Make it a goal to get to know your students’ home lives. A questionnaire or survey can serve as a collaborative and respectful way to start a relationship between your classroom and students’ homes. To get started, create separate questions for family members and students.

Sample questions to ask family members:

  • Who are your student’s family members?
  • What are some important dates or events for your family?
  • What traditions or customs does your family practice?
  • What are some typical weekly routines in your household?
  • What do you want to know about what your student will learn in my class?

Sample questions to ask students:

  • Who’s in your family?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do with your family?
  • What’s your favorite family meal?
  • What’s your favorite holiday and how do you celebrate it?
  • What’s the most relaxed time of day for your family? What goes on then?
  • What’s the most hectic time of day for your family? What goes on then?

You can revisit the completed questionnaires or surveys partway through the year, or conduct a mid-year questionnaire or survey as a way for families to update previously shared information. Mid-year questionnaires and surveys allow families that arrive later in the year to share their narratives.

Think about additional opportunities for incorporating questionnaires and surveys. Perhaps you will ask questions on specific content prior to a unit that will address belief systems. Invite families to share their wisdom and knowledge, and include it in what you are doing. Listen and assure them that you hear their concerns.

Note: Because language plays a crucial role in families’ lives, communicate with parents in their home languages as much as possible. However, asking students to translate for their parents can put them in an awkward position, especially if relaying difficult or complicated information. Provide a translator whenever possible.

Prepare yourself.

Even when the best intentions are involved and you have done all the prep work, families may still object to the inclusion of content on diverse belief systems. Here are some suggestions for building inclusiveness and respect into your communication with families in those moments.

  1. Assume good intentions and approach all families or guardians as partners who want the best for the child.
  2. Share with families or guardians your learning goals and materials for including discussions about diverse belief systems.
  3. Invite families or guardians to share information about family cultures and traditions.
  4. Recognize and respect different family traditions. View linguistic, cultural and family diversity as strengths.    

Reflect on the role your identity and background may play in shaping relationships with families. Bring a sense of cultural humility to all interactions.

Connect to content.

Teaching about religious and nonreligious beliefs fits in well with the content-rich, text-based, critical approach to education that the Common Core State Standards envision.  Content-rich texts on diverse belief systems ground students’ reading, writing and speaking in specific textual evidence while building knowledge and academic vocabulary. Share with concerned families that their student is actively seeking to understand other perspectives and cultures through effective communication with people of varied backgrounds, and team up with families to meet the needs of all students.

Additional strategies for engaging families can be found in the Family and Community Engagement section in Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.

 

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

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree
by Marisa Fasciano

Overview: How to teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems.

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership.

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  1. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  1. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at Tanenbaum.

A flawed message from Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education

This week Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education missed the mark when they removed all references to religious holidays in the 2015-2016 school calendar. Following requests to include Muslim holidays, the Board voted instead to erase all religious holidays from the school calendar- conveying a message that religious differences are too toxic to touch.

The stakes are high – not only for Montgomery County but for classrooms across the nation. By choosing to ignore religious differences, these schools are sending a flawed message in three key ways. First, religious differences do exist and they can’t be papered over. Second, recognizing, understanding and even appreciating religious and other differences are key skills for any student who hopes to succeed in the 21st century. And finally, truly educated people recognize that religion is a force in society and an important identifier for many people – one that influences the arts, history, social discourse and even politics and policies.

By papering over our religious differences, Mongomery County’s Board of Education is turning away from its responsibilities to educate while simultaneously masking reality and stirring fears. To keep our schools from becoming a breeding ground for the bullies and haters of tomorrow, public schools need to help students explore and appreciate religious differences.

We call on the Montgomery County Board of Education to respectfully acknowledge the many ways the people in its community are different – and to teach their students that these differences are normal.

At Tanenbaum, our curricula, webinars and free lesson plans offer educators “how-to” guidance in building respectful classrooms that celebrate cultural and religious diversity.