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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.

How Do I Ask That?

How Do I Ask That?
Sara Wicht

Overview: Encourage students to respectfully ask questions and make statements about other belief systems.

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog responded to the question: “How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?”

In the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect, one participant asked, “How can I encourage students to respectfully ask questions about identities different from their own?”

It’s important to remind students that identities consist of various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, family composition, relationship status, religion/belief system and socioeconomic status. We use these characteristics to define ourselves, and others often use them to construct an impression of our identities. Yet, these impressions are also informed by what we don’t know and by our implicit biases.

Take, for example, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center measuring familiarity and warmness toward various religious and nonreligious groups in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians received the “warmest” ratings. We know, however, that our classrooms also include children of Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faith, among others, as well as atheist children—children whose belief systems received “colder, more negative” ratings.

The Pew survey also reports that personally knowing someone from a religious group is linked to having more positive views of that group. The inverse is true, too. Not knowing someone can lead to more negative impressions and opinions.

These types of biases seep into classrooms, and it’s important to address them with students—through formal instruction and in moments when you observe students uncomfortably questioning or critiquing their peers’ belief systems. Consider the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Before class starts, you overhear a group of students talking about their weekend activities. One student enthusiastically shares that she had a great weekend at a church shut-in with her younger brother. Another student responds critically, “Weird! What would you do for a whole weekend at church?”

Scenario 2: In a unit on Mayan religion, you explain that native Mesoamerican people worshiped deities found in nature —the sun, rain and moon. A student in class shares that his family doesn’t go to church but are devoted to the Earth. The class laughs.

Scenario 3: Most of your students are Catholics or evangelical Christians. You have one Muslim student who wears a hijab. In class one day, a student asks her, “Wouldn’t you love it if you didn’t have to wear that?”

Asking questions about belief systems different from their own can be difficult for students. Insensitive questions or statements and defensive responses are neither entirely uncommon nor always intentional. But how might a teacher respond to the above scenarios?

Scenario 1: Tell students that, instead of leading with a judgmental word or statement, they can begin with, “That’s different from what I’ve ever done.” This type of reaction will help build sensitivity and respect and can prevent the questioned students from being on the defensive. Encourage students to follow up with, “Tell me more.”

Scenario 2: Deal with the laughter right away by stating that put-downs will not be tolerated in the classroom. Follow up with, “I think we can find many differences in our belief systems, but these differences add to the richness and diversity of our class.” Tell students that, instead of laughing, they could have asked, “What are some of your family’s traditions?” and “How do you celebrate the Earth?”

Scenario 3: Remind students that they can express their curiosity in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, they might say, “What’s it like to wear a hijab every day?” Or, “What is the meaning behind the hijab?” You can also encourage students to connect with their classmates by sharing similar experiences. For example a student might say, “I wear a St. Christopher medal around my neck because my family believes he protects us.”

Having in-class conversations about what constitutes respectful statements and questions can be a turning point for students. Not only do they offer students an opportunity to weigh in with any concerns or questions, but they also help build a respectful school climate—even when students find themselves in discussions about belief systems on their own.

Stay tuned for our third blog answering participants’ questions. It will address how to include nonreligious students in classroom discussions about religion.

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

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems
By: Sara Wicht
Senior Manager for Teaching and Learning at Teaching Tolerance

Overview: Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance share tips for coaching students during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs.

This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom.

The second webinar in the series, Fostering a Culture of Respect, offered ways for educators to help students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing religious and nonreligious belief systems. The webinar and after-session pack are available online if you have not had a chance to look at these resources yet.

Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question:
How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?

Hearing these prompts from you can help students engage more empathetically and respectfully during conversations about religious and nonreligious beliefs.

1. “Find out more.” Cultivate an inquisitive attitude in students by encouraging them to seek out information from a variety of voices within a given belief system. Ask students to formulate and pose open-ended questions. Here are some examples of questions that can guide research and in-class discussions:

  • What is the origin of the religious or nonreligious belief system?
  • In what parts of the world is the belief system practiced?
  • What are some texts that describe or include the belief system?
  • What are the foundations of the belief system?
  • How is the belief system perceived around the world?
  • Do you know anyone who practices this belief system? What do they say about what they believe?

2. “Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.” When dealing with academic content related to religion, students will encounter ideas about deities, time, the purpose of life, who we are as individuals and who we are as members of our communities, among others. These ideas may be hard to grasp or may feel foreign to students because they have developed out of many traditions, which are sometimes very different from students’ individual traditions.

Students may attempt to contextualize these new ideas by comparing them to concepts from their own traditions or cultural practices. Although this is a helpful practice in gaining a better understanding of ourselves through the exploration of the world around us, it is important they understand and discuss religious and nonreligious views without distorting or oversimplifying them. Comparisons not given thoughtful inquiry can lead to stereotypes and stereotyping. That means not making hasty comparisons between belief systems or using comparisons as the go-to way to discuss another belief system.

3. “Avoid generalized or simplified statements.” These types of statements imply easy answers such as “Islam is …” or “Hinduism means … ” or “Atheists think … ” Instead, when discussing religious and nonreligious beliefs with students, remind them that religions are internally diverse, dynamic and embedded in culture. Use sources that reflect and provide examples of these qualities.

Students can practice being more nuanced in their thinking by articulating the subtleties they see. For example, they might say, “This text presents Islam as …” or “The author here indicates that … ” Many religious traditions use storytelling to illustrate central concepts, such as parables in Christianity or Native American oral histories. These can also be great sources for literacy instruction on imagery, symbolism and allusion—and help students to point to nuances in meaning, interpretation and practice.

4. “See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.” If students are critical of all or part of a particular belief system because it contradicts their values, ask them to find out more about how different adherents of that belief system criticize or propose changing the religion or practices in question. Emphasize, too, that religious and nonreligious belief systems are internally diverse. In Hinduism, for example, some have a personal god and others deny the presence of a deity. Find diverse voices from within the belief system being explored.

5. “Be honest about the limits of our understanding.” Acknowledge and help students to accept that there are limits to our understanding about belief systems. While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives. It’s also important not to turn individual students into spokespersons of particular religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Stay tuned for additional follow-up blogs that address participants’ questions. The next one will answer this question: How can I respectfully ask questions about identities different from my own?

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