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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.

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.