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Teaching Diverse Beliefs in Homogenous Classrooms by Sara Wicht

Here are some suggestions for teaching about diverse beliefs—religious and nonreligious—in classrooms where that type of diversity might not be present.

After our recent webinar, Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, participants expressed concern about how to teach about a diversity of religious and nonreligious beliefs in a homogenous classroom. We feel this may be a worry shared by other members of the Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum communities and would like to make some recommendations.

Step One: Ask yourself, “What does diversity mean?” 

Our individual biases may include looking at diversity through a single lens. At Teaching Tolerance, we sometimes hear from teachers that it can be difficult to include multicultural representation in all-white classrooms. However, just because a classroom has only white students does not mean it is not diverse. Diversity goes beyond a single identifier.

Diversity includes multiple categories—race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, religion/belief system—and consists of the characteristics we use to define ourselves as well those constructed by others. Educators can effectively teach about the diversity of religious and nonreligious belief by teaching this content with an eye toward the multiple facets of students’ identities, visible and invisible.

Pointing out these multiple facets establishes intersectionality* as a valuable lens for educators and students alike. Even in homogenous classrooms, a focus on intersectionality helps build awareness of the many categories of identity that make each person and his or her experiences unique. Doing so fosters a culture of respect and prepares students to be respectfully curious about beliefs similar to and different from their own.

Step Two: Point out the diversity within diversity.

Being aware of the diversity within religions and belief systems is critical to continued learning about one another and the world. For example, as illustrated by a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Foundation, there’s tremendous diversity within Christianity. Christian traditions in the United States include mainline Protestant churches, evangelical Protestant churches, Catholic churches, Mormon churches, Greek Orthodox churches and historically black churches, among many others.

The diversity within Christianity extends even further. For example, the Pew study reveals 16 unique affiliations within evangelical Protestant churches and six within historically black churches. What we may have thought to be a homogenous belief system is, in fact, quite diverse.

Step Three: Point to the diversity of belief systems—nationally.

In addition to highlighting the diversity found within individual belief systems, it’s important to expose students to national trends and to the diversity that exists beyond their classroom. The students in our classrooms at large represent a variety of unique identities that are different from and more diverse than those of students even 10 years ago.

A 2014 Pew report indicates that, not only is the Millennial generation (the youngest adult generation, 18 to 33-year-olds) the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, but they are also less religiously affiliated than their older counterparts. Among religiously unaffiliated Millennials, three in 10 describe themselves as atheists or agnostics; the remainder say they practice no particular religion.

Step Four: Use texts as windows.

Another way to expose students in more homogenous classrooms to religious and nonreligious diversity is through texts. Texts can function as windows—opportunities to look into the lives of others, including the religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices of people outside their experience. As demonstrated in the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, conversations spurred by the voices in texts allow students to engage with new and multiple perspectives and identities.

One example of a text that can offer a window for students unfamiliar with the Hutterite faith is A War on the Peaceful. This story describes a religious group emigrating from Germany to the United States in order to seek religious asylum and practice their way of life in peace, only to be met by continued persecution. Another window text option for students unfamiliar with Islam is Zahrah’s Hijab. This story illustrates how preconceptions about religion can lead us to behave cruelly but can also help us understand each other better.

Additional titles can be found in the after-session pack for the Applications for Elementary Educators webinar as well as in Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 curriculum.

* the social, economic and political reality that identity categories and systems of oppression connect, overlap and influence one another

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