Today, Benjamin Pietro Marcus, Religious Literacy Specialist with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, shares concrete strategies for building a lesson enriched by religious studies. This article builds on Ben’s previous blog, which outlined disciplinary frameworks of religious studies.
In June 2017, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) added a “Religious Studies Companion Document” to the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. This new resource outlines disciplinary concepts and skills used by religious studies scholars and affirms: “Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in an interconnected and diverse nation and world.”
In this article we’ll explore an inquiry method that empowers teachers to design units and lessons that apply the disciplinary concepts and tools of religious studies. This model builds on the arc of inquiry offered by NCSS in the C3. We will also demonstrate how teachers can enrich existing curricula with the study of religion and its influence on society.
The 7Is: Building a Lesson that Utilizes the Concepts and Tools of Religious Studies
The 7Is—inquiry, introduction, investigation, intersection, interaction, introspection, and informed action—make up an inquiry arc that provides a model for teachers to guide students through the application of the specific concepts and skills used by religious studies scholars to a process of informed inquiry. (Click to view larger image).
Below, I show how these disciplinary concepts and tools can equip students to plan rigorous inquiries and construct robust arguments. Teachers can imagine other lessons within the unit that more heavily emphasize concepts and tools from other disciplines to complement the religious studies approach.
Instead of switching between examples from a variety of potential units that highlight different religions, I focus on one hypothetical unit about race in America.
Teachers and students outline compelling questions that will guide inquiry in the lesson or unit. These compelling questions should translate students’ particular interests and concerns into broad concepts that teachers and students can explore. Supporting questions provide more structure by grounding the compelling question in specific discipline- and content-based questions.
Classroom Example: In a unit about race in America, a teacher and students might develop the following compelling question: Is America a white supremacist nation? Supporting questions that highlight the religious dimensions of the question may include: What is the relationship between race and religion in America? What arguments did religious communities offer for and against civil rights? Teachers may focus on race relations among Christians from1954-1971.
A lesson or unit might begin in earnest with a brief overview of the major beliefs, behaviors, and communities of belonging of a religious tradition. This overview introduces students to key vocabulary words used by members of a religious tradition to describe aspects of their religious identities. A well-designed overview will also introduce students to the three premises of religious studies: religions are internally diverse, dynamic, and embedded in culture. Teachers should define the disciplinary concepts and tools of religious studies that students will apply to their inquiry.
Classroom Example: To introduce students to the terms and concepts used by Christian communities to advocate for and against civil rights, the teacher provides a general, short overview of Christianity. The teacher directs students to read the “Introduction to Christianity” and “Christianity in America” essays found on the website of Harvard’s Pluralism Project. Students are asked to annotate the texts by identifying sections that exemplify the three premises about religion and the 3B Framework:
A lesson might continue with an investigation into one specific aspect of a religious tradition, whether it is a particular belief, behavior, or community of belonging. The goal here is to have students explore more deeply the internal diversity that characterizes all aspects of religion. Students will learn that they can select any one aspect of a tradition presented in an overview and find sources that discuss similarities and differences in the ways that members of a religious tradition approach that topic. An investigation might not only showcase diversity between denominations but also within them.
Classroom Example: In an investigation section, students dive deeper by gathering and analyzing primary texts by multiple authors (perhaps Catholic, Baptist, and Mormon) who present different perspectives on the topic of God’s relationship to humanity. This investigation provides the background for identifying the ways that Christian theologians in America offer conflicting visions about the relationship between racial communities, God, and civil rights.
Next, students will analyze the relationship between religion and politics, economics, and culture. Students will learn to recognize that religion manifests in private and public life, and that religious beliefs, behaviors, and communities of belonging do not exist in isolation from other aspects of culture.
Classroom Example: Students might examine the intersection of Christian traditions with race. Building on the previous section’s general examination of God’s relationship to humanity, students read passages from sermons written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Cone, and Bob Jones, Sr. about justice, oppression, and God’s relationship to racial communities. Students interpret how the beliefs, behaviors, and experiences of belonging to different Christian communities are affected by the social, political, and economic realities of race in America. Students identify the Christian voices that are socially prominent or marginalized.
Students might then examine interactions between religious communities, or between religious and non-religious communities, to analyze how religious beliefs, behaviors, and communities of belonging change over time. Teachers should provide examples of interactions between religious traditions, within a religious tradition, within the same denomination or sect, or between religious and non-religious communities. Building on the previous section, students not only identify the intersection of religion with other aspects of culture; they also describe how the encounter between different culturally embedded beliefs, behaviors, and communities can generate change.
Classroom Example: Students might study the ways that the beliefs and practices of Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu), and Abraham Joshua Heschel (a Jew), influenced the beliefs and practices of Martin Luther King, Jr. (a Christian), to gain insight into the ways that Christian responses to racial inequality changed during the Civil Rights Movement. Alternatively, students might read political speeches from the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement that utilize Christian rhetoric. This exercise asks students to examine how normative Christian opinions about slavery, segregation, and police brutality have changed based on the interaction between religious communities and also between religious and political communities.
Students ask themselves if and how the process of reading and analyzing primary and secondary sources, using the disciplinary concepts and tools of religious studies, affect the way they think about religion. This section allows students to articulate the personal or professional significance of the religious studies tools they have acquired and applied; it is not a devotional exercise designed to affect religiosity. After a period of reflection, students should communicate their conclusions regarding the questions they came up with during the ‘inquiry’ section of the lesson or unit.
Classroom Example: Students consider whether the unit has changed the way they think about race and religion in the United States. They write a journal entry, create a concept map, or design and build a three-dimensional model that provides space for them to reflect on their understanding of the relationship between Christianity and all aspects of culture.
7. Informed Action
Teachers might encourage students to consider whether the unit prepared them to take informed action in their communities as citizens living within a religiously diverse democracy. Students are encouraged to collaborate with their peers to plan and execute a project that responds to a community need, identified through independent or collaborative research, related to the compelling and supporting questions that guided student inquiry.
Classroom Example: A group of students organizes a project to educate community members about the history of Christian responses to race-related civil rights movements in the United States. They write an op-ed for a local newspaper and submit it for the anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Educators might add to or change this model to better reflect the needs of their students, but by using this model, you’ll be well positioned to apply the disciplinary concepts and tools of religious studies to your current curriculum.
Photo image provided by and used with permission of Newseum Institute. Other images created by the author and used with his permission.
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