Equity & Diversity Opinion

Resources and Strategies to Make the Study of World Religions More Meaningful

August 12, 2015 9 min read

The study of world religions opens doors to global understanding, empathy, appreciation for other perspectives, and much more. Yet, in most schools, it is not part of the regular curriculum. Seth Brady, a teacher of anthropology, world cultures, and comparative religions at Naperville Central High School, shares resources and strategies for getting started. And see more resources in the post from earlier this week on why you don’t have to be an expert to teach about religion.

Be sure to join #globaledchat this week to chat about teaching religion with Seth. Just search for #globaledchat on Twitter at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific on Thursday, August 13 to join the conversation.

by guest blogger Seth Brady

Studying world religions has a place in American education, but let’s admit it: too often its position in the curriculum offers little room for deep exploration and comparison. According to the First Amendment Center, US students are most likely to study world religion in social studies or literature classes. In these courses, religion is typically studied as an artifact isolated in space or time rather than a living, breathing tradition impacting diverse peoples and cultures. This is shocking given increasing global connectivity, rising migration, and the fact that in some states, more than 1 in 10 people practice either Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. But more than shocking, it is irresponsible as students miss a rare and valuable opportunity to engage varying perspectives and worldviews.

If done with care and the proper resources, the study of world religions presents an ideal opportunity for students to enhance global competencies, wrestle with ethical questions, and gain immersive experience. Here are four strategies and many resources to get educators started.

1. Use Self-Reflection to Build a Safe Space
Religion has traditionally been a topic we as educators learn to avoid. That is why it is important to establish the classroom as a safe space for students to wrestle with ethical issues, raise questions, and even share aspects of their own beliefs and traditions. Lessons geared towards self-reflection and student-generated rules are invaluable to creating this safe space and preparing for investigation. Here are a few:

  • What Do You Believe: This documentary film profiles a diverse group of teens as they share religious and spiritual beliefs. It is worth viewing because it gives a rare look into teenage spirituality. More valuable, however, is the accompanying resource guide, which features lessons on student-generated ground rules, personal belief writing, art assignments, and much more.
  • The Belief-O-Matic by Beliefnet.com: This 20 question test considers conceptions of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more. Following the test, the Belief-O-Matic reports what religion (if any) matches the user’s reported answers. A test is a self-reflective way to introduce basic religious concepts and help students realize the diversity of personal beliefs that exist even in the same religious (or non-religious) tradition.
  • The Religion IAT (Implicit Action Test): Created by Harvard University researchers, this test measures attitudes towards four different religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and displays a preference graph. Not all students will agree with the results or methodology. That aside, one important benefit is students begin to dive into issues of tolerance, acceptance, and bias in a way that is self-directed rather than teacher-directed.

2. Get to Know Your Neighbors
Diana Eck, director of the Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, is fond of saying that studying religion provides a good excuse to get to know your neighbors. And though neighbors may be as near as the next student desk or as far away as India or Saudi Arabia, connecting students with religious adherents is crucial to fostering global competence.

  • Student Speakers: Giving current or former students an opportunity to share aspects of their religious tradition proves immensely enriching. It provides the nuance, details, and teen perspective that are absent from most texts. The presenters also benefit from the opportunity to discuss their tradition in a safe space which is can be a rare opportunity. It is important to follow best practice by asking students if they are willing to speak ahead of time. Of course, let them know what aspects of the religion will be discussed. A panel lesson where students of different religious traditions answer student-generated questions is worth considering since students often feel more comfortable “in the spotlight” in these situations.
  • Local Speakers: Speakers drawn from the community provide important details about the daily experience of living as a religious adherent that are enriching and engaging for students. Contact local houses of worship, parents, and even regional speaking organizations.
  • Exchange Experiences: Educators who are fortunate enough to be a short distance from a parochial school have a ripe opportunity for students of different faiths to shadow one another for part, or all of, the school day. Teaming up students from different religious traditions on service projects, followed by structured dialogue, is also a worthwhile model.
  • Face to Faith (F2F): Created by the Tony Blair Foundation, F2F “facilitates interactions between students of different cultures and beliefs.” It helps promote deep cultural understanding. Modules prepare students for interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Plus, the organization connects students cross-culturally through Skype and blogging experiences. These experiences are not limited to humanities classrooms. F2F provides a broad range of modules and topics suited to fit into any curriculum.

3. Bring Ethics to Life
Studying world religions is an ideal way for students to examine how one’s worldview can impact ethical perspectives. Examining global issues, controversies, and dilemmas creates the space necessary to examine the nuances of the world’s ethical systems and translate learning into action.

  • PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly provides weekly news coverage and analysis of national and international events concerning the religious world. The site features a well-organized archive of videos and articles, as well as teacher-created lessons plans which can found by searching “for educators.”
  • The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE) provides educators with outstanding, turn-key style lessons and a bimonthly newsletter featuring a wide variety of ethical and pedagogical articles, as well as outstanding opportunities for teacher training. The site charges a small fee for independent educators and is marketed toward parochial schools, but is still worthwhile, especially for teachers of world or comparative religions courses.
  • You be the Judge: A Collection of Ethical Cases and Jewish Answers (Series) is a stellar book of hypothetical ethical dilemmas originally written for families to consider. This book allows students to wrestle with ethical issues in the same way that a rabbi might. Engaging students in an ethical discussion is a worthwhile end in itself. What is wonderful about this series of books is that it allows students into the Jewish worldview by providing a definitive answer to each ethical question based on rabbinic texts.
  • Issues Panel Projects: One of the most difficult and important tasks teachers face is helping students make sense of the relationship between religion, culture, and front-page news stories. This task is complex, as students will encounter a wide range of contradictory perspectives as they examine issues in print and electronic media. Using a panel project where students conduct, summarize, and present independent research allows for a wide range of perspectives to be introduced and wrestled with as a class. Here is an example of this project concerning controversial issues related to Islam.

4. Emphasize Lived Experiences
One of the challenges of fostering global competence in the United States is providing students with opportunities to develop real world skills in dealing directly with other cultures. But students do not need to travel out of the country to have these experiences. Studying world religions implies an examination of various worldviews.

  • My site, ReligionLesson.com, offers a growing number of lesson plans, many emphasizing real-life experiences. Lesson plans include several Lived Experience Experiments (LEEs), which encourage students to live out an aspect of a world religion. Example LEES include: Considering Karma (Hinduism); Kosher Weekend (Judaism); Following the 8 Fold Path (Buddhism); Living Quotes from Jesus (Christianity); and Practicing Sunnah (Islam). Additional plans include a Buddhist mandala project that can be done individually or as a school, a Christian parable writing activity, and a summative individual project, which requires students to complete a comparative study of two different religions based on personal observation of services and interviews with a member of the clergy.
  • The Pluralism Project offers a treasure-trove of resources to explore the religious diversity in the United States. In addition to providing opportunities for students to participate in ongoing research that documents and maps changing religious diversity in the United States, the site also provides search tools that allow visitors to locate religious houses of worship by locality.
  • Documentary Films that focus on personal experiences are more rare than one would expect, but when they exist with minimal narration, they are great source for educators.

    • Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotions helps students understand the nature of Hindu gods and worship through the actions and testimony of Hindus in India and the United States.
    • PBS: Inside Mecca follows the journey of several Muslims around the globe as they complete the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
    • 30 Days: Muslims takes viewers on the journey of a Christian man who lives as a Muslim for 30 days.
    • Jewish Law follows several Orthodox Jewish families living in Britain as they engage in rituals, rites of passage, and daily life.

Studying religion in our hyper-connected, global society is more than an academic exercise, it is a civic imperative. The time has come to provide students with meaningful opportunities to explore the diversity of world religions, to recognize their own worldview in relationship to other worldviews, and to translate this learning into meaningful civic action.

Seth was a 2015 Finalist for Illinois State Teacher of the Year and a 2013 Teachers for Global Classrooms Fellow. Currently he is leading the effort to establish a Global Scholar Certificate in the State of Illinois and operates ReligionLesson.com, a professional development website directed toward high school teaches of world and comparative religions.

Follow Seth, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image of Indonesian students courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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