Program Takes Aim at ‘Religious Illiteracy’ in Classroom

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 23, 2016 7 min read
History teacher Maryam Wardak talks with students in her freshman class at William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Conn. She is among 40 teachers who took part in a program aimed at deepening teachers' knowledge about world religions and their role in history and society. The small program is growing as controversies about lessons related to Islam flare around the country.
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When Colin McDermott first started teaching high school history in Avon, Conn., he thought of religion as a “jack in the box": It would dramatically pop up in the curriculum every few decades or centuries—in the Reformation, for instance, or the Scopes Monkey Trial—but besides that it was invisible.

McDermott had never received any particular training on how to teach about religion, and it was easy to rely on textbooks for the basics.

In the past two years, however, his approach has changed entirely. His students now examine the role of religion in most historical periods. They have used primary sources to examine how religion influenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, they’ve explored different perspectives in Muslim communities about whether women should be required to wear veils, and they’ve studied the evolution of anti-Semitism in Europe.

The change was inspired by the Hartford Teacher Education Project, a small but ambitious program that introduces secondary school history teachers to the cultural-studies method of teaching about religion, which emphasizes the internal diversity of religions and the relationship of religion to culture, economics, and society. It’s part of an effort to address what the program’s leader, Harvard Divinity School professor Diane L. Moore, terms “religious illiteracy” in the classroom and in society.

The program is growing at a time when the question of just how public schools should teach about religions, particularly Islam, has become particularly contentious. In recent months, there has been a string of widely aired controversies: Tennessee’s legislature, for one, is considering a bill that would ban the teaching of religion for all students except the oldest high schoolers, after parents raised concerns that children were being indoctrinated into Islam at schools across the state. In Virginia, a district shut down for a day in December after a teacher’s lesson on Arabic calligraphy drew protests.

Teacher Preparation

But as the nation’s population becomes increasingly religiously diverse, tensions about how teachers should—or should not—address religion are flaring regularly, if less publicly, in schools across the country. In Connecticut, McDermott said, a colleague at Avon High School drew the ire of some parents after sharing a chart that showed that not all terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by Muslims.

The place of religion in the curriculum has always been a matter of some debate. Some argue that public schools should avoid religion altogether, while others would use schools as a place to actively teach religious values or practices.

But religion is an unavoidable part of academic content, especially in subjects such as the arts, literature, and history. In 2008, the First Amendment Center organized a consensus statement, endorsed by 22 organizations, that emphasized the importance of teaching about religions in school. The National Council for the Social Studies published a statement in 2014 affirming the place of religion in social studies curricula.

Video: Talking Religion With Students

Helping students make sense of events around the world is one goal of public education, but when those events include topics like terrorism or religion, it can be hard for teachers to know what to say. Calee Prindle, who teaches at The Facing History School in New York City offers activities and ideas to help initiate difficult discussions.

That puts teachers on the high wire.

“Public schools have political pressure on them,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington. “And the only way they can really answer those pressures is to get it right academically.”

Despite the pressure-filled environment, not a single state requires teachers—even those who are all but guaranteed to have to teach about religion—to learn about religious studies, Haynes said. And few districts and education schools make time to focus on teaching about religion.

“Here’s all this agreement that you should be teaching about religions. But no one’s actually doing much to help teachers,” Haynes said. That’s particularly troubling right now, he said, as recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and Beirut have raised concerns anew.

The federal government has recognized anti-Muslim bullying and misinformation as a growing problem and issued guidance to districts. Organizations such as Jihad Watch and the American Center for Law & Justice, which say that public schools are sugarcoating Islam or even attempting to indoctrinate children, have gained traction, Haynes said. At the height of concerns in Tennessee, the American Center for Law & Justice filed, and was eventually denied, requests with all 146 school districts for all curriculum related to Islam.

Haynes pointed to the recent controversies as evidence of the need for more education for teachers. In both Tennessee and Virginia, students were asked to copy portions of the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith. News media made those who complained seem “wacky,” Haynes said. But incorporating devotional activities, such as acting out practices or writing or reciting prayers, is generally inappropriate and not particularly educational, even if well-intentioned, he said.

“Religious studies has been marginalized,” Haynes said. “It’s not something teachers know much about.”

Context and Diversity

That’s just the problem that Moore, the Harvard professor of education and religion who leads the Hartford program, is attempting to address. The cultural-studies method she developed involves a deeply contextualized understanding of religion. It emphasizes, for instance, that religions evolve over time, and that faiths are internally diverse: Not all Catholics eschew divorce or artificial birth control, for example. It highlights how power and powerlessness determine which religions have influence in any given time or place. It makes the point that religion is not just an individual’s faith, but is embedded in all parts of human experience.

Moore contrasts that approach with a staple of many history textbooks: a worksheet or a chart that lays out the founder, beliefs, and origin of various world religions. That chart, she said, suggests that religions and their believers are uniform and that religion is somehow separate from its historical, political, and cultural context.

Jessica Blitzer, the social studies coordinator in the West Hartford district who helps organize the Hartford Teacher Education Project, said learning about the cultural-studies method was eye-opening. “I used to think [using the chart] was a safe way of addressing things,” she said. “But ... it’s in many ways an irresponsible way. It’s not a match for the complexities of what we read about online, in the media.”

Blitzer said teachers using the cultural-studies method often tell students up front that they will be studying religion in an academic fashion, not challenging individuals’ beliefs or faith traditions.

Tom Moore, the superintendent of the West Hartford, Conn., schools and a former history teacher, said that teaching about religion can trigger fear. But he said the cultural-studies approach prepared teachers to teach religion academically and have complex conversations with high schoolers. “We’re not going to shy away just because it’s difficult to teach,” he said.

Interfaith-District Collaboration

The Hartford program is a collaboration among several districts, Moore, and the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding. The interfaith group manages a five-year grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to support training for teachers in the greater Hartford area. Teachers are paid $1,000 to participate in a weeklong seminar over the summer, during which they study the cultural-studies approach and practice incorporating it into their teaching. They also receive a smaller stipend for follow-up sessions.

Teachers from 12 school districts have participated so far. The program’s leaders are preparing for a fourth cohort of 10 teachers, after which they hope to train teachers to educate their peers.

Though the program is brief, teachers and students credited it with transforming their understanding of religions.

Maryam Wardak, a history teacher at Hall High School in West Hartford, said the seminar helped her encourage students to question their assumptions about groups of people.

“There’s a genuine interest in it because of the diversity of our world,” Wardak said. The approach links well to the Common Core State Standards in literacy, which stress introducing students to primary sources, and to social studies standards’ focus on analysis and inquiry, she said.

During the weeklong summer seminar, teachers are asked to craft one unit. But McDermott, the Avon high school teacher, said he has since revamped nearly all of his units because of what he learned in the seminar. “If there’s an agenda, it’s that we want students to think critically and deeply about issues and to avoid black-and-white readings of history,” he said.

Samantha Waddell, a senior in McDermott’s Advanced Placement European History class, said that while that class touched on religion regularly, “when we have a debate, we’re never debating the doctrine or beliefs of a religion. It’s how it’s affected something else.”

Nate Steckel, also a senior, said: “I think it really helps us become more open-minded and not as ignorant. When you turn on the news, you never hear about normal people who practice Islam or Christianity. All you hear about is Westboro [the Christian group that has protested at soldiers’ funerals] or ISIS. In class, it’s not like that.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Conn. Seminars Tackle ‘Religious Illiteracy’ in Classrooms


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