By David Ruenzel — March 01, 1996 25 min read
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Poll after poll has demonstrated that among the Western industrialized nations Americans are the most religious. As the English once believed in the supremacy of the British Empire, so do Americans--90 percent of them--believe in God. But the small yet growing numbers of public school teachers who teach about religion say religious belief, at least among their students, is as shallow as it is wide. And their lack of understanding about religion seems to confirm that.

“I’m shocked by their lack of knowledge,’' says history teacher Jennifer Norton of Argonaut High School in Jackson, Calif. “As a pretest, I asked them to describe three major world religions, and they mentioned Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And a lot of them don’t think Catholics are Christians.’'

Vinetta Bell, who teaches a course on “The Bible in History’’ at Enlou High School in Raleigh, N.C., says: “I was surprised by their lack of familiarity with the basic Bible stories--Jonah, Ruth, Esther, especially since most of them are conservative Christians. They have a superficial idea of what the Bible is, thinking it was the 1611 King James Protestant Bible that came down miraculously through the ages. They don’t realize that no one was walking with Jesus with a tape recorder in hand.’'

“I had one student ask me who the Pope is,’' says 8th grade history teacher Kim Plummer of De Portortola Middle School in San Diego. “It fascinates me how little they know and makes me wonder about what’s going on out there in society. I mean these kids have a hard time even understanding that there are people who actually have strong beliefs in something.’'

Listening to these teachers talk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something a high school kid once told an inquiring sociologist: “Yeah, we smoke dope all over, in our cars, walking around before class, anytime, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in God or that we’ll let anyone put God down.’'

Many Americans see a connection between this kind of moral aimlessness among youngsters and their superficial religious understanding and beliefs. And that, they say, is reason enough to teach students about religion in general and the Bible in particular. The Judeo-Christian tradition, they assert, embodies virtues such as compassion, courage, and perseverance--virtues that seem to have lost ground in a secular, pleasure-seeking society. Teaching public school students about the Bible can help stem the tide of what they perceive as moral relativism, conveying to students that there are indeed moral absolutes.

But a new breed of religion teachers emphatically rejects this argument. The point of teaching public school students about religion, they assert, is neither to proselytize nor to deepen their faith, both of which are patently unconstitutional. It is, instead, to expose students to the cultural and intellectual aspects of world religions. Without a basic familiarity with the religious beliefs and traditions that have shaped, and continue to shape, the world, their students will be unable to understand conflicts in Bosnia or the Middle East, or the religious impetus behind the civil rights movement, or--to cite a much more specific example--a speech such as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which is partly an exposition on the 19th Psalm.

Over the course of the last century, public education has increasingly distanced itself from religion. As early as the 1890s, religion began to disappear from textbooks; by the 1950s, it was possible for students reading a history text to get the impression that religion had played only a minor role in the shaping of American life. During the 1960s, a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions--now judged by some to be unnecessarily hostile toward religion--made teachers wary of discussing religion at all, in effect abolishing it from many public school classrooms.

Of course, in many respects, the wariness toward religion made--and makes--perfect sense. The first generation of public schools often preached, without much subtlety, a mainstream Protestantism, driving many Catholics from the public system altogether. And as educators well know, the establishment clause of the First Amendment--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .’' makes it illegal for public institutions to espouse religious views.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of teachers and scholars now believe it is possible to teach about religion without espousing a particular point of view. For far too long, they argue, public schools have claimed neutrality in matters of religion, failing to recognize that true neutrality requires not neglect but a balanced presentation of secular and religious matters. Ironically, they, too, take their lead from the First Amendment, arguing that its free-exercise clause--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .’'--permits them to explore religious themes, ideas, and history.

This last point undergirds a new program in California known as the 3Rs Project--the R’s standing for rights, responsibilities, and respect. As part of the program, public school teachers attend workshops where they learn how to discuss religion in the classroom in ways that strive to be both enlightening and impartial. Participating teachers say they are now doing much more in their classrooms to teach students about religion. Karen Clayborn, who teaches high school history in Orange County says, “The 3Rs Project made me much more aware of just what I and the students can do regarding religion. Students don’t lose their rights when they come into the classroom, which means that we can discuss religion, as long as it’s noncoercive.’'

Clayborn, like the other 3Rs teachers I talked with, emphasizes that her teaching about religion is not a whitewash. “I mention the negative as well as the positive: how religion was used as a rationale for slavery and to keep women in their place. And students need to know that we had a Protestant hegemony in our country during the 1900s that was often intolerant and anti-Catholic.’'

Despite the 3Rs Project, Clayborn says most California teachers still shun any discussion of religion, wrongly believing that such discussion is unconstitutional and dangerous. And if California teachers are somewhat fearful, teachers in many other parts of the country are downright frightened. “In Utah, teachers pull back completely from talking about religion,’' says elementary teacher Eric Holmes of Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan. “It’s on the edge--just not a safe topic. Some worry about indoctrination, while others say, ‘Well, if you’re going to teach about religion, you’d better make sure it’s the right one.’ ''

Holmes himself once stayed away from religious topics, certain that they would land him in trouble. Then a few years ago, he attended a workshop where he met Charles Haynes, a visiting scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, considered by many to be the leading authority on religious liberty issues in the schools. “I immediately realized that teaching about religion was something that had to be done,’' Holmes says. “Haynes convinced me that public schools are the last places in which we can civilly discuss our differences, religious or otherwise.’'

Just what or how much is taught about religion in the public schools is not known. Haynes, who is also a founder and leader of the 3Rs Project in California, says the most recent survey, taken in the late 1980s, indicated that 18 percent of the nation’s school districts then offered some course in religion, usually something like “World Religions’’ or “The Bible in Literature.’' But Haynes, who travels across the country working with teachers, says these numbers are clearly on the upswing. Bible courses, in particular, are “making a big comeback,’' he says, as more and more conservative Christians lobby for their inclusion in the public school curriculum.

Some consider this a dangerous trend, one that could lead to elements of religious advocacy in schools. Haynes, interestingly enough, argues the opposite: that it is dangerous not to expose students to religious beliefs and traditions. “An educated person is in better shape to be discerning,’' he says. “Students who know how humankind has struggled with the great religious questions are not so vulnerable to the nonsense and dangerous ideas spouted by certain groups and movements.’'

Haynes insists that an academic approach can be taken to teaching about the Bible in the public schools. In support of this, he cites a statement of principles titled “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,’' drawn up and endorsed by such wide-ranging groups as the National Association of Evangelicals and People for the American Way. One of the document’s principles says, “Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.’'

Twenty years ago, Haynes explains, public school teachers typically felt they had to avoid religious topics altogether, but many now realize they can no longer neglect them. The question today, Haynes insists, is not whether we should teach about religion but how it should be done. “For years,’' Haynes says, “religious con-servatives have pointed to the public schools and said, ‘Where are our traditions?’ And they have a point. Now I know that a lot of people say, ‘Oh, those conservatives only want to impose their faith.’ But I know for a fact that the majority of people on that side of the spectrum are just asking for fairness. They don’t want to go back to the days when the public schools were full of Protestant indoctrination.’'

Haynes believes that without some Biblical knowledge kids are cut off from many of the images and stories that have produced our civilization. “The literature of the Bible is great literature, important literature,’' he says. “You can’t visit a museum or read a modern novel and make much sense of any of it without some Biblical literacy. We cheat kids by denying them this.’'

But while the academic argument for teaching about religion is important, Haynes also thinks it is insufficient. “It’s dangerous for kids not to understand religion,’' Haynes reiterates. “After all, how can you defend the rights of people you disagree with if you don’t have at least some understanding of who they are and what they believe? To think for example that we can fight anti-Semitism--still a problem in this country and in many places around the world--by not informing kids of what Jews believe and practice is absurd. The only way to sustain the democratic experiment is for people who live and work together to understand their differences. This isn’t to say we’re going to sweep our differences under the rug or claim that we’re all really the same but rather to learn about one another so that our deepest differences don’t become points of conflict and even violence.’'

While Haynes favors including religious topics in traditional subject areas, another prominent scholar, Warren Nord, proposes in his recent book, Religion and American Education, that public schools establish a required course in religious studies. Haynes, a friend of Nord’s, calls the required course idea “a pipe dream’'; neither local nor national politics would ever permit it to happen.

Nord, director of the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina, complains that many people just assume he’s a right-wing fundamentalist on account of his required-course proposal. This, he believes, is indicative of the almost instinctive suspicion many people feel toward those who would have teachers present, even with complete neutrality, religious ideas in the public schools.

Nord argues that religious studies simply won’t be taught without a required course. “There’s just no way to get economists, biologists, or health educators to the point where they’ll take religious ideas as seriously as they should,’' he says. “Somehow, students need to appreciate that there are religious as well as secular ways of approaching such subjects. Religion has to be part of the larger conversation so that they don’t think that the only way to understand economics is to ask social scientists, or that the only way to understand sexuality is to talk to secular health educators.’'

He continues: “One of the most dangerous assumptions educators make is that we should teach our idea of truth. But being truly well-educated means knowing alternatives to your idea of the truth. For instance, conservative religious views have a sufficient amount of cultural vitality, and traditions that have strength must be taken seriously. So even liberal students should know something about why, say, fundamentalists hold certain views.’'

Nord tells a story that explains what he means by “alternatives to your idea of the truth’'--that is, secular truth. He recalls how he once attended a seminar in which someone from the school of public health started talking about research he had done on the effects of forgiveness on different kinds of people. Essentially, he had discovered that people with the ability to forgive are generally healthier than other people. At this point, a minister in attendance spoke up. What do you do, he wanted to know, about people who are taught not to forgive? Asked to clarify, the minister said some of his parishioners had been told by their therapists that they must never forgive people who sexually abused them as children. Among these therapists it has apparently become conventional wisdom that you don’t forgive people who have harmed you. What could someone in his position do?

“I told the minister,’' Nord says, “that he could always tell his parishioners to appeal to a higher authority.’'

Regardless of Nord’s advice to the minister, the new religious studies courses in North Carolina’s Wake County public school district, developed with the help of Nord and other scholars, go out of their way to avoid any suggestion of a higher truth or authority. The two elective courses, titled “The Bible in History’’ and “Religions in World Cultures,’' were designed to be completely scholarly in nature, eschewing what Nord called the “Sunday School class approach’’ in which the point is to shore up student’s moral beliefs and behaviors.

“Wake County’'--which encompasses Raleigh and surrounding communities--"went about this the right way,’' Nord says. “They got advice from scholars in putting a curriculum together, which helped ensure that it passed constitutional muster. And they offered the world religion course alongside the Bible course, so that students would have an opportunity to be exposed to more than just the Judeo-Christian tradition.’'

This year, the district offered seven classes of each course among the 12 county high schools. I met with Vinetta Bell, one of “The Bible in History’’ teachers, at Raleigh’s Enlou High. Twelve students were enrolled in her semester-long class, Bell said, most of them from conservative, Christian families. An ordained minister as well as an English teacher, Bell wrote much of the curriculum with two other Wake County teachers. She is convinced that, in the future, a larger and more diverse group of students will take the course. A number of students from different faiths have expressed an interest, she said. She intends to recruit others.

Bell insists that she can teach the Bible course in a scholarly and objective fashion. “I knew from the beginning that I could teach this course because one of my great beliefs is that no one can be coerced into any faith,’' Bell said. “And religion is an act of faith--faith informed by reason, yes--but faith nevertheless.’'

At the beginning of the semester, Bell provided her students with a document that she asked them to share with their parents. It emphasized, time and again, that the course is “about religion,’' as opposed to the teaching of religious faith. In part, it read, “At no time will I as your travel guide (i.e., your teacher) impose upon you a religion, a required religious viewpoint, or my view of the TRUTH. . . . Remember that this course about religions is designed to inform--not to proselytize or to denigrate or to negate. . . . This course is a course, in other words, not a FAX from heaven or hell.’'

Bell began the semester by providing an overview of the entire Bible, from the very first book to the last. She also explained that there are different Bibles--in the Wake County classes, students use The New Oxford Annotated Bible--and that different denominations read and interpret the Bible in vastly different ways. In addition to their regular writing assignments and tests, students are required to undertake a substantial project, which can be anything from a study of the historical Jesus or women in Biblical times to an analysis of the religious significance of a work of art.

I attended Bell’s class toward the end of the first semester, as students were wrapping up a series of oral presentations. One student spoke on the nature of suffering and what the word meant in the context of various Biblical passages. “People misuse the word ‘suffering,’ '' the boy concluded. “They think they suffer because they don’t have money or because they can’t get what they want. Then they blame God.’'

Bell asked him which book in the Old Testament includes the story of a wife cursing God on account of what seemed to be unjustified suffering. “Job,’' the boy said. Bell prodded a bit more about the nature of suffering, and the boy, who had stumbled and stuttered throughout his presentation, finished on a confident note: “For people of faith, it’s actually sort of a compliment to God to suffer. It teaches you perseverance and makes you rely on God all the more.’'

The next student presenter distributed a handout with two columns on it, one headed “Prophecies Of The Messiah,’' the other “Fulfillment In Christ.’' The point she wanted to make was that the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New. The Old Testament, she said, was stagnant, lifeless; then, in the New Testament, the Messiah arrives, and everything is colorful, full of life. She read Psalm 34:20--"He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken’'--which she saw as a prophecy fulfilled in John 19:33: “But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs.’'

“Every time I hear or read about the crucifixion I cry,’' she said.

“What about people who don’t accept the crucifixion or resurrection?’' Bell asked. “Jews, for instance?’'

To this, the girl had no response; she simply shrugged her shoulders and took her seat. Later, though, when I talked with the student, she was eager to explain why she had signed up for the class. “God spoke to me,’' she said. “At my other school, a Christian school, they were always pressing me on just what to believe. But here, I’m free to believe whatever I want to believe. I’ve learned a lot more about the Bible--more than I did at the Christian school--and can relate to it on my own terms.’' Summing up, she said, “This course has helped me understand why I believe what I believe.’'

It was almost as if Bell’s course had deepened this girl’s faith by the very fact that it disavowed such a motive. The absence of religious lobbying made her feel as if her faith were freely chosen rather than coerced.

Another student, who identified himself as a devout Christian, made a similar point. “This is the first time I’ve really come to understand what the words in the Bible have to do with my life,’' he said. “Getting unbiased information makes you and your faith stronger. It’s almost like going to the weight room and beginning with reps of 10 pounds and then increasing the weight every day. The more weight you lift, the more repetitions you do, the stronger you become. It’s the same with the spirit as it is with your body; you need to challenge yourself.’'

These students were saying that faith needed to be rooted in knowledge, which the course provided. But others said they liked the class for reasons that had nothing or little to do with faith. A knowledge of the Bible helped them understand more about Western art and literature. It taught them various ways in which to interpret a sacred work. A couple of students noted that it even gave them a sense “of what was going on in Sarajevo.’'

One student said “The Bible in History’’ class had shown him that knowledgeable people could approach with equanimity a usually divisive subject. “A lot of times when you talk about religion, it turns into a big argument instead of a real discussion,’' this student said. “People know what they believe, and they don’t want to hear different ideas, theories. So there’s a lot of yelling and screaming to get your point across. A class like this teaches you to listen and learn instead of just turning your mind off to what you don’t want to hear.’'

If most of Bell’s students were conservative Christians, the 25 youngsters taking the “Religions in World Cultures’’ class at Leesville High School included a few Catholics, some atheists and agnostics, and even a Buddhist. While the majority had Protestant backgrounds, only a handful considered themselves fundamentalists or deeply conservative Christians. Some had signed up for the course because it was the only available elective or simply because they had been curious; they hadn’t had the faintest idea of what to expect.

Paul Dinkenor hadn’t known what to expect either when he volunteered to teach the course. But now, during the last week of the semester, he said it had been an “exhilarating’’ experience. “Without trying to make myself look good, I think I can safely say that we’ve rarely had a day when no one had anything to say,’' he said. “Unlike some other classes, this one has never seemed plodding or academic.’'

The essential goal of the course, Dinkenor said, is “to promote core values common to all religions. Understanding different religions will make [students] more tolerant, more cultured, more aware of their own faith as it compares with other faiths.’'

During the semester, the students had studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian-ity, and Islam, visiting in the process a Hindu temple, mosque, synagogue, and church. I asked Dinkenor if there was anything his students were particularly curious about on these trips. “Oh, yeah,’' he said. “They want to know whose God has the power, if any one religion can really be the exclusive province of God. They’ll ask, ‘How can you really know which religion is right or wrong?’ They’re trying to reconcile in their own minds different concepts of God.’'

As far as Dinkenor was concerned, teaching students about religion does not necessarily make them more religious. In fact, he suggested, a careful study of religion and history might just as well turn students into skeptics as believers. He told me that in England, his homeland, students routinely studied religion in government schools, and yet church attendance in that country was only a fraction of that in the United States.

I caught up with Dinkenor’s class at St. Francis’ Catholic Church outside of Raleigh. A lay person was guiding the students past a series of murals depicting events from the saint’s life. One showed Francis giving alms to a leper, which the guide described as someone akin to a person with AIDS. “Like everyone else, Francis used to spit on lepers,’' she told the students. “But one day, he saw the error of his ways and came to embrace them. St. Francis understood the dictum of Christ: ‘Whatever you do for the most, you must do for the least of my brothers and sisters.’ ''

The students were quiet, gazing at one mural after the next. It was hard to tell if they were intrigued or simply bemused. “Did St. Francis have stigmata?’' one student asked, looking at a mural depicting the saint at his death. Yes, he was told. The boy then remarked, “St. Francis looks just like Christ.’'

Eventually the class met up with Brother Mark, who escorted the students through the church proper. He talked about the Stations of the Cross, the different vestments, and the various sacraments. “We use ritual and symbol to talk about what’s beyond words,’' he explained. Finally, a few of the students began to ask questions: Just what makes holy water holy? Are Catholics required to go to confession? What literally is the bread and water of the Eucharist?

Behind the apparent practicality of such questions seemed to be a degree of incredulity. “Are the oils you anoint someone with blessed?’' one student asked.

“Yes,’' Brother Mark said.

“What happens if you run out of such oil?’'

“A substitute may be used in emergencies,’' Brother Mark explained.

“What is the historical basis of anointment?’'

“Well, in the Bible . . . .’'

After Brother Mark had finished answering questions, I was given an opportunity to ask the students questions from a chair placed in the middle of the altar; the students sat in front of me in the pews. It felt a bit strange to be interviewing public school students in such a religious setting, but the youngsters seemed perfectly comfortable with both the setting and, as it became clear, the course itself. In fact, they gave it uniformly favorable reviews.

“I signed up for sociology, and when they put me here instead, I thought I’d try it for a week and then probably drop the class,’' one girl said. “I have never been a religious person, but I quickly became interested in a lot of the religions that at one time would have struck me as strange, even bizarre. But once you realize these religions have these long and great traditions behind them, everything changes. You see they’ve endured for a reason.’'

Several students thought of the course in terms of self-discovery. “I went to church on Sundays while I was growing up, but, for whatever reason, it never had any real impact on me,’' a boy said. “So I basically took this course to find out if there was anything I could really believe in. I had absolutely no idea what was out there.’'

Had he found anything to believe in? I asked.

“There’s a lot about religion that intrigues me,’' he said. “And I’m not talking about a specific religion but about elements from different ones.’'

All but one student said the course had made them more respectful of religion. The lone exception said the course had convinced him that all religions were superstitions. But even he said he had enjoyed the course and Dinkenor’s teaching.

“We can’t imagine anyone but him teaching it,’' another student said. “He lets us explore our own ideas. If things get real tense or controversial, he’ll even leave the room so we can sort things out on our own. In other classes, the teacher would say, ‘Sean, shut up.’ '' (Perhaps Sean was one of the atheists Dinkenor had referred to, or merely a bit of a prankster, for the next day he showed up for class wearing a T-shirt sporting a cross with a line drawn through it. Above it were the words “BAD RELIGION.’')

But the few students on the other side of the spectrum were just as enthusiastic about the course. When I suggested that conservative Christians might shun studying religions so different from their own--Buddhism or Hinduism, say--a very clean-cut-looking kid, identifying himself as “a real Christian,’' took strong exception. “That argument makes no sense to me,’' he said. “I come from a strong Baptist background, and one of the reasons I took this class was just so I could learn about other religions. Otherwise, it’s like eating one cereal your entire life and saying this is the best cereal. It’s unfair to say my religion is the best without seeing others. So if someone says to me, ‘Do you want to know anything about other religions?’ I need to be able to say, ‘yes.’ ''

While the belief that teaching about religion can help create a truly well-educated person is the primary reason teachers and scholars give for their insistence that public schools incorporate religion into their curricula, it certainly isn’t the only one. They also insist that teaching about different religions--and here they sound like multiculturalists on the importance of learning about different cultures--will promote tolerance in an increasingly diverse society.

The Wake County curriculum guide for the “Religions in World Cultures’’ course emphasizes this point, noting that the district, located within 40 miles of three major universities, encompasses families with a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. “What they tend to face in the typical American public school is a Judeo-Christian tradition that permeates the entire school curriculum, climate, and culture,’' the guide reads. “A study of the world’s major religions permits more inclusion of all students within the lifeblood of the school. Such a study also has the potential of creating a school environment in which everyone feels invited and comfortable, free of the prejudices that are sometimes associated with religious differences.’'

In her 1995 book, Kwanzaa and Me, Chicago kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley analyzes the subtle biases black parents feel their children are subjected to in classrooms taught by white teachers. One of them concerns religion. A father complains that many teachers think students who talk about the Bible and religious ideas are “fanatics,’' even though such conversation is common in many of the students’ homes. Paley finds herself agreeing with the father. She notes, “In a school such as ours, we are quick to think that religion-spouting children, black or white, come from nonintellectual backgrounds.’'

Black or white, religious parents are likely to abandon the public schools if they feel those schools are neglectful or hostile toward religion. And this, say some teachers, may be the best reason of all for public schools to teach about religion.

“Many more religious faiths are represented in the public schools than was once the case,’' says Karen Clayborn, the Orange County teacher. “And if we who teach in the public schools can’t deal sensitively and fairly with all religious beliefs and practices, it will cause the schools to become increasingly more fragmented. More people will leave them. And that’s sad because the public schools can be such a unifying force--a place where people with many different beliefs can be heard.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Revival


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