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Believe It or Not

Editor’s note: This is the third post of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog post offered tips for promoting empathy during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs, and the second blog post suggested strategies for encouraging students to ask about different beliefs respectfully.

A health teacher in Seattle made this thoughtful comment following the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect: “Many of my students are from other cultures that highly value religion, and it has been a challenge for me to illustrate to my classes that everyone has a spiritual/values-specific identity, whether it is associated with an organized religion or not.”

The need to respect religious differences applies to the full spectrum of belief and nonbelief, from the most devout adherent of a religion to the most committed atheist. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is rapidly on the rise, with one-fifth of the U.S. public falling into that category in 2012. 

When developing learning environments that foster respect for religious diversity, it’s important to consider the experiences of religiously unaffiliated students. Here are four ways that educators can help such students feel included in classroom content about religion:

1. Explore How People Answer the Big Questions

Big Questions are questions that matter to all humans. They ask about the nature of the universe and the purpose of human existence. How did the universe begin? Why are we here? How do we decide between right and wrong? Are we alone in the universe? What happens after we die? Religion is one way that people have tried to answer such questions.  Science and philosophy are others. 

By expanding upon religious content to include discussions of secular approaches to the Big Questions, educators can ensure that lessons are welcoming to all students. For example, in an elementary-level unit on the origins of the universe, educators can introduce creation stories from diverse religious traditions alongside the Big Bang Theory. Older students can balance research on religious beliefs with an exploration of secular ethical philosophies, like humanism

So the same strategies that foster respect for students of diverse religions can be applied to students without religious affiliation. In short, educators can find common ground to create mutual understanding among students while still acknowledging and honoring the differences that enrich each student’s individual identity.

2. Highlight Common Values and Morals

It is striking how religions with vastly different origins and practices, from all parts of the world, share many of the same values and morals. For example, several different religious texts contain a variation of The Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity. Tanenbaum has assembled Golden Rules from 12 different religious traditions, including the following:

  • Islam: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Fortieth Hadith of an-Nawawi, 13
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” The Mahabharata, 5:1517
  • Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Other moral principles that are common to many religions include respecting life, helping those in need, forgiving each other and taking care of the earth. These principles can transcend their religious contexts and apply to secular living as well, so highlighting them helps increase the relevance of religious content to unaffiliated students.

3. Make Connections Between Religious and Secular Concepts

Students who do not identify with any religion can still relate to such religious concepts as ritual, symbolism and celebration. Educators can enhance discussions of religious rituals—formal ceremonies or series of acts that are always performed in the same way—with examples of secular rituals, such as graduation ceremonies or athletic events.

When teaching about religious symbolism, such as the meaning of foods served at a Passover Seder (e.g., bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery) or what the ashes of Ash Wednesday represent (e.g., contrition and humility), educators can promote mutual understanding and include secular literary and metaphysical concepts.

When discussing how students celebrate different holidays, educators can reduce the risk of marginalizing nonreligious students by including secular holidays like Earth Day or Peace Day.

4. Point Out the Diversity Within Diversity

Just as all members of a particular religion do not practice alike, all religiously unaffiliated people do not define their relationship to a deity/deities or to religion in the same way. The Pew study found that 28 percent of unaffiliated Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, and the remainder describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” More than a third of unaffiliated Americans characterize themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious,” and two-thirds say they believe in God.

Tanenbaum refers to differences within a particular group as "diversity within diversity." By making students aware of this notion, students are less likely to stereotype and make assumptions about their classmates, including religiously unaffiliated ones. For example, religious students might be less inclined to equate the lack of a particular religious identity with the lack of a spiritual or values-based identity. 

So the same strategies that foster respect for students of diverse religions can be applied to students without religious affiliation. In short, educators can find common ground to create mutual understanding among students while still acknowledging and honoring the differences that enrich each student’s individual identity.

Additional Resources:

Fasciano is an education program associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

How Does the TT Community Teach Thanksgiving?

You probably have vivid memories of school festivities surrounding Thanksgiving. Maybe you traced your hand to create a turkey-shaped masterpiece. Perhaps you participated in a school play illustrating a harmonious meal between the Pilgrims and a gathering of generic “Indians.” It may have felt magical at the time, but for social justice educators, this simple tale of fellowship and goodwill leaves far too much of the surrounding story untold. Some find it so hard to reconcile that they don’t teach about it at all.

We wanted to learn more about how socially conscious educators negotiate teaching about a popular holiday with a troubling origin story, so we surveyed the experts: the Teaching Tolerance community! Respondents shared a number of valuable titles that go beyond the traditional “first Thanksgiving” story. In addition to recommended online resources from the History Channel, Discovery Education, PBS and Scholastic, here are some of our favorite suggestions from the poll:

  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrated by Erwin Printup Jr.
  • Encounter by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Shannon
  • 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neil Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac
  • Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • A Different Mirror for Young People by Ronald Takaki, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

These titles point to oft-overlooked perspectives, especially those of the indigenous peoples affected by the advent of colonization in the “New World.” Thanksgiving offers not only an opportunity to clear up some historical mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving story and its aftermath; it’s also a chance to link the topic of colonial expansion to other national and international events, regime changes, independence struggles and migration patterns—factors that may even apply to students’ own experiences and those of their peers.

Perspectives for a Diverse America, our K-12, literacy-based, anti-bias curriculum, also includes texts that allow for students to consider the short- and long-term social justice implications of colonization. Look for these titles in the Central Text Anthology, and connect the anti-bias domains of identity, diversity, justice and action to your coverage of Thanksgiving:

  • “How the World Came to Be” (K-5, literature)
  • “The First Americans”(6-8, informational)
  • “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” (6-8, literature)
  • Andrew Jackson “Indian Removal” Message (9-12, informational)
  • “Rescue Mission” (9-12, informational)
  • “I Am Everyone” (9-12, literature)

The results from our poll revealed more than a desire to address the social justice implications of the holiday’s history, though. Almost 66% of respondents said they use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to focus on gratitude—a value and practice research suggests contributes to emotional and health benefits, including the building and maintenance of stronger relationships. This social emotional approach can also privilege the students’ own family identities, traditions and experiences by offering opportunities to discuss how families gather and celebrate the season at large.

As you consider the possibilities of addressing Thanksgiving in your classroom, consider diving into the historical, political and social emotional approaches. You and your students can still choose to enjoy Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the reasons others might choose not to. The educators in our community have done valuable preliminary legwork. Survey your classroom and pick a place to start.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

Introducing 'Civil Rights Done Right'

It’s no secret that the United States struggles to find common understandings about race. We live in a time when many white citizens describe our country as “post-racial” while black parents feel they must prepare their children for police encounters to protect them from being shot. This dissonance is both telling and disturbing.

For Teaching Tolerance, however, the message from our newsfeeds and our audience is crystal clear: The need for effective instruction on institutionalized racism, civil liberties, civic participation, voting and disenfranchisement, and collective action is more critical than ever. And it is almost impossible to learn about these topics without a nuanced understanding of the modern civil rights movement.

Our latest publication, Civil Rights Done Right: A Tool for Teaching the Movement, was created to support educators like you who want to equip their students with the content knowledge and critical-thinking skills necessary to understand our country’s past and connect it to the present and the future. It’s perfect for anyone who already teaches about the civil rights movement but wants to improve the breadth, depth and relevance of their coverage.

The tool offers a detailed set of curriculum improvement strategies, organized into five discrete steps. Each step identifies specific suggestions and procedures for building robust, meaningful lessons that cultivate a deeper understanding of civil rights history. The tool is an editable PDF so your revamped lessons can be downloaded, printed and shared.

Civil Rights Done Right evolved out of Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching the Movement Initiative. The initiative began with our research on how well (or, in most cases, how poorly) state social studies standards cover the civil rights movement. It continued with our curriculum-improvement resources: The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Movement, in which we offered a set of guiding principles and nine essential areas essential to civil rights education for educators who want to teach effectively about the movement.

We invite you to explore all these resources, and hope you will share with us the creative ways you use them to teach about this great movement for freedom, opportunity and democracy. Educators like you are the key to preparing a generation of students who will inherit our conflicting national narratives about race. We hope Civil Rights Done Right will help inspire better teaching for a better future and encourage you and your students to continue the march.

Children’s Rights are Human Rights

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?”

First Lady of the United States and United Nations delegate Eleanor Roosevelt asked this question of her colleagues at the UN in 1958. It’s a question worth considering today as we approach November 20, the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As we pause to reflect on the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty, it’s important that we look not only at its history but at the urgent need for human rights education for young people today. Do they have opportunities to ponder the question of where universal human rights begin?

The CRC was the result of a decades-long process of legal codification recognizing that children’s unique stage in human development is worthy of special protection under the law. The treaty is based on four foundational principles intended to inform government policy; these include protecting children from discrimination, acting with children’s best interests in mind, prioritizing child survival and individual development, and valuing children’s perspective in matters concerning their welfare.

The CRC is still relevant in our schools and communities. Myriad social challenges affecting American youth—including poverty and unequal access to healthcare and quality education—underscore the necessity for international human rights standards such as the CRC as vehicles for policy analysis and youth advocacy. It is also a valuable document to help young people develop their own beliefs about universal rights and responsibilities.

At TeachUNICEF, we strive to empower educators who want to provide meaningful opportunities for human and child rights education in the classroom with the knowledge that international human rights treaties have no real meaning outside the realm of our communities, classrooms and homes. We believe that the teaching of human rights fosters a sense of global citizenship and strengthens democratic values of inclusivity, equality and diversity.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the CRC, we invite educators to join us in building a movement for human rights education by introducing students to the CRC and educating them about the relevance of these rights in their lives. Our suite of resources related to child rights, the CRC and global citizenship offers ideas and activities for grades PreK-12, including:

In answering her own question, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” Eleanor Roosevelt went on to say, “In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. … Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Today’s schools are where that concerted citizen action can, and must, begin. 

Hirschfeld is the director of education for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, where he manages the development of global learning resources and programs. 

What We're Reading This Week: November 14

Al Jazeera: Much has been made of higher education’s poor track record of handling sexual assault allegations, but similar problems exist in high schools.

FunnyMonkey: This 6-12 lesson plan promotes critical literacy by having students analyze news media for racism and bias.

The Clarion-Ledger: Three civil rights workers slain by the KKK during Freedom Summer receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Edutopia: Tap into students' creativity, tech savvy and passions to help them effect change using social entrepreneurship.

Lee & Low: These 10 children’s books by Native writers are recommended reading for Native American Heritage Month.

National Public Radio: Five great teachers on what makes a great teacher.

Star Tribune: Every proposed suspension in Minneapolis Public Schools involving a student of color will now require the approval of the superintendent’s office. 

The Washington Post: Following requests from the Muslim community to include the Islamic holy day Eid al-Adha, Montgomery County Public Schools removed all religious holidays from the district calendar.

The State: Supreme Court ruled that South Carolina has failed in its duty to provide adequate education to children in the state's poorest school districts.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

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