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Teaching About Religion in the Elementary Classroom

Are you an elementary educator? Do you need practical suggestions on how to explore religious diversity with your students? Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance are pleased to invite you to the third webinar in our series Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators. We are offering this webinar live twice—on December 3 (3:30 pm EST) and December 4 (6:30 pm EST). Register today to reserve your spot!

There’s a lot of misinformation on how and when teachers should include religious and nonreligious beliefs in instruction. The truth is it’s both legal and important to teach about diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs—even in elementary school. Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance will show you how during this beginner-level session. Elementary educators of all subjects are welcome to participate. This webinar will give educators the skills to:

  • Safely and effectively teach about religion and religious differences using critical literacy strategies.
  • Help students explore their own identities and the identities of others through developmentally appropriate lesson plans and classroom activities.
  • Modify existing lesson plans to address religious diversity.
  • Promote empathy and respectful curiosity and combat stereotypes, prejudice and bullying.

There are no prerequisites for this webinar, but you can prepare for it by watching recordings of the first two webinars in the Religious Diversity in the Classroom series, What’s Law Got To Do With It?  and Fostering a Culture of Respect.

Questions? Email education@tanenbaum.org. We hope to see you in December!

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

When Educators Understand Race and Racism

New teachers enter the classroom with many skills: planning, classroom management, differentiated learning, technology. But how many walk into their class on the first day with skills in their toolbox to navigate race and racism? Not many. And how many teachers receive professional development in this area over the course of their careers? Fewer still.

This school year, for the first time, the majority of students in public schools are nonwhite. Yet the diversity of the student population isn’t reflected in the teachers standing in front of classrooms: Eight out of 10 public school teachers are white. Simple arithmetic reveals why white teachers stand to gain from enhancing their skills in addressing race, ethnicity and culture.

The landmines are often invisible to educators who don’t share their students’ cultural backgrounds, but painfully obvious to students, parents and colleagues. Repeatedly calling a black student by another black student’s name. Seating students of color together by race. Discouraging students of color from pursuing college or advanced courses. Consider these experiences reported by African-American students in the Philadelphia area:

  • A student goes home and cries when he’s the only black child in his fifth-grade class and the white teacher reads “n*gger” and “coon” aloud from The Great Gilly Hopkins.
  • A student disengages from a history curriculum where black Americans are only viewed through the prism of victimhood, slavery and Jim Crow.
  • A student in an honors class works hard on an assignment, only to have her teacher question whether she did the research herself because it’s so thorough.

Each of these students entered the classroom eager to learn. Yet each left feeling wounded and confused because their teachers lacked the skills and awareness to foster positive racial identities in their students of color.

What becomes possible when educators understand race and racism? This question guided an expert panel of public and private school teachers and administrators assembled recently by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. The panel was part of a day-long summit to build racial and cultural competency among educators. Panelists offered valuable insights and reflections.

Teacher Expectations

Teacher expectation level is one area where racial proficiency can have real impact. Chris Avery, a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and director of a college access program in Philadelphia, points out the subtle difference between the statements, “You only have a B?” (conveying to a student of color, “I know you can do much better”) and “I’m so proud of you; you got a B!” (conveying that the student can’t do much better).

Felix Chen, a teacher at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, reinforced how a teacher’s limited perspective of behavioral norms can skew the student-teacher interaction: “I had a black student who was very loud and boisterous. It took a colleague to help me see how this young lady being loud could be viewed as a strength—to use her as a leader in the class. In my culture [Chinese], this is a negative.” Chen credited this “a-ha” moment for helping him better engage with the student and her family. “I turned what I first saw as a deficit into an asset.”

Climate for Racial / Cultural Competency

“There is a fear among white teachers to talk about race with white teachers and teachers of color,” said Tamarah Rash, a black teacher at Meredith School in Philadelphia. “But we have to move past that [fear]. To talk about race with students, we have to be able to have honest conversations ourselves.” Rash is building receptiveness in her school through shared readings, open discussions and peer-to-peer learning.

Like students, teachers need “windows” into the lives of others and “mirrors” that reflect their own realities. Windows are opportunities to observe and learn new teaching practices from others. Mirrors are critical friends who can challenge you as well as offer helpful feedback and guidance.

Rich Nourie, head of school at Abington Friends, offered an instructive approach for setting the stage. “When a white teacher is called ‘racist’ the default is, ‘No, I’m not.’ But what if you asked, ‘Why would you say that?’ The degree to which we can move from defense to offense and go deeper is a seminal moment. It’s the dynamic of known to unknown … where we can acknowledge assumptions and blind spots and connect with students, parents and fellow educators.”

And what is the fundamental outcome of educators growing in their racial competence? “Learning,” says Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

“The notion of care is the root of racial proficiency. I want to know who you are. You’re not fully caring for kids if you don’t know them. So race is something that we talk about. Culture is something that we talk about. Understanding that difference is an amazing, powerful plus that, if we nurture it, makes us all smarter than we can be separately.”

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

What We're Reading This Week: November 21

The Atlantic: Hundreds of schools across the country—including some charter networks—have embraced an uncompromisingly stern approach to educating low-income students of color.

The Conversation: This year’s National Book Awards could change the face of children’s literature.

Common Dreams: Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are seeking to influence the country’s social studies curriculum through their Bill of Rights Institute.

Huffington Post: School districts prepare for the Ferguson verdict.

The National Center on Family Homelessness: A report documenting multiple dimensions of child homeless in all 50 states.

Quartz: The Department of Education acknowledges that tracking perpetuates a modern system of segregation.

UNICEF: UNICEF has released its annual report: The State of the World’s Children, 2015.

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.

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 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 percent 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 possibilities for 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.

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