Taking (Public School) Teachers to Church, and the Mosque, and the Temple…

Last month Kevin Childress (social media manager of The Interfaith Center of NY) followed twenty-five public school teachers from across the U.S. for three weeks as they went from mosque to Hindu temple to Baptist church in search of new ways to educate young Americans about religious diversity.

No, not a reality TV show, as Kevin joked, but part of a program called  “Religious Worlds of New York: Teaching the Everyday Life of American Religious Diversity.”

Intrigued, we asked him to tell us more about it.

RD:  A great idea, this program. Who is behind it?

Kevin Childress: The Institute is co-sponsored by The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) and Union Theological Seminary, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  But the ideas that shaped the Institute came from Dr. Henry Goldschmidt, who is the Director of Education Programs at ICNY.

From 2002-2010, ICNY offered one-week courses for teachers.  That course was short, but it already contained the core ideas which would form the current three-week institute, of how to bring “lived religion” into the classroom. “Lived religion,” as my colleague (and Institute director) Dr. Henry Goldschmidt explains it, is the study of “popular beliefs and practices, in addition to canonical texts and rituals.”

This requires students to not just memorize dates and doctrines, but come to understand how a person’s faith determines much about their self-identity and relationship with others. And that is accomplished through experiential and immersive personal interaction. The Institute explores lived religion in much the same way the teachers might do it in their classrooms: by inviting people into the classroom to speak about their faiths, and by visiting local sites that are important to faith communities—all the while focused on keeping to an academic, “outsider” (and not devotional, “insider”) perspective.

To those of who report on religion and its role in society and culture, it seems clear that a solid education should include the study of religion(s). And yet there’s some confusion about what it means to teach religion as a subject. How has that come up with regard to this initiative?

It’s amazing how many people are surprised to learn that religion is being taught about in public schools. But it needs to be recognized that religion is an inescapably intrinsic factor in academic subjects like science (think Galileo, Darwin), art and music (Bach, da Vinci), world history (Crusades, Protestant Reformation) and American history (Revolution, Civil Rights Movement).

And a subject you really can’t teach without including religion is social studies, which incorporates politics, sociology, economics and psychology.

What kinds of objections do people raise when they realize that you’re talking about public schools here? 

Many people react to the idea of teaching about religion in public schools with alarm, suspecting it violates church/state separation. Teachers often encounter this reaction, and it’s one issue that is addressed at the very beginning of the Institute.

The first session on the first day was led by Dr. Charles C. Haynes, who is the director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.  As he explained it, there is an essential distinction to understand, between “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion.”

This distinction began to emerge in the 1960’s, when legal battles over school prayer made their way to the Supreme Court.  While ultimately ruling teacher-led prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools unconstitutional, the Supreme Court affirmed that teaching about religion as a secular, academic subject is “an essential part of a well-rounded education.”

Since that time, school systems around the country have helped define the difference between “academic study” and “devotional practice” of religion. “Expose but do not impose,” is one oft-repeated directive of the new understanding.

Learning this distinction is one of the tools teachers in the Institute have added to their toolkit, empowering them to respond to people on the church/state issue.  Now they know how to respond to that.

What kinds of stories, hopes, and concerns did the participating teachers bring with them? And what do you think they took away?

Early in the Institute, we examined some case studies of when a teacher, student or guest in a classroom “crossed the line” of academic study of religion.

This prompted teachers to share their own stories of when similar things happened in their school districts.

One teacher described feeling uncomfortable because the teacher meetings in her school always commence with a prayer. A common story was witnessing students of religious minorities being bullied. Many of their stories simply showed their uncertainty of what to do when questionable situations arise.  Several of them said there was no one in their school system who was championing the issue of teaching about religion, and that they were hoping to take on that role themselves.

I think those teachers came to the Institute to obtain the tools they will need to be pioneers in this field. As the Institute was drawing to a close this week, teachers talked about what they have learned here. They clearly have developed the language to defend the constitutionality of teaching about religion in schools.  They talked about changes they intended to make in their curricula, and projected expansions of their programs to eventually encompass the entire school district.

Were the teachers themselves surprised by any of what they saw of religious life in New York City?

At one point in the Institute, the classroom discussion and site visit merged in an unexpected and amazing way, when African Diaspora faith leaders spoke with the teachers, and a leading New York Houngan (Vodou priest) performed a vévé ritual. Many teachers remarked later that it would be inconceivable to bring such a ritual into their classrooms, but that the experience of witnessing it themselves was revelatory.

Amy Frost Boyd, of the Social Studies Department at KAPPA International High School in the Bronx said: “Stepping outside my zone of familiarity has been useful. It makes me mindful of the feelings of awkwardness and confusion that my students feel whenever I begin to teach them about faiths they don’t know anything about.”

And Suki Highers, a Social Studies teacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas said: “It blew my mind. Overnight, I am completely re-thinking my class curriculum.”

So during this program, teachers experienced religious practices up close and personal. But what happens when a teacher goes home and tries to take her class to the local Shinto shrine or synagogue?

These teachers came from all over the U.S. – from the deep South, the Midwest, both coasts, big cities, small communities, demographics all very different.  So you can imagine that when we ask them this very question, their answers were diverse.

The “field trip” method of taking students to visit a house of worship was controversial for these teachers.  A few of them have already been doing this, and some of them are wanting to try.  They discerned that the challenge is to insure that everyone – the students, the chaperones, the hosts – understand that this is a visit for academic study, period. There can be no proselytization. There can be no discussions of whether a doctrine is right or wrong, good or bad. They are simply there to learn what people of that faith community believe and practice, and how that affects their role as members of the larger community.

They talked about how important it is to discuss and plan everything very clearly with the hosts, as well as about giving students some kind of assignment ahead of time, to prompt the students to view their experience through the all-important academic lens.

But some teachers simply said that the immersive practice of a field trip just is not within the realm of possibility in their environment—yet.


  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    There is a concern about this type of program that the “teaching about religion” could easily morph into “teaching religion.” Personally, I’d prefer to leave religion outside of the curriculum altogether.That’s one hell of a slippery slope.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Just don’t let Hobby Lobby write the Bible textbook.

    Otherwise, I think demystifying “other” religions would be more of a bonus for the freethought movement, and good for helping religious people get along. Some people need to realize how special they aren’t afterall.

  • kelleydf@missouri.edu' Dennis Kelley says:

    i teach religious studies at the university level and it’s amazing how clueless students are about the traditions that make up the American religious landscape. i have had kids confused about the difference between Muslims and Islam, thinking they were different. for my money, no better way to promote compassion and understanding than through education. though i do think there are potential issues if there isn’t proper oversight, i live in the Bible Belt, and i can see some teachers in smaller schools in rural districts using the curriculum to teach the “right” religion by showing the dangers of the “wrong” ones…a small town with no alternates to evangelical Protestantism would be at the mercy of individual teachers to talk about the religions of “the other” with respect.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    And to carry that a bit farther, I don’t think the educators have thought this out very well. Religion tends to be full of contradictions and embarrasing history that many people won’t want to be discussed or questioned. Of course every time there are things that some people don’t want discussed, there are others who do want them discussed. Christianity could end up being the important target here. It wouldn’t matter much if minority religions or other religions from around the world are questioned, but that means Christianity can also be questioned. Christianity is full of things they wouldn’t want said in class. But these things can be said without judging right or wrong, or true or false. They can just be questioned, and issues mentioned, not by teachers who would have to be concerned about their jobs, but by students. Most students wouldn’t want to say things that Christianity doesn’t want said, but perhaps one in 100 students might want to, and in this class you can’t stop them as long as they don’t make any accusations about right or wrong or true or false. If any students would like to ask the questions, but they aren’t sure what to ask for maximum impact, they could ask here on RD and we could help them know what to say.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    There are teachers currently who try to smuggle in religion in history and biology classes. These are relatively easy to detect. Imagine how much propaganda they could deliver if they were teaching an actual religion.class.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Having well-informed teachers is crucial. Because otherwise, the facts may be disputed. Religious people do try to change history sometimes.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    There’s definitely potential for problems, but I like the field trip idea. I bet its a lot easier to be scared of a mosque if you’ve never been to one.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    I agree that, potentially, it is a good idea. Properly taught, comparative religion can be most informative. I just get nervous about the abundant possibilities for the process to be misappropriated.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    That is all God’s fault. Religion is supposed to be about God, and if God would only give the religions just a little bit of help all those problems could go away.

  • jjduffin@gmail.com' hockeydog says:

    God? Which God? There are over 10,000 registered Gods. Could you be more specific?
    Youtube: The complete idiot’s guide to atheism.
    You are welcome.

  • mmartha48@gmail.com' Murmur1 says:

    “Christianity could end up being the important target here”? Why should there be a “target” at all?

  • mmartha48@gmail.com' Murmur1 says:

    I share your concerns. There are many areas in the U.S. where the population is not diverse, religiously or otherwise. Distances and budgets limit field trips. School boards are not always made up of educated or open-minded people, so teachers are well aware of the dangers they may face when teaching about controversial topics. And there are many parents who don’t want their children to learn about other religions than their own. (It puts me in mind of the time I showed “Nanook of the North” to a class of ninth graders and the minister’s daughter who burst into tears when she realized Nanook had two wives! She didn’t know there were cultures that practiced polygamy!)

    Even teaching “critical thinking skills” (not specifically about religion) is a challenge in some areas of the country. And you are completely right that individual teachers don’t always stick to the planned curriculum. Teachers should be required to have the kind of training described in the article before teaching about religions, for their own well-being as well as that of the children.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    If Christianity is going to be discussed in school, then we need to know if there are any logic flaws in the religion so that they can be corrected. This must be done by the students because religion is by its nature a coverup, so the flaws need to be well discussed and understood.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Those you mention are all myths.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *