Teachers across all subjects and grade levels occasionally find themselves having difficult conversations with students. A student asks a question about racism that is difficult to answer in an age-appropriate way. Another student is bullied because of their culture or heritage or faith traditions.
While educators want to teach tolerance in the classroom, it isn’t always easy. They need to be informed about various cultures and all about different religions. If you’ve been tripped up by a question about religion, you aren’t alone. Many teachers have a hard time openly talking about religion in an informative manner.
Use this guide to introduce religious concepts to your students and have healthy — even challenging — discussions. It is possible to have a religious debate in the public school classroom, and your students may be better off because of it.
There is Space for Religious Discussions in Almost Any Classroom
Each teacher has their own policies for talking about different faiths and religions in the classroom. Many err on the “safe” side by banning religious discussion entirely unless it pertains directly to the material. However, some education experts say this is a mistake.
“Some may say that students should check their faith at the door,” writes Michael S. Roth, Ph.D., president of Wesleyan University. “In my classes, I want students to bring their complex, changing identities into our efforts to wrestle with enduring questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. These are historical questions, but they can also be meaningful in students’ lives right now.”
Religion isn’t just a chapter of the Common Core curriculum expectations or a section in a history textbook. It is something that pertains to current events and may be a major part of your students’ lives.
Stephen Mansfield, author of “The Faith of Barack Obama,” says many school districts gloss over religious lessons for fear of parental backlash or recriminations from groups that advocate the separation of church and state. However, teaching about different faiths in the classroom is possible, if not encouraged, by both sides.
“The faithful of nearly every religious type contend that knowledge of religion is the mark of an educated person,” Mansfield writes. “Separation of church and state advocates like the ACLU contend much the same, so long as instruction in religion is ‘objective.’”
It is possible to elevate religion to a place where learning about different beliefs helps students challenge their own thoughts and reactions, without proselytizing or pushing ideas on the pupils in your classroom.
Teachers Need to Understand Different Religions to Support Their Students
In some cases, addressing religious differences and teaching about the faiths of others can have an immediate effect on the students in your school.
Paula Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, says that religious bullying is a civil rights issue. Students are much more likely to be bullied if they have visible symbols of their religion, like Jewish students wearing yarmulkes.
In fact, the numbers of students who are bullied for their religion are staggering: Eight percent of Muslim students report getting bullied almost every day, while 20 percent report getting bullied a few times per year. If students don’t feel safe coming to school, they are not going to have a fair chance to learn and maximize their potential.
By presenting the beliefs of different faiths, students can see where they intersect and how they differ. These discussions can be held among students of all ages in multiple classroom settings.
High school Ayisha Benham uses the example of American culture celebrating Thanksgiving by stuffing themselves with food, while Middle Eastern students give thanks through Ramadan by fasting. “It was interesting to see two cultures giving thanks in very different ways,” she says. “And it was a valuable opportunity for interesting discussions in the classroom.”
Some teachers have stepped up their own personal religious education so they can better accommodate their students. A group of teachers from Maryland took a six-day summer course to learn about different faiths by touring different religious institutions in Washington, D.C. Attendees wanted to better support their students’ religious needs, but also wanted to use this information to provide context to the information taught in the classroom.
English teacher Stacey Wahrman said “she needed the primer on religious basics to help walk her students through some of the texts they read,” such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Students react to those characters from their religious views and interpret their actions with different levels of severity or acceptance. Without an informed religious lens, Wahrman was left unable to respond.
Critical Thinking and Religious Education Go Hand in Hand
As you develop your lesson plans on various religious beliefs, consider how you present the material. Instead of comparing and contrasting beliefs and facts, try to help students look at the big picture of why religion is important to various situations.
Diane Moore, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, advises teachers to discuss religion in a way that helps students “understand the complex roles that religions play in human experience.”
“How will knowing the Four Noble Truths help students understand how some Buddhists in Myanmar are actively engaged in the persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims?,” Moore asks. “How can knowing the Christian Beatitudes explain the Crusades or the Inquisition or Christian support for chattel slavery?”
Moore counters each of these questions with positive examples of the Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, but the core idea remains the same: Without an understanding of religious beliefs, students won’t be able to fully understand the world around them.
“Students often walk away from history lessons — even World Religions classes — making sweeping generalizations about Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, among others,” writes Michael Roemer, director of education at Trinity Valley School in Ft. Worth, Texas. “When students recognize that religions vary per culture, they are much less likely to make assumptions about religions and religious adherents, and this reduces stereotyping and misconceptions because they are more informed.”
Lesson plans need to bust myths and stereotypes while giving students the power to understand the cause and effect of certain religious beliefs. That type of curriculum is not easy to develop. It requires students to be informed enough about different religions while also understanding cultural versus faith-based traditions.
“Your main aim is to encourage inquiry and mutual understanding, not for all your students to become experts in every religion,” says Jennifer Johnson, education, training and strategy officer at equality training organization Equaliteach.
As an educator, you will likely challenge the critical thinking skills of your students through these religious lessons. Students will have to empathize with other people and consider the world through their religious lens, which can be much more powerful than memorizing and repeating all 10 commandments.
7 Resources to Lead Valuable Classroom Discussions on Religion
You can build creative lesson plans that introduce different faiths to your students. There are several resources available online that tie into history, literature, music, science and even math classes. These lessons range from kindergarten discussions to advanced high school level programs. Here are a few places to start for the resources you need.
- The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding created a curriculum called “Religions in My Neighborhood” that teachers can access for free. This book meets Common Core standards and provides lesson plans for teachers to help younger students learn about the beliefs of others.
- Teaching Tolerance has a three-part lesson plan for young learners called “The Rich Tapestry of Religion in the United States.” Each section explores different religions through an acceptance and diversity lens, supporting the rights of others to practice religions as they please.
- The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute, in collaboration with the Union Theological Seminary and the Interfaith Center of New York has more than 100 lesson plans that you can use for different religion-based discussions. Sections include “Religion in Literature” and “Ancient Traditions and Contemporary Lives.”
- Children’s author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who wrote “8th Grade Superzero,” curated a list of books teachers can share related to religion and spirituality. These range from picture books like “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher” by Laurel Snyder to YA novels including “Does My Head Look Big In This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah.
- The United States Holocaust Museum has multiple teaching materials that discuss antisemitism and racism. One section, for example, covers the similarities between Nazism and Jim Crow. These materials contextualize religious discrimination and racism through a religious lens.
- The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology is a great place to start for science teachers who want to connect faith-based traditions to the environment. For example, Faith Climate Action Week, celebrated in April, brings together people of different religions and showcases how they care for the natural world around them.
- The Association of Religion Data Archives provides statistics and visual elements to religious discussions. There are quizzes to see how your faith compares to most Americans and interactive timelines to show how different faiths evolved and intersected throughout history.
These resources are all based on the same goal: improving student understanding of different faiths and how these faiths impact the world around them. From kindergarten students learning why one of their classmates wears a head covering to senior government students deciphering American wars, knowledge about different religions can help today’s youth grow into informed, unbiased adults.