Teaching a world religions class to seventh graders in the middle of the Protestant-dominated Bible Belt of Appalachia has been a challenge. The geographical isolation of our area has led to our students and community not getting enough exposure to other religions of the world, and the only education they are currently receiving is superficial with little to no real experiences of other ways of life.
I believe the only way we can create a peaceful and productive society is through an empathic education of true experience that fosters an understanding of religious diversity. This is the very reason I applied to attend The Interfaith Center of New York’s NEH-sponsored Religious Worlds of New York summer institute. And after attending the three-week program, I am now equipped with an abundance of resources and knowledge that will help me and my students become better citizens of the world.
Dr. Henry Goldschmidt, ICNY’s Director of Programs, led the institute with a passion for all the educators in attendance, but equally for the students that we would eventually be teaching back in our own classrooms. The first real revelation that Dr. Goldschmidt made to us was the idea of teaching “lived” religion as opposed to merely “charting” religion. He explained that putting a set list of major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) into a grid of superficially shared features (founder, scripture, doctrine, etc.) does not lead to a true understanding of any religion, or the lives of its practitioners. For example:
How many teachers have used this very chart, or one like it, to teach about world religions? I wish you could see me because I have my hand up with all five fingers extended. I just bet you do too, and that’s perfectly fine, but there is a better way!
Questions to Consider
Dr. Goldschmidt asked us to reflect on the limits of the chart method, and posed some questions to consider:
Thinking about these questions, it is easy to see the flaws in the chart method of teaching world religions. Would I truly know about you as a person if I were to put you in the chart?
The Pedagogy of Lived Religion
After seeing the ineffectiveness of the “chart,” and how it separates religious practices as if they needed to be quarantined from one another (this too is a huge problem with the chart method), Dr. Goldschmidt introduced us to the pedagogy of “lived” religion.
Teaching lived religion requires students to understand the difference between learning about a religion “devotionally” and “academically.” Most younger students, and maybe older students as well, have only been exposed to devotionally studying a religion- i.e. Sunday school, going to the synagogue, or through studying sacred texts. When a student can study religions and the religious practices of people through an academic lens, they can begin to have a better understanding of the people who “live” the religion. When students see that they can learn about religious practices without being devotional to the religion, and witness the religion being practiced, teachers can begin to expose their students to a whole new world of understanding.
We educators learned that this is possible by first inviting an academic panel of experts on a religion and then visiting the discussed religious site with the knowledge of the experts in mind. This was the method that Dr. Goldschmidt and the Interfaith Center of New York modeled for all the educators in the institute, and I am now going to share this life-changing experience with you and my students.
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher
Greeneville Middle School, TN
The Religious Worlds of New York Summer Institute
is accepting applications for July 2019 until March 1
*Photos courtesy of Aaron Bible, Jessica Furiosi and Kevin Childress.
Note: This post was originally posted on the Interfaith Center of New York website and is reposted here with permission.
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We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, the term 'interfaith' means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews. Our primary goal is to support and supplement new and ongoing efforts.
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