Learning to Present Religion in the Schoolroom

At a venerable private school in Massachusetts, some of the best and brightest seniors showed up recently for an advanced course in Islamic studies. The teacher eagerly started off by trying to delve into subjects of Islamic culture and law, but she found that her students could not move away from a simplistic view of the faith as being extreme, radical, and oppressive to women. Even though the readings contradicted these views with sophisticated theological and cultural understandings of Islam, the students couldn't get past profound cultural barriers and their inability to see religion itself as a legitimate framework for intellectual inquiry. In the end, the teacher scrapped her course plan and spent a few days focusing on the study of religion and its legitimacy as a field. Once the students had a lens through which to evaluate their own assumptions, they got on board and the course on Islam was able to continue. 

At a public school in the Boston area early this year, two freshman girls showed up for an English class with dots stuck on their foreheads. When the student teacher asked them where they received the dots, they said the dots were being handed out by a student organization. When the teacher pushed them further to ask if they knew what the dots were called and what tradition they represented, the students provided plenty of jokes and stereotypes, but few of their assumptions were accurate. The student teacher explained that the dot is called a bindi and is worn as an auspicious symbol by Hindu women, after which he expertly segued into talking about symbolism in the book the class was studying. 

As these anecdotes reveal, if Harvard Divinity School's Program in Religion and Secondary Education (PRSE), which prepares HDS students to be secondary school teachers, didn't already exist, it would need to be invented. In a post-September 11 world, never has it been more urgent that religious literacy be taught at all levels, including high school. Everywhere, it seems, people are clamoring for knowledge and frameworks to help them understand the complex relationship among religions and cultures the world over, and teachers are needed who are adequately trained in these topics. 

Thankfully, such a training program for secondary school teachers not only exists at HDS but it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this academic year (it began in 1972 as the "Secondary School Teaching Certificate Option" and changed its name to the PRSE in 1982). And thankfully, at this crucial time in history, a new leader with passion and vision has rearticulated and deepened the mission of the PRSE to meet the challenges of the age. 

"If there's one thing that's come out of the September 11 tragedy, it's the recognition that we clearly need to have a better understanding of religion in the contemporary age," says Diane Moore, who took the helm of the PRSE in 2001 after serving as a Lecturer in Religion and Education at HDS for four years. "Students of all ages need to have some language to help them to understand these issues, language specific to religious traditions, but also general language regarding the intersection of religion and culture. We in the United States have misinterpreted the constitutional separation between church and state to mean that we can't teach about religion in the public schools. Consequently, though we are the world's most religiously diverse nation we are arguably also the most religiously illiterate." 

To counter these realities and obstacles, Diane Moore has worked with former PRSE director Nancy Richardson and PRSE associate director Mary Frazier-Davis to retool the program by more explicitly gearing it to address the historic and contemporary debates and policies that inform assumptions regarding religion and education. The program was already certified to grant licensure to teach history, English, and political science/political philosophy (formerly social studies), but Moore and Frazier-Davis received approval from the Massachusetts Department of Education to expand the licensure opportunities to include Latin and the Classical Humanities, Spanish, French, and German. 

Moore also added a course requirement for the students so that they will be consciously aware of the past and present context for their role as teachers of religion in public schools (beginning in 2002-03, students must take either "Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America," taught by James Fraser, or "Religion, Values and Public Education," taught by Moore). Participants will continue to be student-teachers for a semester in area public and private schools, with the mentoring of seasoned teachers, but their teaching and PRSE coursework will now be more carefully integrated into their overall educational experiences at HDS. To that end, the teaching requirement will be moved to the fall semester of a student's final year, to give more time for reflection and integration into a PRSE senior paper. 

Finally, although an important part of the program has always been a weekly colloquium in which the students take part during the semester they are teaching, Moore has worked on making that class more than just a chance to commiserate and process their experiences in the classroom. Although she encourages the necessary bonding and sharing, in keeping with her vision, she uses the colloquium as yet another opportunity to discuss wider issues of teaching as a vocation and its place in society. She has even included mentor teachers in some of the sessions. 

In the past the program has been one of HDS's "best kept secrets," but Moore is trying to counter that image by promoting it to students, publishing a brochure, and creating an attractive website. Because of her reinvigoration efforts, 23 students are currently enrolled in the program (7 MDiv students and 16 MTS students), which is up from enrollments in the recent past, although Moore stresses that it's not only the quantity but the quality of the students that has impressed her. "I've been consistently struck by the range of interests and backgrounds that the HDS students bring," she said, "as well as their consistent passion to teach and to work with kids, and their very real visionary sense of the possibilities of education and of teaching the academic study of religion. It's been a real privilege to work with the students who come through this program and to develop the program in new ways so that they can be better served by it." 

As if this wasn't enough, Moore's vision of reform isn't only confined to the internal workings of the PRSE program at Harvard Divinity School. She notes that even after 30 successful years, the program that has long been called a "jewel" by mentor teachers, administrators, and the HDS students who graduate from it remains the only one of its kind in the nation. Moore hopes to change this, partly through her work with an American Academy of Religion task force composed of religious studies scholars and secondary school teachers who are interested in working collaboratively with education schools. She is also writing a book entitled Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Multicultural Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education

"I'm incredibly proud of the PRSE program and the fact that there's no other graduate program like it," Moore said, "but I don't have any interest in us remaining unique. The point is to advance this conversation, in any way we can." 

An important priority of the program is to collaborate with others in the field who are also interested in promoting the academic study of religion in education. Toward that end, the PRSE co-sponsored a well-attended conference along with an independent-school teacher organization called Religious Studies in Secondary Schools during the AAR's annual meeting last November. The conference was entitled "New Developments in Religious Studies: Keeping Ourselves Current" and included segments on religious pluralism in America, religion and ecology, Zen Buddhism, spirituality in American teenagers, and one on Islamic cultural studies that Moore herself led. 

Although it took a major world event to make many Americans aware of their ignorance, Diane Moore has been cognizant of the need for better religious literacy for nearly 10 years, joining a small group of voices crying for improvements in secondary school teacher training and curriculum. 

She holds a PhD from Union Theological Seminary, where she focused on social ethics and gender studies. But her interest in religion and education has gone past theory through her own teaching experience at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where she has been an instructor in philosophy and religious studies since 1993. 

"The reason that I have so much passion for the program is because it came out of my work with adolescents in secondary school," she said. "Phillips Academy is an unusual sort of secondary school in that we have an entire department devoted to philosophy and religious studies, so the students have an opportunity to take a wide range of courses in either of those disciplines."

Moore said that through her own secondary-school teaching, she has become more and more convinced that the study of religion "should be an important aspect of this stage of an adolescent's education because religious studies addresses fundamental questions of meaning and students are asking those questions at this time in their own developmentā€”it's a natural match." She said it is "necessary to give young teenagers some tools to be able to think about a variety of different worldviews and to have an academic framework to then think about the nature of their own understanding." 

She said that "most states have recognized the importance of learning about religion in some parts of the curriculum as is evident in state history curriculum frameworks where religion is woven throughout the standards. The challenge is that few teachers are trained in religious studies to adequately teach that material." This bodes well for the graduates of the PRSE program, she said. "Many of our graduates find that they're really welcome when they go out on their job searches," she explained, "because schools need teachers who know how to teach about religion from an academic perspective." 

At the same time, Moore is acutely aware that teaching religion in public (and even private) schools is a thorny enterprise and therefore requires careful training and open communication with parents and administrators. "You have to be really sensitive to the possibilities of what students might be experiencing and be really explicit about what you're doing in the curriculum," she explained. "There is a profound difference between teaching religion from an academic versus devotional perspective, and that distinction needs to be clearly understood and represented in classroom study." 

"It's not without its challenges," Moore added, "but that just makes it like any educational endeavor that's meaningful. And this one is especially worthy to push for, especially now." 

Moore is not alone in her mission. Charles Haynes (MTS '75) and Marcia Beauchamp (MTS '95) of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University are both graduates of the PRSE program. Their work has helped to significantly advance the national conversation regarding religion and public education within First Amendment guidelines. Current students from the PRSE are equally passionate about the need for advancement in teacher training and curriculum reform. 

"Religion is everywhere, it's in every field and people need to know about it in every profession, but students here are not being given the skills they need to understand religion in either its historical or contemporary context," said Clare Giles, a second-year MTS student who is doing her student teaching this spring with ninth and tenth graders at Brookline High School, in world history. "Students need this knowledge not only to understand current events and conflicts in the world, but also to be able to overcome their fears and prejudices about their neighbors. No longer can you live your life in any city in America and not meet somebody of another religious faith. Tools to think about religion are not some specialized skill; they are needed to function in the world today." 

She said such a need became even more obvious after September 11 when hate crimes were perpetrated against Sikhs and Muslims for the way they look. "This is something that really saddens me personally, because I think it could be easily overcome. I believe that a majority of hate crimes come out of ignorance and fear. While there will always be people that hate, my hope is that there won't have to be people who are hateful out of ignorance." 

Giles looks at this issue from an interesting vantage point. "I grew up in Canterbury, England," she explains with a smile. "It's a pretty religious town." Although society in England is very secular now, she says that history and other subjects are taught with religion as a frame of reference. "In middle school," she said, "I had religious studies every year, and did long sections on Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I was taught how these traditions are present in the United Kingdom and how they relate to immigration."

In addition to her childhood experiences, Giles has lived and taught in India, where, she points out, "religion is not a private thing." "In India," she said, "you can know what somebody's background is by the way they dress. It's everywhere, it's in the streets, in the food, it's part of identity, family history, and culture." 

After studying at George Washington University, Giles joined the Ameri-Corps program and taught in the Washington, D.C., public schools, where she found a very different reality. "I become so confused as to why my students here in the U.S. don't have any knowledge about any religious tradition outside their own, and most are not even engaged in the wider conversations within their own traditions," she said. "Immigration is a reality here, too; I'm a product of it, but its implications are not acknowledged." 

She says while the taboo against teaching religion has been a way to avoid church-state legal complications, it "is a huge disservice to youth in general, and to the society they're a part of." She says that contrary to religion being "out of the picture" in the public schools, it is there, but ignorance and presumptions about it are reinforced. "Religion is so much a part of people's worldviews and identities, but when there is no recognition of religious differences and tools given to understand it, then people of minority religions have to buy into the majority culture." 

"Brookline High School," she continues, "is extremely diverse, with lots of students from different religious backgrounds and countries, as well as a wide socioeconomic spread. There is a large Jewish community, which includes the whole range from secular to devout. I feel lucky to be teaching at a school where students already have exposure to different cultures and religions." 

Yet, she says, even at a school like Brookline, "there's still this fear about talking about religion in the public schools, that it's not OK or appropriate." Partly because of history, she says, people remain afraid of "that shady gray area between teaching religion and teaching about religion. But this needs to be overcome and cleared up. Religion needs to be part of the curriculum and part of every student's experience in public high school. At a school like Brookline, students need to explicitly discuss the fact that their peers are not of the same background as themselves." 

Giles is lucky to have a mentor teacher who feels as strongly as she does. Patricia Manhard, who has taught at Brookline for years, has continued to educate herself in her field and in religion, and has brought that to her teaching. This fall she taught her freshman honors class an entire unit on Islam so, Giles said, "they could understand the Crusades and understand what's happening on their TV." 

Teaching the students who had that unit in the fall is so much easier, Giles has found, because they bring a wealth of knowledge and skills that her other students do not. "We talk about the situation in Iraq all the time," she said, "and they have a deeper understanding." What's more, she said, when they explicitly talk about Islam and other religions, these students "bring in historical contexts and differences, which is my dream come true." 

As part of her assignment teaching ninth-grade history, Giles's mentor teacher asked her to teach a short section on the history of Christianity. This was actually a stretch for Giles because her specialty is Hinduism, with some background in Buddhism and Islam, but, she says, "it became clear to me that I know how to study and think about religion in an academic way, and in historical context. I brought that to the unit and talked about the historical figure of Jesus and early Christianity." 

She said that teaching Christianity in this way allows Jewish students and students of other faiths "to understand it without feeling it's inappropriate because they can see that all religions, Christianity being one, have long history with rich cultures." And on a personal level, she said, "it helps them to think about what they really believe and what they're being told, not only in church but in the news." 

Among the more traditional reading assignments to get them to understand medieval Christianity, Giles has also asked her students to create their own illuminated manuscripts. 

Yet bringing religion in to various subjects as content and doing it appropriately is only one part of the PRSE program, albeit an essential one. Matt Hutton, who is spending this term teaching ninth-grade English at Lexington High School, stresses the "sense of ethical mission inherent in the program" as being just as important as the content. 

"I have always been agnostic and came to HDS to study comparative religions, but this program has a real ministerial quality to it," Hutton said. "There's an understanding that you are guiding them through a really difficult time in their lives as well as teaching them a body of information, and there is an emphasis on getting the kids to bring their own lives into the material." 

The very act of empowering students to make their own decisions and to think critically and creatively transcends the traditional idea of what a teacher is supposed to do," Hutton continued. "This program says that teaching is more than getting students to spit something back on a test but even extends to helping them to learn to be decent people and to grow. While teaching, I've found there's a crisis every day, and there are kids who are having psychological difficulties to watch out for. So you really need to pay attention to the soul of each student as well as their brains." 

This philosophy resonates with Hutton because, he explained, "part of what motivated me to be a teacher is that I was not a very good student in high school. I was a late bloomer when it came to learning. But perhaps if I'd had more teachers who really grabbed me at that early age and tried to get me thinking, it might have been different." 

Hutton acknowledges that this is easier said than done. "It's much easier to stand up and lecture than it is to get kids really engaged," Hutton said. "That's what I'm getting out of the program: cooperative learning skills. If I just relied on my own instincts, I would assume that everybody loves books just as much as me and we'd sit around and discuss what a great book it is. But kids need to discover that for themselves, and the role of a teacher is to motivate them in a way that is more than just a desire to get a good grade." 

"If the discussion continues at the lunchroom table, then I've done my job well," he said, "because it means I've gotten them to realize that these books aren't simply relics that you're supposed to know about, but the literature is connected to their own lives." In recent classes on The Lord of the Flies, for instance, Hutton asked students to make montages and even brought in magazine advertisements to talk about symbolism. 

"I try to bring in advertisements, TV shows, movies, and music as much as I can," he said. "I even watch TV as homework, because I want to know the world they're in. So much of the hip-hop language and culture has entered their vernacular. While I don't want to be like the square old guy trying to sound hip, 'Hey, I'm down with you, homie,' I do think if you're aware of that, you can bring it in, because hip-hop culture is actually quite verbal. That doesn't mean you should be studying rap songs, but that you can build a bridge between those uses of language and the use of language in literature." 

As one of those bridge-building experiences, Hutton one day talked about the history of the word "cool," how it started with cool jazz and Miles Davis but has endured until now whereas other words like "golly" haven't. "It was a fun exercise and in a subtle way it gets them interested in language," he said. 

Hutton said that although he went in pretty certain he wanted to teach older high school students, he purposefully took on the younger students to "put himself through boot camp." Ironically enough, he said, "I've actually come to really like them, especially how straightforward they are, and I might even continue to teach this age." 

Both Giles and Hutton say that although they found the experience of student teaching "overwhelming," they plan to continue after graduation. Giles is applying for a grant to continue research she's been doing for Diana Eck's Pluralism Project next year but said, "Education is what I will go into, teaching or in other forms. I'm in it for the long haul." Hutton says he used to think he wanted to teach at the college level, because his father is a professor and it's a world he knows, but his has become "a very deliberate decision to want to teach high school. I see the university becoming more and more specialized and that's not what it's about for me. At the high school level, I can share my love of literature and ideas through teaching and not have to publish obscure articles in members-only journals." 

Although they find the philosophical and pedagogical support Moore and their mentor teachers provide to be invaluable, the students say that perhaps the most important things Moore gives to them as they negotiate the experience of being first-time teachers are inspiration and respect. 

"Most of us have gone into teaching for something beyond just having a decent job," Hutton said. "Diane's sense of mission is solidifying because it can be such a chaotic thing becoming a teacher. The sense that there's an ethical aspect to it, that you're not only sharing a body of knowledge but you're also helping kids to learn to be decent people, is invigorating. She always stresses, 'You're a public intellectual,' which is something that doesn't necessarily happen in traditional education programs, but it is so important in allowing us to step back and focus on why we're making this choice and what it means in society." 

Giles concurred. "Diane herself is someone who has chosen to work in a high school setting," she said, "and so she is an educator role model for us, but then the way she speaks is so sincere and inspirational. She values us not only as teachers but also as scholars, academics, and intellectuals. She has a vision that says you can be part of the solution. She encourages us to not be afraid to think of teaching secondary school as a vocation, as a conscious choice, and not something you do because you can't do something else. Society puts pressure on you to think that, but Diane has helped give me the courage and confidence to say, 'I'm teaching because I want to.'"