While I was attending a professional development workshop for nearly two-hundred teachers several weeks ago, a particularly confusing comment caught my attention. The topic was bullying—how to spot it, prevent it, and deal with it. In one example, the bullying was based on religion. The facilitator discussed how to manage such a situation, and then concluded by reminding us all that, “the religious aspect of the bullying should not be something we address head on. After all, we have separation of Church and state in our schools.”

I was shocked by the two hundred teachers nodding along as if this comment itself were so obviously factual. “No religion talk, please,” seemed to be the assumption—apparently even when it comes to addressing bullying.

As a teacher of Global History and U.S. Government to public high school students, religion is an explicit part of my curriculum. Not only is discussing religion in public schools allowed, it is actually mandated by my curriculum.

This is part of why I am surprised at the “folk understandings” teachers have about religion. They seem to believe that the notion of “Separation of Church and State” means we should avoid discussion of religion entirely.

This is not only a misreading of the law, it warps educational practice. While most areas in the history curriculum invite debate and argument (“Was the New Deal an appropriate response to the Great Depression?” for example), religious teaching becomes the realm of the closed question, with one right answer and no debate (“What are the five pillars of Islam?”). Instruction about religion becomes the moment where good teachers in good classrooms shut down real inquiry for fear of addressing the whys and hows.

Religions, in this closed discussion, become fact-bundles. For students being prepared for the New York State Regents, for example, Judaism, is typically presented as just three things: monotheism, covenant, and Torah. Students are told to memorize these, not to discuss their validity or question their effect on societies.

The impact of this is deeply felt. If religion is the one area of the curriculum that teachers are afraid to teach using inquiry and discussion, it will be the one that students will feel is boring or unimportant.

Further, this can alienate students on a personal level. When a class is told to memorize three central Hindu gods, what place is there for a Hindu student whose local temple actually worships many more or different deities? The opportunity to learn from each other is lost and methods usually rejected by good instructors—teacher-centered, rote fact-regurgitation-become the norm.

There are practices my colleagues and have used that can attack this problem head-on. The most obvious and simple is to teach religious topics in as open a format as one teaches other topics. Questions like “How has Christianity shaped the politics of abortion in the U.S.?” and “Did Christians and Muslims have more differences or commonalities during the Crusades?” are two examples of questions I have asked to high school students that have generated hearty and respectful debate and a deeper understanding of human similarities and differences.

Further, teachers can remember that the Establishment Clause, though it places some limits on teacher practice, places almost none on students. Thus, allowing students a space to discuss their own beliefs is not just legal but, considering nearly all research on adolescent development, advisable. Finally, studying religion with as much depth as issues such as race, class, and gender allows students to glimpse its complexity.

Several academics have developed the idea of “Lived Religion”—the idea that religion is not simply a list of rules or practices, and in fact is much more clearly understood in reference to the way it influences individual lives. Thus, students can gain a deeper understanding of a religion by analyzing primary sources and personal stories in which religion plays a role. A modern Muslim in Saudi Arabia likely experiences Islam in a far different way than one in Indonesia, a fact that students miss when they are simply memorizing the “Five Pillars.”

To have these discussions, a teacher must prepare their students. Protocols such as the “Accountable Talk” guide used in my school can help kids find the words to have hard conversations. This gives students a series of rules and sentence starting phrases, such as “I disagree with your idea because . . .” that help students to engage with each other productively.

Frequent open discussions of hard issues can help acclimate students to these talks before controversial conversations on religion arise. And as always, teachers must use their discretion to determine when it is worth some level of student discomfort to push forward an academic conversation and when that conversation carries the risk of damaging classroom culture and student comfort beyond simple repair.

I am not arguing for advocating religion in public schools. In fact, I think some of the importance of fostering discussion of religion in schools is to help students understand its flaws as well as its beauty. I am, however, a believer in good teaching and in giving students the tools and opportunities to think deeply about important questions. Too often the notion of “Separation of Church and State” is used to erect unnecessary walls between fellow citizens. Public school teachers have the power to tear down these walls and to use religious topics to help us better understand ourselves and each other.

Matthew Yellin is a Social Studies teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Hillside Arts and Letters Academy, located in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He graduated from Amherst College in 2009 and has completed the Teacher Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Articles by Matthew Yellin


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