Marisa Fasciano is an education consultant for Tanenbaum Center for Interfaith Understanding.
Recently, we have witnessed a widespread need among educators and administrators at all levels for classroom resources to help teach religious diversity. For example, when we did our Religions in my neighborhood program available for free, requests poured in. A Kansas kindergarten teacher aims to be more inclusive of students who don’t celebrate certain holidays. A librarian in Virginia wants to make sure that her school’s theme, “Going Global,” pays enough attention to world religions. Pennsylvania school principal needs support for her teachers’ efforts to deal with the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. And a social studies specialist with the Georgia Department of Education wants to help teachers bring the topic of religion into the classroom without fear. Others want to help students better understand the role religion plays in foreign countries and cultures, as well as in their very diverse neighborhoods, school districts, and classrooms.
Given this demand, we have developed general guidelines for identifying high-quality educational resources that teach religion appropriately and inclusively.
Five Things to Look for in a Classroom Resource on Religion
Use resources that do not promote or disparage religion or any particular religious or non-religious belief system. teaching on religion, which is both constitutional and essential to the education of effective global citizens, is very distinct from religious indoctrination. The National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) further explains this distinction in its position paper “Study about Religion in the Social Studies Curriculum.”
To ensure accurate information about different belief systems, use resources developed by established organizations with proven expertise in religious diversity and intergroup understanding. Information provided should be fact-based and well-verified, with citations from reputable academics and publications, where appropriate. We have identified some of these organizations and provided examples of their educational resources below.
3. Various Perspectives
Choose resources that showcase a variety of belief systems, especially those traditionally underrepresented in the student community, as well as the diversity that exists in each belief system (for example, the diversity within Islam). A resource that explores the different denominations and/or levels of observance among followers of a religion is preferable to one that describes the religion as a monolithic entity. By exploring diverse perspectives, educators can help students challenge preconceived notions and demystify stereotypes.
4. Interactive components
The more students can participate in and contribute to learning about religious diversity, the more engaged they will be in the process of exploration and discovery. Select resources that allow (but do not force) input from different voices and perspectives within your learning environment, whether through group discussions or independent artistic creations, such as drawings, music and poetry. But beware of lessons that could lead to “spokesperson syndrome,” which occurs when an individual’s words are attributed to an entire identity group to which that individual belongs.
5. A focus on “lived religion”
Many textbooks take a standard “dates and doctrines” approach to religion, which may help students with standardized tests, but does not adequately prepare them to participate in a multicultural society. Instead of relying solely on textbooks, use resources that also teach the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious life. Seek detailed and factual analyzes of current events; descriptions of the variety of modern beliefs and practices; and first-person accounts of what life is like for members of a particular belief system. What are they wearing and eating? What rituals and traditions do they practice? What do they believe and value and why? Resources that answer questions like these bring the richness and dimensionality of the subject of religion into the classroom, making an otherwise historical and abstract subject more accessible and engaging for students.
Recommended Free Educational Resources on Religion
Here are some examples of free educational resources that meet the criteria described above. Where possible, we have included the resource provider’s own description of the resource.
- Religions in my neighborhood (grades K-4) from Tanenbaum
This program helps children feel comfortable noticing and talking about religious differences and to see these differences as normal, understandable and interesting parts of their living and learning environment. It can be used to supplement pre-existing programs or stand alone for short-term or after-school programs.
- The Rich Tapestry of Religion in the United States (grades 3-5) teaching tolerance
This resource includes three lessons that help students assess the religious diversity of the United States, explore different religious and non-religious worldviews, and consider how religious freedom relates to their own lives and the lives of others.
- “Religion, Culture and Diversity” (grades 4-8) from PBS
In this lesson, students learn about various religions, share their own religious traditions, and explore some of the tensions associated with religious and cultural differences. Resources include segments of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, websites and interviews with family members and other adults. Art projects on the themes of religion, spirituality and diversity are a culminating activity.
- “Respect atheists and non-religious people” (Grades 6-8) from Teaching Tolerance
In this lesson, students discover episodes of antitheistic discrimination. They develop ways to educate others about respecting non-religious, as well as religious, diversity.
For more ideas on promoting the inclusion of students with no religious affiliation, please see our previous blog post on this topic..
- Teaching about anti-Semitism (grades 7-12) from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and others
These lessons and resources focus on the history of antisemitism and its role in the Holocaust to better understand how prejudice and hate speech can contribute to violence, mass atrocities and genocide. Learning about the origins of hate and prejudice encourages students to think critically about anti-Semitism today.
- “Combating Islamophobia” teaching tolerance
This lesson explores, confronts and seeks to deconstruct stereotypes and fears targeting Muslims. In small groups, students are asked to analyze myths and misconceptions about Muslims. They explore the meaning of Islamophobia and its effects on Muslims, watch a video to understand the impact of Islamophobia, and create an anti-Islamophobia campaign to display at school.
- “Religion and Identity” from Facing History and Ourselves
This reading of Facing History’s Holocaust and human behavior explores anti-Semitism and religious intolerance and includes follow-up discussion questions. The reading portrays four teenagers from different religious traditions who reflect on their experiences of religious belief and belonging.
- New York’s Hindu and Buddhist Worlds (adaptable to other locations) from Religious Worlds of New York
This unity plan, crafted by a high school student, asks how Hinduism and Buddhism are diversely experienced by New Yorkers. To answer this question, students engage with the city like a classroom, through site visits and interviews with local followers of Hinduism and Buddhism. Conducted in conjunction with classroom introductions to Hindu and Buddhist traditions, site visits/talks expose students to the true religiosity of Hindu and Buddhist New Yorkers.
- Fight extremism (grades 9-12) from Tanenbaum
by Tanenbaum Fight extremism The campaign is a public education initiative that includes a guide to having difficult conversations and free backgrounders and question sheets on topics related to extremism, such as religious diversity, stereotyping and terrorism. These factual resources aim to counter misinformation and encourage respectful conversations. Educators can use them to learn about complex global issues and to structure in-depth classroom discussions with adult high school students.
These are just a few of the many creative and dynamic resources designed to facilitate the teaching of religion. It can be difficult for educators to know what to say and what not to say, how to include all students, and how to stay on the right side of the line between neutrality and promoting a particular point of view. Fortunately, many organizations have already addressed these issues and worked hard to make it easy for educators to find the support they need.
Image created on Pablo.