Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Open Question

Knowledge about religions is not only characteristic of an educated person, but it is also absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity.”
National Council for the Social Studies, Position Paper on Religion, 1998

Child Peeking Under Prayer Wheel, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching young children is our daily morning meeting.  This is the moment in the day when we greet each other by name, share eye contact and a smile, and check in to see how life is going.  I try to practice and model active listening and encourage children to share what is on their minds, helping them to articulate complex ideas.  I always write a morning greeting and a note to get people’s minds going.  I know that many of my students begin their day with a television on, which often includes the morning’s headlines.  It is important for me to take a minute to look at the newspaper as a way to anticipate what might come up during our morning check-in.  I might include a photo with its caption as part of the morning note if I want to encourage conversation about a particular topic.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
In this way, together, as a community of learners, we may generate larger social studies units, based on the interests of the group and the world in which we live.  What emerges from a genuine conversation is not necessarily what the teacher might have planned. For me, the best way to feel comfortable with difficult topics that may come up in my classroom is to remain responsive, and remember that I’m not supposed to have all the answers. Creating a positive classroom culture that encourages asking questions requires modeling for students the value in sitting with a question for some time. Always rewarding the quickest answer, or stopping the inquiry as soon as someone provides the answer I anticipated sends the message that questions are “in the way,” and must be resolved as soon as possible.  Instead, I hope to create the space needed to honor the person asking the question, and allow for a more considered response to difficult questions.  This often involves recommending resources for students to gather more information to answer the question for themselves. 
Zhiyunsi Tibetan Lamasery
Religion has been one of those difficult topics for me, and maybe for you.  Acknowledging what an important and significant topic it is has provided a starting place in my classroom, followed by gathering information about what the group knows by asking a few open ended questions:  How many different religions do we know of as a group?  Why do you think there are so many different religions?  Are there similarities?  What is religion?  As students begin to talk about what they know, more questions come up.   I write these down on a chart labeled “questions,” right next to the chart labeled “what we think we know.”

In the Distance, Basilica de Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, Mexico
How far you go with the topic is an individual decision.  You may not spend a month or two developing an integrated study of world religions the first year, but I do hope the door to inquiry will be left open, offering acknowledgement to students of every faith.  Students who are accepted and validated, also feel safe to grow and learn, becoming the true global citizens we know they can be. 

Take action within your school community. Make sure your principal supports your discussions in the classroom. Create a welcoming classroom that invites families to share their culture, providing an interpreter when appropriate, and add the topic of religion to a staff meeting agenda as a discussion item. To prepare for the conversation, encourage each participant to read Teaching About Religion a guide from the First Amendment Center and also Studies about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum, A position statement of the National Council of the Social Studies. 

How do you approach challenging topics in your classroom?
Chongsheng Temple, Three Pagodas, Dali

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