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Diversity Education Goes for the Gold!


The Opening Ceremonies last night generated lots of excitement and energy for the Olympics. Rev. Mark E. Fowler of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding shares how to capitalize on it to teach respect for religious diversity.

By Rev. Mark E. Fowler

When educators think about the Olympic Games, the topic of religion doesn't necessarily come to mind, yet the Games provide an abundance of opportunities for teaching about world religions in engaging and academically responsible ways. 

Through Olympic-themed lessons, you can promote respect for religious and other forms of diversity while developing healthy habits, good character, and essential academic skills. Such lessons can easily be integrated into the regular school day because of their academic content and their potential for alignment with Common Core State Standards. They also lend themselves well to afterschool programs, which can put more emphasis on physical movement and interaction.

Follow these nine steps to get started:

1.     Build a Foundation of Respect
Before raising a potentially sensitive topic like religion among your students, it's important to develop and agree upon ground rules for respectful communication. These ground rules create a safe space for students to share their own beliefs and to inquire about others' beliefs. At Tanenbaum, we rely on a particularly effective respect-building activity that asks students to brainstorm about what respect looks like, feels like, and sounds like. Click here to view this activity.

 2.     Explore Family Traditions
During the Olympic Games, athletes and their families are often featured discussing their strengths or the challenges that they've overcome to see their son or daughter become an Olympian. These stories can provide a terrific context for exploring students' own rich family histories. Students could interview adult relatives about family traditions, including expressions of religious belief, and report back to the class. Click here for a sample lesson plan.

 3.     Promote Olympic Ideals
The Olympic Games spread messages of harmony and mutual respect that can easily be applied to religious differences. Students could explore the symbolism of the Olympic Torch and the Olympic Rings, which represent togetherness and good will, or develop their own Olympic Oath that expresses peaceful ideals.

 4.     Assign Country Research Projects
Encourage students to take a closer look at a country they're not familiar with so that they see beyond stereotypical images and oversimplified facts. Be sure to ask for a description of the country's most popular sports, as well as its religious make-up. Students can present their research to the class through artistic visual displays and dramatic performances.

 5.     Reference Current Events
If you're teaching during an Olympic season, introduce religious content that's related to the current Games. Your students could learn about the religious accommodations that are made for athletes or examine the host country's views on religious freedom. For example, the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee is providing multi-faith centers in the Olympic and Paralympic villages with prayer rooms for followers of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. In contrast to this display of inclusiveness for athletes, requests to build a mosque for Sochi's 20,000 Muslim residents, many of whom immigrated to help build Olympic facilities, have faced constant government resistance. Russia's controversial laws on homosexuality provide additional fodder for discussion about discrepancies between Olympic ideals and host country behaviors.*

 6.     Develop Interdisciplinary Skills
Capitalize on the richness of the Olympic theme through content that develops academic skills in a variety of subjects while promoting respect for diversity. Here are some examples:

  • Reading: Assign books about the Olympics or about participating countries that reflect accurate and nuanced perspectives on different cultures and religions.
  • Art: Ask students to design their own Olympic Rings poster with a slogan that champions teamwork.
  • Math: Provide a lesson on graphing and proportions that uses religious statistics from the host country.
  • Geography: Have students create maps of participating countries that include images of the religions that are practiced there.
  • History: Teach about the origins of the Olympics in Ancient Greece and its relationship to Greek mythology.

 7.     Use Common Core-Aligned Content
The Olympics theme allows educators to meet often demanding state standards in fun and creative ways. For example, ground rules for respectful communication (described above) encourage attentive speaking and listening skills and thoughtful use of language. Country research projects develop critical thinking skills by asking students to recognize diverse perspectives and delve beneath initial assumptions about people and cultures.

 8.     Take Advantage of Online Resources
There's an abundance of web sites with educational resources on the Olympics. Here's a sampling:

 9.     Get Students Moving
In this high-tech era, children lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles, yet some schools aren't equipped with the necessary resources, such as playgrounds or P.E. teachers, to counteract this trend.  By incorporating Olympic-themed activities into their academic programs, teachers can get students moving and make everyone happy, from the state department of education on down.

Tanenbaum offers one model for incorporating the Olympics into diversity education, a K-6 curriculum entitled World Olympics: Preparing Students for a Multicultural and Multireligious World. We are currently implementing this curriculum on an intensive basis at three New York City afterschool programs in collaboration with the Partnership for After School Education. The intensive program, called World Olympics for All, maximizes the curriculum's effectiveness by providing continuous technical assistance from Tanenbaum staff and a dedicated consultant.

As part of our trainings of educators, we sometimes ask each participant to share a favorite Olympic memory.  It's striking how vivid and endearing their memories can be, particularly those of the opening ceremonies.  Participants have described the excitement they felt while watching these massive displays of both diversity and unity, and they seem to appreciate the opportunity to share this excitement with students.  For educators and students alike, the Olympic Games offer instant appeal that opens hearts and minds to important, multidimensional learning.

Rev. Mark Fowler is the Managing Director of Programs of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.  Follow Tanenbaum  and Asia Society on Twitter.

Tanenbaum is a secular, non-sectarian non-profit that combats religious prejudice and promotes mutual respect. Tanenbaum's practical programs bridge religious differences for hundreds of thousands of teachers & students, employers & employees, doctors & patients and peacemakers combating armed conflict across the globe. 

*Murphy, Tim. "Why Sochi Has No Mosques." Mother Jones. Foundation for National Progress, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2014.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post misstated the number of steps to get started.

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