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Teaching About Religion: How to Find the Best Resources

Marisa Fasciano is an education consultant for Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

By Guest Blogger Marisa Fasciano

Recently, we have witnessed a widespread need among educators and administrators at all levels for classroom resources to help teach about religious diversity. For example, when we made our Religions in My Neighborhood curriculum available for free, the requests came pouring in. A kindergarten teacher in Kansas 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 of "Going Global" gives enough attention to the world's religions. A head of school in Pennsylvania needs support for her teachers' efforts to address the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. And a social studies specialist at the Georgia Department of Education wants to help teachers address the topic of religion in the classroom without fear. Others want to help students better understand the role religion plays in foreign countries and cultures, as well as within their very diverse neighborhoods, school districts, and classrooms.

Given this demand, we put together some general guidelines for identifying high-quality classroom resources that teach about religion appropriately and inclusively.

Five Things to Look for in a Classroom Resource About Religion

1. Neutrality
Use resources that neither promote nor denigrate religion or any particular religious or nonreligious belief system. Teaching about religion, which is both constitutional and essential to the education of effective global citizens, is very distinct from religious indoctrination. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) further explains this distinction in its position paper "Study about Religion in the Social Studies Curriculum."

2. Accuracy
To ensure the accuracy of the information on different belief systems, use resources developed by established organizations with proven expertise in religious diversity and intergroup understanding. The information provided should be fact-based and well-vetted, with citations from scholars and reputable publications when appropriate. We have identified some of these organizations and provided examples of their classroom resources below.

3. Diverse Perspectives
Choose resources that present a variety of belief systems—especially those that are traditionally underrepresented in the students' community—as well as the diversity that exists within each belief system (e.g., the diversity within Islam). A resource that explores different denominations and/or levels of observance among a religion's followers is preferable to one that describes the religion as a monolithic entity. By exploring diverse perspectives, educators can help students question preconceived notions and debunk stereotypes. 

4. Interactive Components
religion_tanenbaum.pngThe more that students can participate in and contribute to learning about religious diversity, the more engaged they'll be in the process of exploration and discovery. Select resources that allow (but don't force) input from the different voices and perspectives within your learning environment, whether it be through group discussion or through independent artistic creations, such as drawings, music, and poetry. But beware of lessons that might lead to "spokesperson syndrome," which occurs when one 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 testing but doesn't adequately prepare them to participate in a multicultural society. Instead of relying solely on textbooks, use resources that also teach about the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious life. Seek out detailed, fact-based analyses of current events; descriptions of the variety of modern-day beliefs and practices; and first-person accounts of what life is like for members of a particular belief system. What do they wear and eat? 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 topic of religion into the classroom, making an otherwise historical and abstract subject more relatable and interesting to students.    

Recommended Free Classroom Resources About Religion

Here are some examples of free classroom resources that meet the criteria described above. Whenever possible, we included the resource provider's own description of its resource.  

Elementary School

  • Religions in My Neighborhood (grades K-4) from Tanenbaum
    This curriculum helps children to feel comfortable noticing and talking about religious differences and to see these differences as normal, understandable, and interesting parts of their living and learning environments. It can be used to supplement pre-existing curricula—or stand on its own for short-term or after-school programs.
  • The Rich Tapestry of Religion in the United States (grades 3-5) from Teaching Tolerance
    This resource features three lessons that help students assess the religious diversity of the United States, explore different religious and nonreligious worldviews, and consider how freedom of religion relates to their own lives and the lives of others.
  • "Religion, Culture, and Diversity" (grades 4-8) from PBS
    In this lesson, students learn more about various religions, they share their own religious traditions, and they explore some of the tensions associated with religious and cultural differences. Resources include segments from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, websites, and interviews with family members and other adults. Art projects on themes of religion, spirituality, and diversity are a culminating activity.

Middle School

  • "Respecting Atheists and Nonreligious People" (grades 6-8) from Teaching Tolerance
    In this lesson, students learn about episodes of anti-theist discrimination. They develop ways to educate others about respecting nonreligious, as well as religious, diversity.  

For more ideas on promoting inclusion of religiously unaffiliated students, please see our previous blog post on this subject.   

  • Teaching About Antisemitism  (grades 7-12) from U.S 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 atrocity, and genocide. Learning about the origins of hatred and prejudice encourages students to think critically about antisemitism today.

High School 

  • "Countering Islamophobia" from Teaching Tolerance
    This lesson explores, confronts, and seeks to deconstruct stereotypes and fears targeted at 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 in school.
  • "Religion and Identity" from Facing History and Ourselves
    This reading from Facing History's Holocaust and Human Behavior explores antisemitism and religious intolerance and includes follow-up discussion questions. The reading profiles four teenagers from different religious traditions who reflect on their experiences of religious belief and belonging.
  • Hindu and Buddhist Worlds of New York (adaptable to other locations) from Religious Worlds of New York
    This unit plan, developed by a high school student, asks how Hinduism and Buddhism are variously lived out by New Yorkers. To answer this question, students engage with the city as a classroom, through site visits and interviews with local adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism. Conducted in conjunction with in-class introductions to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, site visits/interviews expose students to the real religiosity of Hindu and Buddhist New Yorkers. 
  • Combating Extremism (grades 9-12) from Tanenbaum
    Tanenbaum's Combating Extremism campaign is a public education initiative that includes a guide for holding challenging conversations and free informational materials and question sheets on topics related to extremism, such as religious diversity, stereotyping, and terrorism. These fact-based resources aim to combat disinformation and encourage respectful conversations. Educators can use them to learn more about complex global issues and to structure in-depth classroom discussions with mature high school students.

These are just a few of the many creative and dynamic resources out there that are designed to make teaching about religion easier. It can be challenging for educators to know what to say or not to say, how to be inclusive of all students, and how to stay on the right side of the line between neutrality and promoting a particular viewpoint. Fortunately, a lot of organizations have already wrestled with these questions and done the hard work so that educators can readily find the support they need.

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