'Creative' approach to teaching religion draws fire

Having students walk a mile in someone else's moccasins is a common teaching tool, used by teachers to bring historical topics alive. Kids might act out a battle, take sides in a historical debate, or build a replica of an ancient village or city.

But insert religion into the process, and suddenly an engaging approach can become fraught with problems.

Education about religious holidays, particularly Christian ones, has long been a lightning rod for parental concerns. But this year, not surprisingly, Islam as a faith has come under particular scrutiny.

Study about Islam was already part of many school curriculums. But some parents have raised concerns about classroom activities they say are tantamount to practicing the religion instead of learning about it – and in the process have renewed a debate about how religion should be addressed in schools.

"[Role-playing] is a wonderful tool, and schools should continue to do creative things with kids so they stay engaged," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "But when you get creative, there's always a danger."

The most recent controversy is in California, where state standards require seventh-graders to "analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages."

One parent has claimed that the middle-school textbook "Across the Centuries" takes students beyond this mandate because of what she sees as a bias toward Islam and against Christianity.

"The text specifically displays its bias by only citing Christianity for examples of religious persecution, focusing on church schisms, crusades, and inquisitions," says a statement from the Pacific Justice Institute, which is representing the San Luis Obispo parent.

The textbook, which has been used in classes nationwide for a decade, was reviewed before publication by a panel of advisers, including representatives from the major religions.

"Across the Centuries" has been charged with devoting much more space to Islam than to Christianity. The publisher says that is because the book is the second of a two-book series. Christianity, because it emerged earlier than Islam, is covered more in-depth in the first book.

Parents also say the text covers Islam without mentioning terrorism and the treatment of women in some Islamic countries, and that it defines "jihad" as "a struggle to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil" – a definition many find inconsistent with the current Mideast violence.

"We teach the fundamentals of Islam, and there is a resentment among some that the dark side of Islam isn't being focused on," says Christopher Hayes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which has worked with California schools on how to cover religion.

The publisher, for its part, says that the textbook covers a period of history until 1789, and that modern topics would not be suitable. "We're also not covering the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor when we're talking about medieval Japan," says Collin Earnst, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin, the Boston-based publisher of the textbook.

But what's perhaps been most controversial is the use of exercises in which students take on the roles of Islamic figures.

In one example, students work together to construct a miniature mosque. Jen Schroeder, the mother who is fighting to have the textbook removed, said the exercise was "polluting" to her son, a Christian. Another activity instructs students: "Assume you are a Muslim soldier on your way to conquer Syria in the year A.D. 635. Write three journal entries that reveal your thoughts about Islam, fighting in battle, or life in the desert."

"Some parents got anxious about students stepping into the shoes of someone Muslim because they fear the next John Walker Lindh," Mr. Earnst says.

When it comes to teaching religion, having students role-play is bad judgment, Mr. Hayes and other educational experts say. "I think it borders on unconstitutional to role-play a religious practice," Hayes says. That goes for reenactments of Seder dinners, the Salem witch trials, and the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca – all of which have happened in classrooms, according to educators.

Although the exercises in "Across the Centuries" are not viewed as emulating religious practices, some classroom activities might have crossed that line. A teacher in Byron, Calif., for example, had students adopt Muslim names, dress up in robes, and read from the Koran. A trivia dice game played in the class was referred to as a "jihad," causing alarm across the country when it was reported that students were being asked to stage a jihad in school.

"It's a violation of conscience to have children engage in religious practices, even in a role-playing environment," Hayes says. "It undermines the authenticity [of those practices to the followers of the religion] and can even cross over into mockery."

Responding to the recent criticism of its class that had students taking Muslim names and learning the Koran, Peggy Green, superintendent of the Byron Union School District, commented in a statement: "Public schools do not 'indoctrinate' children on various religions, but they do expose them to the belief systems that have impacted the formation of the world."

In many ways, the current controversy over Islam is simply the latest twist in the longstanding debate about how religion is covered in the classroom. "For several years, schools have struggled with how you handle religion because of church-state issues," Mr. Houston says. "Courts have made clear that teaching comparative religions is appropriate. Comparative religion is part of tolerance and understanding others."

Properly done, teaching about religion is an important part of a student's education. "I've had some parents say, 'You talk about all these religions – are you trying to shape or brainwash my kids?' " says John Booth, chairman of the social studies department at Brunswick School, a private middle school and high school in Greenwich, Conn. "It's an intense subject that has polarized the world, and I want them to think about it."

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