For the first and second parts of this series, click here and here.

From reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to analyzing artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago, students around the nation are embarking on educational activities from a new religious studies-informed angle.

Thanks to the Religious Literacy Project (RLP) at Harvard Divinity School, which guides teachers in incorporating a constitutionally sound approach to presenting the interplay between culture and religion, students are developing better understanding of how the multiple facets of religion influence human experience.

Not a moment too soon in today’s pluralistic society, teamwork involving educators and RLP scholars and fellows has begun to reshape how religion is perceived and discussed in classrooms — and out in the world.

Teaching religion from a cultural perspective impacts democracy

Religion is a powerful force behind world affairs past and present, yet receives insufficient attention in K-12 education.

When presented in world history or social studies in text books, religion is often relegated to what Religious Literacy Project founder Diane L. Moore calls “the religion centerfold,” a two-page section that names the major world religions, their founders, dates, location and beliefs.

This not only neglects to demonstrate religion’s significant role in shaping history and current events — it fails to give young people tools for interacting democratically in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

The widespread lack of understanding of culture and religion hinders cooperative endeavors locally and globally while fueling bigotry and prejudice, explained Moore in a keynote address during a two-day workshop held in the Chicago suburbs this October.

“We so much want to be able to give people better language to understand the complexity of religion and discern its power in particular contexts as a tool to help us achieve the incredible dream of deep democracy,” emphasized Moore.

Expanding the scope of religious literacy

Moore details four fundamental tenets of the academic study of religion in an Education Week article. These form the foundation for guidelines to teaching religion in public K-12 schools that she authored in collaboration with the American Academies of Religion and the National Council for the Social Studies.

The cultural approach that Moore has developed based on these guidelines gives students new tools — including the necessary language — to navigate the complex nature of religion’s influence on the various subjects they study.

“The beauty of this method is that we change how we approach and speak about religion in both stand-alone classes, like comparative religions, and when the subject comes up in history, social studies or literature classes,” said Prospect High School World Religions teacher John Camardella, who organized the workshop and was interviewed for the previous article in this series.

The workshop with the Harvard team drew 45 administrators and teachers from 16 Chicago area high schools who represented various disciplines. They left enthusiastic to use the lessons they’d developed in the training with their students.

A recently-appointed fellow for the Religious Literacy Project, Camardella has been actively advocating for more religious and cultural literacy opportunities across the curriculum with recent presentations to the U.S. Department of Education and STEM educators.

He’s also known for his popular community classes on religion which he initially offered for his students’ parents after several voiced the same concerns about what he was teaching in class. Camardella has noticed how the religious literacy promoted through these classes not only improves the conversation at home between parents and students but also unites the community.

Educators benefit from extensive teaching resources

Teachers interested in an intensive introduction to Religious Literacy Project-specific teaching methods can attend the five-day summer institute offered free of cost to educators from any discipline who teach at the middle, high school or community college levels. The workshops which take place at Harvard University also focus on facilitating peer support to help each attendee develop curriculum-specific lesson plans.

Last summer, educators from 17 states and Canada attended the institute, according to Lauren Kerby, education specialist for the Religious Literacy Project. Among the subjects she has seen the RLP cultural studies approach applied to by participants are world and U.S. history, social studies, literature, foreign languages and the humanities.

Teacher Austin Crowder incorporated what he gained into the curriculum of his civics class at a Tennessee high school. Now when he teaches Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his students’ experience is enriched by having the subject presented in its religious context.

“The RLP method is especially useful in this lesson helping students examine the internal diversity of all players involved with the letter — including the clergy with their contrasting viewpoints,” notes Crowder.

The RLP website boasts a wealth of resources designed to give educators comprehensive tools for teaching about religion in the context of culture.

At the crux of the teaching materials is a series of case studies which can be used on their own or in conjunction with the religion profiles and/or country profiles.

The case studies illustrate how religious traditions deal in diverse ways with issues of climate change, minority status in the United States, violence and peace, and gender. The site also features videos and multi-media modules for teaching and regularly adds new links to pertinent current events.

Students drive their learning about religion through a cultural lens

The RLP approach can be used to foster student driven learning as seen in Camardella’s world religions class.

At the beginning of each unit, students view four case studies related to the religion being studied. For example, one case study on Hinduism covers climate change as related to pollution of the sacred Ganges River while another looks at how some American Hindus protested the portrayal of their religion in school textbooks.

To wrap up the unit, students choose the case study they found most fascinating, then are given approximately six questions from which they select two to write essays on. For the final exam students dive in deeper by developing, researching and presenting their own case study.

Last school year, student projects explored Muslim women’s participation in New York Fashion Week, Muslim astronauts praying to Mecca from the ISS, historical receptions of the Broadway show “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and differing attitudes among Shia and Sunni Muslims toward transgender identities, according to an article in The Harvard Gazette that outlines Camardella’s journey with the RLP.

“What you have is a way of assessing students in a healthy and authentic way, by allowing kids to come at the study of religion based on their interests. And what we’ve seen is, kids are now hyper-interested in this because they have so much vested in it,” commented Camardella in the article.

In the ways religions are dynamic, Camardella’s teaching is dynamic — evidenced by a December fieldtrip to the Art Institute of Chicago where over 130 students from his five world religions classes conducted field exams.

Kerby, who worked with Camardella on this pilot effort to see how the RLP approach works when the study of art is incorporating with study of religion, reported that the students were very excited and engaged.

“Through deep collaborative relationships with teachers like we have with John Camardella, we can generate better resources to improve literacy,” says Kerby. “So the current focal point of the Religious Literacy Project is building a network of interested educators.”