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Religion is a touchy subject in most American classrooms, especially for those of us working in public schools. It is a slippery slope that many teachers navigate very carefully; no one wants to offend a student, parent, or co-worker by voicing personal religious views or inadequately sharing information on another religion.
Nevertheless, educators cannot avoid discussing religion. Last year the Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, which “expanded the opportunity for public school employees to legally lead students in prayer” The Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority vote on the case proves that religion plays an active part in our day-to-day teaching, even if it does not make the daily headline news.
As teachers, we must recognize that religion may be a more significant part of our students’ lives than we ever imagined. Sure, your family may attend church regularly and honor religious practices in your home, but some of our students are living a religion. Likely a tradition passed down through many generations of their family, their religious way of life has probably become second nature to them. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have a long history in the United States, and as time progresses, they are actively practiced by more and more of our students. These religions are not uncommon in our classrooms, even if we do not initially realize they are present.
For example, your Muslim students likely celebrate Ramadan and fast during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. During Ramadan, they will not be eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset; unfortunately, as busy as we are in our classrooms daily, we could easily miss a student skipping meals. This exact thing happened years ago in my classroom. It truly opened my eyes to the different religions my students were practicing at home and their faith’s importance in their lives.
“As a teacher, I do not want to give my students the impression that religion of any kind is ‘scary’ or ‘taboo.'”Why You Should Be Celebrating Religious Freedom Day in Your Classroom Click To Tweet
What is Religious Freedom Day?
Every year since 1993, National Religious Freedom Day has been celebrated on January 16. January 16 holds a specific significance; it is the day the Virginia General Assembly passed Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1776. The statute clarified that Jefferson believed people had the right to choose their religious beliefs. The law is divided into three sections, and teachers could highlight each section individually within the classroom. It also permits people to change religions freely without negative consequences. In today’s increasingly diverse schools, helping our students understand that change is a part of life and does not always hold adverse outcomes can be hugely encouraging for them.
As a teacher, I do not want to give my students the impression that religion of any kind is “scary” or “taboo.” However I want them to learn about other faiths respectfully and understand that religious preferences make us individual and unique. Furthermore, I want them to realize that their classmates, who may not worship the same ways they do, are beautifully practicing their own religions on the terms that work best for their culture, families, and themselves.
How Teachers Can Celebrate Religious Freedom Day in Their Classrooms
Having some guidelines can be an excellent way for educators to properly and comfortably discuss religious celebrations within their classrooms. When taught correctly, religion can be rich, culturally diverse content to share with your students.
- Only share religious information that is factual. Religion is an easy topic for educators and students, especially older ones, to form a personal opinion about. Avoid discussions on personal beliefs.
- Use reliable sources. Allowing our students to research is one of the greatest tools we have to help them expand their knowledge. Teaching them the importance of using primary resources is especially important when teaching about different religions. Because many religious views can include personal opinions, guiding students toward factual information can help prevent biased opinions in the classroom.
- Avoid personal statements. Whether positive or negative, sharing your personal experiences or thoughts on a particular religion is a bad idea. Firstly, we as teachers would never want to offend any of our students who may unknowingly be practicing a specific religion. Not all students willingly share their religious preferences; speaking personal opinions on religion can offend someone when that is not the intent. Secondly, our job is to teach. When we begin inserting our own opinions into our teaching of religion, our ultimate goal of providing our students with factual knowledge becomes flawed.
- Help your students understand that different religions make us unique. Therefore, celebrating or practicing other religions is never a bad thing. Encourage your students to learn about other religions and how they make the individuals who practice them special.
- Encourage students to share their religious experiences and encourage students to listen respectfully. One of the best ways for our students to learn is through real-life experiences. If students are willing, having them share their journey with the religion they practice can be an eye-opening lesson for their fellow students. The facts they learn could make them more accepting and understanding later in life, which is a lesson more valuable than most.
Additional Religious Freedom Day Resources for Teachers
No matter the grade level you teach, there are plenty of resources out there to make religion a comfortably teachable subject. The National Council for Social Studies provides a study of religion in the social studies curriculum for teachers that includes sound teaching advice and plenty of factual information to use in your classroom. Directed towards younger students, Tannenbaum offers a downloadable resource titled Religions in My Neighborhood, full of updated lessons and activities to help your students better understand world religions and cultures. In addition, Tannenbaum has a lesson for older students, Combating Extremism, that is “aimed at dismantling stereotypes, countering fake news, and imagining a world where differences are respected – no matter who we are or what we believe.” PBS also offers a teaching resource for students on religion, culture, and diversity with countless interactive activities for children. All of these resources are free, easily accessible, and readily available for educators around the world.
As long as we teach and present religious information in a respectful, informative way, celebrating different religions in the classroom can offer our students lessons in acceptance, diversity, and understanding that will ultimately serve them for years to come!
Ashley Chennault is currently a freelance writer and 4th-grade teacher in the small coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Ashley is in her 18th year of teaching and holds a master of arts degree in elementary education. In addition, she became Nationally Board Certified in 2020. In her free time, she enjoys her second job as a contract grant writer for philanthropy corporations, boating, beaching, cooking, watching her teenage sons play sports, and spending time with her three adopted wiener dogs, Georgie, Henry, and Tripp.
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