On a recent educational tour of Egypt, while driving through the sizzling summer sands from Alexandria to Cairo, my group stopped to visit the St. Macarius monastery, a Coptic Orthodox religious community founded in 360 A.D. A friendly resident monk gave us a tour of the grounds and the interior chapels. Unexpectedly, he recited a stirring chant, allowing us a slight glimpse into a ritual of devotion.
At one point, I noticed our guide (I will call him M.T. for his privacy) in a far corner of the chapel, deep in prayer. M.T. was a rambunctious storyteller who kept us laughing and learning throughout the tour as he related the ancient deities and pharaohs to the modern political climate and economy. I did not want to stare at him, but I felt astonished that he was openly displaying something so devout.
I had thought he practiced Islam because many people in Northern Africa do, or he was not religious because that is my usual assumption about people I meet. Instead, as he later explained, he is quite religious and a member of a historic religious minority in Egypt. By gradually sharing his religious identity, he illuminated Coptic Christianity from a layperson’s perspective. The monk’s experiences were fascinating, but M.T. made me think about religious identity and practice in an everyday context.
Religious identity and practice have converged again now that I’m a part of the ICJS Teachers Fellowship. When I heard about the fellowship, I considered how unaware I was of contemporary religious practice and wanted to apply to join the cohort. Like many public school educators, I have kept religious topics out of the classroom. Apart from using broad definitions and categories of religious traditions, I have often avoided personal religion because I needed to learn how to facilitate discussions productively and comfortably.
As a result, shortly into my fellowship experience, I created a goal of diversifying my classroom library to represent religious identities. For my contemporary interreligious library, I began reading books for young audiences with characters expressing an explicit religious perspective. I also wanted the books in my compiled list to be aimed at individuals across faiths and viewpoints. As I started adding books to my class library, students began noticing. I am an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) high school teacher, so I included many books intended for a middle-grade audience because of my students’ English proficiency. One of the books was Other Words from Home by Jasmine Warga, a beautiful, poetic journey about a Syrian refugee.
A few days after I placed the book on the shelf, a Muslim student from Jordan named Maryam, started looking through it and asked if she could take it home. Of course, I was thrilled and told her, “Yes, please do!” I was excited for her to take the book because I want students to experience positive representations of both their own and other students’ beliefs.
Displaying interreligious books visibly and making them accessible to everyone exposes students to different viewpoints that they can always relate to on some level. A few days after I lent Maryam the book, another student asked for a copy; I had hoped interest in the books would spread!
My daughter, who is in elementary school, read Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, about a young person’s Jewish faith before I could bring it to my own school. It was her first exposure to Judaism through storytelling. She soon passed it on to other students who had spotted her reading it at her school. Eventually, it will make its way to my shelf, but for now, it is finding its way around the elementary school.
Another example of a young adult book that I intend on distributing to teachers and students is Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue, a poignant, humorous, and heartbreaking story. The journey as a refugee from Iran to Oklahoma as told by a young son of a Christian mother was so unexpected that I started looking for grants to get books into other classrooms. If more people could read this authentic experience, which weaves religion, class, and folklore through unparalleled storytelling, their awareness of religious diversity, refugees’ experiences, Iranian culture and history, and individuals who challenge prevailing views would inevitably be more refined and nuanced.
Throughout this book-exploring process, I have appreciated the growing variety and quality of young adult literature and its potential to foster interreligious dialogue and understanding. Each story offers a different religious lens and unique perspective. Reading others’ stories can help students develop empathy and compassion and can help them think about their own experiences. Due to increasing my religious awareness, I am asking more questions and working on a plan to give students a space to share their stories. When religion comes up in classes, I often pause to discuss how pluralism enriches our society. As a result, I think religious literacy for everyone is improving this year. With intentional dialogue and access to diverse perspectives within stories, the classroom can be a safe space for spiritual awareness and acceptance.
As I am ending the 2022-2023 school year, I can reflect on how my religious awareness has grown since I visited the monastery back in June of 2022. Although I was initially lacking enthusiasm about stopping at the monastery, I immediately had questions about everything once I stepped into the historic courtyard. The visit piqued my curiosity about religion and I was fortunate to continue learning about many facets of religious practice and identity through the fellowship that I will continue to develop throughout my career in education.
Trisha Van Wagner teaches ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and social studies at Digital Harbor High School and was a fellow in the 2022-2023 ICJS Teachers Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS teacher programs for teachers here.
Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Teacher Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.