by John Rivera, ICJS Communications & Marketing Director

Q: You’ve described the goal of the ICJS Teachers Fellowship as helping educators apply an interreligious framework to their work. Could you elaborate?

We talk with secondary teachers (middle and high school) about this “interreligious framework” as the intersection of what’s in your curriculum, who’s in your classroom, and who you are as a person. All three of these elements are crucial to acknowledging the reality of religion in a classroom. It’s not theology—this is not a devotional approach. And it’s not just religious studies, that is, the theoretical book learning of a “world religion.” Rather, it’s religion in the real world of our society, our teachers, and their students.

Q: How does that happen in a public school, where there are legal prohibitions on promoting religion in the classroom?

The first thing that we want to make clear with public school teachers is that they can talk about religion. In the Abington v. Schempp 1963 [U.S. Supreme Court] case, the Court says you can “teach about religion, but not religion.” While the Court doesn’t explain what “teaching about religion” is, it does say that it can happen. An education without any discussion of religion is leaving out a major part of history and culture.

We also look at the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—and take some time to think about what that means to them as public school teachers and government actors.

I also ask public school teachers to think about where religion comes up in their curriculum: in the literature their students read, in the historic moments they cover. How is religion talked about? What are their own biases? What are their own blind spots? What is their own identity? How can they learn how to have these conversations without any sort of proselytizing. I think once you start talking about it with them, they see that religion is present and can be discussed without proselytizing. 

A lot of getting confident with teaching about religion comes down to recognizing fear and unexamined questions. Our teachers  have never had a space where they could ask these questions before. The ICJS Teachers Fellowship is a space where they can ask these tough questions and work out answers together.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions or myths about teaching interreligiously?

I think the big one is that anything to do with religion in the classroom is scary. I have heard many stories from teachers who tell me that they skip any discussion about religion, even when it is in their curriculum. If we really think about how schools are preparing students to go out into a multiracial, multireligious democracy, I think avoiding talking about religion is not preparing them to do that. I think that just reinforces the importance of the work that we do at ICJS. 

Another misconception is that people think that we’re only talking to religion teachers. But we have a DEI administrator, a music teacher, and an art history teacher in the cohort this year. Last year we had a statistics teacher. We also have a few special educators this year, and they are prepared to jump into any subject. Religion is a multidisciplinary topic. 

Q: What’s one story about interreligious education that inspires you?

One of our Fellows this year is in an English classroom, teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston—a text that she has used for years. Yet it wasn’t until she participated in the Teachers Fellowship that she asked the question: What does it mean that God is in the title of this book? She realized that she had never asked her students to talk about religion or the religious undertones in this book. 

In introducing the book, she now explores the religious undertones of the Harlem Renaissance because she sees that religion is present in the art, poetry, and music of that era. As the students consider the religious undertones of the text, many of them make connections to their own religious identities and recognize both the similarities and the differences with their classmates. 

This gets to the heart of what we at ICJS talk about when we say we want to build an interreligious society: How can we live together with these differences? 

To have those questions confronted in a classroom and have students be able to reflect on that through the curriculum and through their lives is crucial. I think that’s a home run for our students who are co-builders of the interreligious society in their own communities and contexts.

If you are an educator and are interested in learning more, visit the Teachers Fellowship page on the ICJS website.