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Teachers Talk Religion From the Classroom to the Public Square

“When I came to the ICJS Teachers Fellowship meetings I’m sitting next to teachers from Beth Tfiloh, from public schools, from Friends School, from schools all over Baltimore County and Baltimore City. And I got to have interreligious dialogue with other people in a way that my little bubble life at Loyola often prevents me from having.” —Brendan Bailey, English Teacher, Loyola Blakefield

On May 20, Christine Gallagher, ICJS Program Director for Teachers, moderated an online conversation with four current and former ICJS Teacher Fellows on the topic of religion in the classroom as part of the larger public square. These educators discussed how they navigate religious differences while working to transform their classrooms and schools into interreligious spaces that promote pluralism, diversity, and civic engagement.

The four panelists—all local teachers who have participated in ICJS’ one-year, cohort-based Teachers Fellowship—answered questions about how religion is talked about in the classroom, what students are asking, lessons learned, and much, much more. Panelists included Jill Aizenstein, Jewish History and English Teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School; Brendan Bailey, English Department Chair and Teacher at Loyola Blakefield; Kenya Beard, World History and American Government Teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute; and Patrice Frasier, African American Studies and American Government Teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

The teachers also discussed the challenges and opportunities they encounter while educating their students. Each of the educators discussed the challenge of empowering their students and fulfilling students’ intellectual curiosities while also coping with anxieties that naturally arise while discussing religion.

“There comes a point where it’s a trust thing with you and your students, you get to read your room and your students, and when they’re comfortable with you and you’re comfortable with them, you kind of open up and talk about some of these things,” said Frasier. “If you’re building trust with your students, they know that you’re coming from a good space, you know they’re coming from a good space and they talk more about themselves and their religions.”

Overall, the panelists were positive about the inquisitive nature of their students and their own ability to discuss religious issues in an academic and enlightening way. “I write to parents all the time and I say, if these children are the next generation, if these are the ones that I’m going to be voting for in 25 years, then we are in much better shape for the future than we are right now,” said Bailey.