As I left the elementary school, the supervisor of the after-school program where I was teaching took me aside. I was initially nervous that I had done something wrong, which can easily happen when you are attempting to teach 20 children world religions, but I was pleasantly surprised when she said, “I saw a few of your students trying to meditate on the playground today. I think your program is having an impact on them!”
Students excited to meditate may seem like a small victory when stress-relieving exercises are on-trend. But, in a climate where teaching world religions in an elementary school classroom setting can be seen as controversial, it is the little victories that count.
As a senior at the University of Iowa, I decided for my final thesis to build a program that would explore interfaith dialogue in the classroom. I created a six-week after-school program for kindergartners through sixth graders about five of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Then, I taught the program at five different schools with students who opted into the program with their parent’s permission.
Through the University of Iowa, I was given an incredible network of resources and advisers that helped make this possible. With this project, I was hoping to prove the benefits of starting religious literacy at an elementary-school level rather than waiting for higher education and the importance of teaching students about the diverse world around them.
Children are often able to ask questions and explore concepts even adults find baffling, so in a time when many see different religions as either right or wrong, black or white, I sought the company of those who might be able to see religion as more of a spectrum of colors. Personally, I grew up surrounded by people who practiced diverse religions traditions such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity. My exposure to different faiths as a child gave me a unique perspective on religious diversity as an adult and I wanted to share that. While I am not a religious scholar or an experienced teacher for that matter, I hoped my passion for the subject and my interest in the thoughts of the next generation would guide me.
I had never designed a curriculum before and I often struggled with finding the right words to say. I knew that teaching religions in schools could be contentious – even with students opting in to an after-school program – and I wanted to make sure my curriculum was transparent. I didn’t want parents thinking I was trying to evangelize their child, but I also wanted my students to learn as much as possible. I continually grappled with striking the right balance.
Why should a ten-year-old care about enlightenment, and how do I make the five pillars of Islam engaging to a child that has never heard of them before? Luckily, or maybe it was “divine intervention,” I realized that I could use a theme to bring these religions together: the golden rule. All traditions emphasize respect and treating others the way you want to be treated. Using that as a unifying theme , I hoped, would teach religious tolerance, even if students didn’t remember the specifics of each lesson.
One of the things I discovered is that the students were very curious about different traditions and unafraid to ask challenging questions. As my students and I watched a video about the Hindu festival of Diwali, I watched as their eyes lit up at the festival of lights, but seconds later I watched their brows furrow as they learned that this was a festival celebrating good over evil.
After the video ended one student raised his hand and asked me why good was always winning and why evil couldn’t win for a change. They rest chimed in, citing how in the stories they read and television shows they watched, it seemed like good always prevailed. They wondered what would happen if evil won for a change. While I stood perplexed at how to answer, another student spoke up (reminding me that the fireworks from the video weren’t the only things that were bright). He told the class that like karma, good things come from good and evil things come from evil, and we were probably better off trusting good than evil if we wanted things to be good in the world. I wasn’t sure he totally grasped the nuances of karma, but I was glad to see him try to make these connections.
But my students also reminded me that it is sometimes hard to be good. After challenging the class to create and perform a skit with and without the golden rule, I asked them which one was easier to do. While an adult might have known the answer was supposed to be the skit with the golden rule, the students were unafraid to be honest and told me that sometimes it was hard to be nice to others. This led to a conversation where we discussed how the students often felt peer pressure to stay quiet instead of sticking up for others, and that many of their classmates took recess as an opportunity to bully others while playing sports. Eventually we came to the conclusion that in the long run it is better to use the golden rule. But of course, they were right, sometimes it is hard to be nice.
Watching children learn about the culturally diverse and wonderful world around them has been the biggest victory of my college career. And then there was everything I learned. I was reminded that the playground can be a dangerous place, understanding others isn’t always easy, and sometimes it’s okay to not have all the answers, even if you’re claiming to be the “expert.”
On the last day of the program, I asked one of my students if she felt that kids her age should learn about other religions. At eleven years old, she responded that not only did she feel like it was important for her to learn about this topic, but that if she ever met a new student that had different traditions than her, she would now be able to connect with them. For me, this was when I realized I had done what I set out to do. Even if none of my students remembered the definition of monotheistic , I wanted them to be able to engage with the world around them in a new way.
As I had watched adults on the news fall deeper into previously held convictions, I felt encouraged that a group of children in Iowa were willing to adopt some new ideas. My students gave me hope that diversity doesn’t have to be polarizing even as the world around us becomes more so. Bringing interfaith conversations into the classroom allows us as adults to not only shape the next generation, but to re-shape ourselves.
Small victories may seem simple and I can’t promise that my program will change anything besides giving some kids a fun activity to do after school, but as I heard about my students meditating on the playground that day, I couldn’t help but hope that a new type of interfaith conversation was started.