Guest Blog: Elsa Kunz, Graduate Student, Harvard Divinity School
The category of “religion” is a challenging one, and many students arrive in the classroom with unexplored assumption about what “counts” as religion. For many students, “religion” is an isolatable category that occurs in designated spaces, places, and people. Yet the reality is that religion does not happen in a vacuum. Inspired by, and grounded in, the methods and mission of the Program for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, this lesson is designed to help students think broadly about religion as an integral dimension of the human experience.
Topic: This lesson plan uses everyday images to help students explore the category of religion as it appears in their everyday lives.
Grades: 9-12 (but adaptable for both younger and older audiences)
Rationale: The word “religion” is challenging. Students and teachers alike come into the classroom with assumptions about what religion is and where religion occurs. Oftentimes, these assumptions include the following:
1) religion is in opposition to ‘the secular’
2) religion is personal (as opposed to communal)
3) religion is private (as opposed to public), and
4) religion is about what someone believes (as opposed to how they practice)
Indeed, religion does play out in personal and private contexts and, very often, it concerns beliefs about the metaphysical world. However, the fact that this is the baseline understanding of religion for many American students deserves interrogation.
It’s important to recognize that these assumptions do not arise a priori. Rather, they reflect a situated perspective heavily influenced by white Protestant Christianity. As teachers of the academic study of religion, part of our task is to complicate the above assumptions.
This project is specifically designed to create opportunities for students to practice uncovering religion outside of normally expected places. Active scaffolding will prepare students for larger conversations and deeper reflection about the ways in which Protestant Christian understandings of religion are embedded in American culture and how definitions about religion reflect entrenched power differentials.
- Develop a reflex for perceiving religion in everyday life
- Challenge assumptions that religion is relegated to private and/or personal contexts
- Uncover ways that religion appears as an exercise of power
- Demonstrate the principles of religious literacy
Begin by showing students sets of images that depict religion both explicitly and implicitly. Ask them if they think the image involves religion or not.
Students might immediately recognize a building such as a church or mosque as religious, but they might have a harder time thinking about how religion is embedded in a photo of a U.S. government building or the U.S. Great Seal.
Continue to show additional photos that complicate the binary. For example, show photos of swearing-in ceremonies or brand logos that use religious imagery. For example, all the logos shown below make use of Christian-based words and images – an ark, a dove, an apple, and a shell.
The more you look, the more you’ll find. Images can be found on calendars, supermarket items, greeting cards, and book covers!
Ask students to describe their own initial reactions when seeing these images. You can also use this exercise as a way to facilitate discussion about categories and categorical thinking. Then, introduce the assignment.
Students are tasked with documenting ways religion appears (explicitly and implicitly) in their everyday contexts. They will take five images and write a one-paragraph description about how they see religion in the photo. Encourage students to include at least two images of implicit religion. In their descriptions, students should also incorporate the principles of religious literacy.
For students seeking additional guidance, provide them with this Field Guide (originally designed for students at Bunker Hill Community College).
Exceeds Criteria (95+)
- Meets Criteria AND
- Demonstrates new learning and insight
- Is well-organized and follows standard grammar conventions
Meets Criteria (90-95)
My project contains….
- Five images and five paragraph descriptions
- Each description addresses the context in which you found the object and its relationship to religion in society
- Each description addresses at least one principle of religious literacy
- Each description contains one question you had when you encountered the object
- An overall summary paragraph
- The summary paragraph reflects on the types of objects photographed and their locations
- The summary paragraph reflects on the process of ‘looking for religion’ in unexpected places
Approaching Criteria (70-89)
- Meets the two primary criteria (five images with paragraph descriptions and a summary paragraph)
- Meets some of the sub-criteria
Does Not Meet Criteria (Below 69)
- Contains fewer than five images
- Does not include descriptions
- Does not include a summary paragraph
Elsa received her BA in French. She is currently a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and an aspiring secondary school educator. Academically, she spends time thinking creatively about incorporating the academic study of religion in the humanities classroom. Outside of her research, she enjoys running, singing, and hiking with friends.
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