How do Educators Create a Positive Climate to Teach about Religion?
Guest Blog: Matt Gresick
I love teaching world religions. Over most of my 20 years teaching public school in Maryland, I’ve found myself engaged, challenged, and fulfilled by exploring religious literacy with my students. Our school has an elective class (world religions) that deep dives into humanity’s rich faith traditions. I often get questions about how I could teach such a divisive topic as religion in today’s hyper-conflict environment. How do you create a positive climate to teach about religion in the classroom? This question is often the first one I get. To answer this question, I want to relate a classroom experience of mine that is particularly poignant and illustrative.
With teaching world religions, students need to understand that we have a unique framework of experiences that have formed how we see the world. This framework of experiences has numerous windows helping us make sense of our human condition. For instance, one of the windows I see through is thinking of myself as “male.” This “male” window I see through helps me decide how to further interact with my world, and my view of the world is different from someone who does not identify as a “male.” The same is true of our religious identity. I was raised in the Christian religious tradition, and my father is a Methodist minister, so I see the world through a Christian lens. In my world religions course, I want students to not break their religious window but try ever so slightly to look at the world through the window of another faith. They might disagree with what they see, but that’s okay; at least they are taking a look.
The other issue I address from the start is to let students know that their words carry weight and have power. As such, they need to be civil and respectful to one another. I remember a time during my first year teaching the class. We were just finishing the Christianity unit, and I asked if there were any more additional questions. A young man in the class raised his hand and asked, “Is it true that if a woman gets an abortion, she’s going straight to Hell?” After swallowing hard and replying, “Good question and let me think for a moment,” I know how to stall for a time like all good teachers given tough questions. Then I replied, “I can’t speak to if abortion is a sin, but the Christian scripture communicates on multiple occasions that nothing is beyond the grace of God.”
I felt good about my response since it was nonjudgmental and grounded in the Christian religious tradition from a nondevotional and academic perspective in which we were studying. This nondevotional and academic perspective is a foundational principle of teaching about religion in the classroom that is articulated by the American Academy of Religion, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life. As quickly as I answered the question, the bell rang, and I turned my back to organize papers. A young female student tapped me on the shoulder. I saw that her eyes were shrink-wrapped in tears as I turned around. She said, “Mr. Gresick, I had an abortion two weeks ago.” So we headed to the school counselor together. As educators, we only have a snapshot of our students and never have the whole picture. So with religion in the classroom, we need to be sure to create a respectful classroom environment that allows for multiple perspectives and upholds the principles of teaching about religion. It is then that we can teach about religions to positively impact our students’ lives.
Matt Gresick is a public school teacher with 20 years of experience teaching social studies on the middle and high school levels. He has taught world religions for a majority of that time conducting field trips to six different places of worship. In 2020, Matt won Maryland History Teacher of the Year from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.