Monthly Archives: September 2011

Church and State: Teaching students to discuss religion in an academic context

As part of my syllabus for AP Literature and Composition, I am teaching The Divine Comedy (otherwise affectionately known as Dante’s Inferno). It’s an amazing work of literature, widely considered to be one of the major literary works of all time. It provides a veritable playground of imagery, figurative language, allusion, and tone for my literature students to analyze, and gives them experience grappling with interpreting a difficult text. It’s definitely AP material. However, as my unit approached, I wondered about the entrenchment of this text within the Catholic, Christian tradition.  I mean, let’s face it–this piece creates a layout of  hell (as imagined by Dante, informed by his religious beliefs) that straight out condemns certain people and behavior based upon very religiously saturated reasons and examples. The entire piece, down to its terza rima structure, is reflective of a Christian worldview. As I began to envision our classroom discussions, I wondered about my students’ ability to talk about religion in the context of literature. Would they be able to delve into ideas about the novel without turning the class into a “whose religion is right?” type of fiasco? Would they become confused and think that I was teaching The Inferno as a sacred text? I didn’t want to shy away from discussing the text, I wanted to have quality discussions that included religion, and I wanted to address my students’ lack of experience in this department. (My situation is also exacerbated by the fact that my students come from a small town where religious diversity is largely overlooked or even feared. They are, generally speaking, uncomfortable talking about difference in religious beliefs, even between Christian denominations.)
With all that in mind, I dedicated a portion of one of my introductory lessons to talking about how religion plays a part in academia, particularly in the humanities. A part of this was instruction on how to participate in an academic discussion where religion features prominently.  I created the following list to help manage our discussions, and my students have responded well so far.
Things to adhere to when discussing religion in an academic context:

žBring your beliefs, but treat their discussion as an intellectual exercise. Detach from extreme spiritual passion in this context.

žExhibit tolerance, respect, and curiosity regarding the beliefs of others.

žRefer to a religious belief/worldview as a belief, worldview, tradition, cultural stance, etc., rather than The Truth. (It may be YOUR truth, but it may not be the truth for others.)

žDo not openly react to a belief-oriented comment which offends you.

žDo not try to convert others to your point of view, or condemn your classmates.

žSeek commonalities between traditions.

žDescribe cultural impact of religious traditions.

žBe able to have discussions on ethics/morality that stand upon foundations other than that of religious tenets.

A public school classroom is the State, and not the Church, without a doubt. However, as I tell my students, intelligent people understand that these two entities profoundly impact one another in an interdependent way. Religion is powerful, and to shy away from discussing it is to water down our understanding of the world, of culture, of ourselves. Students bring their beliefs to class every day. While we don’t, as public school teachers, teach in terms of faith, we do owe it to our students to allow this part of their culture to be recognized as a part of who they are. Discussing religious themes (whether Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic in nature) can be sticky, but when done appropriately it provides a deep look into human nature and motivation that, in my opinion, composes much of what literature, humanity, and truth is all about.

When Etiquette and Education Collide: “Good Afternoon!”

I’m one of those teachers who is committed to standing outside the door of my classroom each period, every day, as students enter my classroom. It’s a great opportunity to monitor the mood and energy level of each student before class begins, catch a student for a quick chat about an absence or assignment, and to confiscate the occasional distracting item before it crosses the threshold. But mostly, standing at the door is just to say “hi”—to take a brief moment to connect with students in an interpersonal way, outside of any academic context, to send the message “I notice you are here, and I’m glad to see you.” Taking the time to do that is important. The accumulation of all those two-second greetings can add up to a valuable relationship with each and every student.

That being said, the students aren’t always as enthusiastic about saying “hi” as I am. Maybe they’re not used to adults addressing them. Maybe they hate English class. Maybe they have hearing loss. Whatever the underlying cause, year after year, at least half of my students just walk past as I greet them, staring straight ahead, scowls or blank looks on their faces, completely unresponsive even when I greet them by name. All year long, I say hello. All year long, some will continue to ignore it with all the aloofness of an irritated retail customer. In the past, I’ve simply accepted this behavior as a manifestation of adolescent apathy that was beyond my control. Not anymore.

As the school year began and I again started to experience the Good Morning!/[No Response] Phenomenon, I thought back to a book that I read as an undergrad called The Essential 55: An Award Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child. The book, often more geared toward elementary teaching, uses manners and etiquette as a platform for student achievement. When I read it (and I would still maintain this), some of the 55 rules seemed a bit too picky, superficial, and difficult to enforce; the link between manners and ability to learn sounded a bit sketchy. However, I did recall that one of the rules addressed the situation of an adult greeting a student. Clark required his students to consistently make eye contact and greet adults pleasantly throughout the school day, especially if they were greeted first. This is an essential skill, no doubt. And it was, I felt, an important part of helping my students allow me to establish a relationship with them. So, I decided to go Ron Clark on them.

Sixth hour was the experimental group. As always, I said “Good afternoon” cordially to each student, meanwhile carefully observing their responses. It was as usual. As I started class, I told the students that I had something important and honest to share with them. I asked for a volunteer. A redhead with a goofy grin hopped up and came to the front of the classroom. “All right,” I told him. “You are going to play me. I am going to play a couple of different students. I’m going to walk toward you a few times. All you have to do is smile at me and say ‘Good Afternoon’.” He obliged.

“Every day when I greet you at the door, about a third of you do this,” I said. I walked past, blatantly ignoring the personal greeting and mumbling something like “buhhhh” as I stared like a slack-jawed idiot.

“And about a third of you do this,”I said. Shortly after, I blurted out “DO WE NEED OUR BOOK TODAY?” about three inches from my poor volunteer’s face before he could even finish the “good” of “good afternoon.”

“And… about a third of you do this.” This time I gave a polite smile, a nod, and an enthusiastic reply of “good afternoon!” I finished up the exercise by saying some persuasive things about the importance of courtesy and collegiality in the professional world along with a fair amount of pathos regarding my own hurt feelings at not being greeted in return!

To my surprise and delight, my students responded resoundingly to this demo. I now have a 100% rate of students smiling and greeting me at the door. Many of them now say hello even when they’re on their way to a different class. Success.

It may seem like a small detail, but it has resulted in easier classroom management, increased class participation, and more positive attitudes about English class (and the English teacher herself, I suppose). While this small expectation alone does not create success, it certainly sets students up for it.