Suburban educators develop guidelines on teaching about religion

In some history textbooks, the last mention of religion falls in the 1800s.

But religion still matters in a nation where residents are free to practice - or not practice - as they wish, say three suburban education experts who helped write new guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools.

The guidelines provide the first nationally endorsed framework for how to teach about religious traditions in an academic, nondevotional way, say the authors, who have ties to Naperville Central, Prospect and Wheeling high schools.

The document, approved this summer by the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Academy of Religion, is a supplement to a set of guidelines widely used by social studies curriculum creators across the nation called the College, Career and Civic Life Framework.

Written by a team of eight experts from across the country including teachers Seth Brady of Naperville Central and John Camardella of Prospect, as well as religious literacy specialist and 2006 Wheeling graduate Benjamin Marcus, the new guidelines encourage instructors to teach about religious belief systems without supporting or opposing them.

"What teachers were really looking for was guidance," said Brady, who teaches a comparative religions course that's a rarity across the suburbs, "not only on what can and cannot be taught in public schools, but how to teach about religion in public schools."

"About" is a key word here, say Brady and Camardella. Teachers in public schools cannot constitutionally teach religion in a way meant to form believers, but the authors say they can teach students about various religions and how they originated, how they are practiced and what they mean in the broader world.

"These guidelines reflect a civic imperative that now, perhaps more than at any other time, it's important that people in our society know their neighbors," Brady said. "Part of knowing your neighbors is knowing some of the religious traditions."

Camardella, who teaches two courses of world religions each year at Prospect - one focusing on Eastern traditions and the other on Western - said the guidelines instruct teachers to focus on how religion can affect three elements of daily life: beliefs, behaviors and belonging.

"At no point do we ever speak for religion," Camardella said. "We educate. We don't endorse."

Another lesson the framework highlights is that there is diversity within each religion. All religions change over time and all religions are embedded in and affected by the culture of their followers.

Teaching these lessons to students from kindergarten through 12th grade is about more than memorization, said Marcus, who works as a religious literacy specialist and instructor at the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C.

"It should also be to understand how people are thinking about their own religious identities," Marcus said.

Students who learn these premises are less likely to stereotype others because of their religion or make harmful generalizations, educators say.

"The ultimate key," Camardella said, "is being able to be culturally responsive as well as being honest and respectful about approaching and engaging the different traditions of the world."

Because the new religious education framework was adopted so recently, teachers this year won't necessarily be following it, the authors say. But it now can be a guiding resource as states and local school districts update their social studies lessons and standards.

"We're hoping that more teachers will recognize that (education about religion) is constitutional, and they'll recognize this isn't a luxury," Marcus said. "This is a key part of preparing students for college, careers and civic life, in order to understand what it means to live with the fact of a religiously diverse democracy."

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Prospect High School world religions teacher and basketball coach John Camardella says students gain the ability to understand the interplay of religion and culture when they learn about religious traditions from a nondevotional, academic perspective. Daily Herald file photo
Seth Brady is a comparative religions teacher at Naperville Central High School who helped develop new guidelines for constitutionally appropriate study about religion in public schools. The guidelines were adopted this summer by the National Council for the Social Studies.
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