Harvard educators preach religious literacy at Prospect High School

A team of Harvard educators wrapped up a two-day conference Friday at Prospect High School. The topic? Expanding religious literacy programming to high school educators.

"The heart of what we do is to partner with educators," said Diane Moore, who founded the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard's Divinity School.

On hand to hear from Moore and her team were teachers from 15 high schools, including ones in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties.

They ranged from many in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 to Glenbrook South High School, which has offered a world religions class for 35 years, and Stevenson High School, which offers one section per semester.

"I get many students who come up to me at the end of their senior year and tell me that it was the most important course they took," said Stacy Flannery, a social studies teacher at Glenbrook South, where seven sections of world religions are offered each semester.

Melissa Fainman, who teaches world religions at Stevenson, added: "I love it because of the magic that happens, of seeing knowledge about the world opening up students' eyes."

The Harvard team came to Prospect by way of John Camardella, who teaches five sections per day of world religions through the social studies department at Prospect. The course is one of the most popular electives in the school and has spawned evening sections for parents.

"It's critical, living in a pluralistic democracy, that people are informed," Camardella says.

Over the last year, Camardella has become a fellow of Harvard's Religious Literacy Project and has been working to pilot national guidelines on how to teach world religions and provide curriculum support.

"What I've witnessed in the first year of this work with Dr. Moore and the team is that when you give students the skills and the knowledge to access information and think about things in new ways, they will not fail to surprise you with how engaged and excited they are," he said.

This is only the second time that Harvard members of the Religious Literacy Project have left Cambridge to meet with teachers in their own surroundings. The other time was when they met with teachers in West Hartford, Connecticut, Moore said.

She said she wanted to do more than train teachers during the workshop, seeking instead substantive engagement with them. Before attending, teachers had to watch a video about Norwegian academic Johan Galtung and his theory on factors that produce violence, as well as to read a case study of Malaysia's Sisters in Islam, who organized to advocate for women's rights in the Islamic judicial system.

Last year, the National Council for Social Studies affirmed the addition of religious literacy as an essential part of a well-rounded education.

"Teaching about religions is definitely gaining interest among educators and people in general," said Sarabinh Levy-Brightman, senior curriculum associate with the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard. "There's a broad phenomenon of cultural sensitivity developing that says learning about religion is relevant."

Professional basketball player Enes Kanter, right, addresses John Camardella's world religions class last spring at Prospect High School. Courtesy of Frank Mirandola
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