Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

Last week your blogger and Dr. Yellin attended a program on "American Education and the Separation of Church and State" sponsored by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Hunter College here in New York.

The two speakers brought very different perspectives on the issue. Professor Philip Hamburger,
Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a nationally recognized expert on the separation of church and state, discussed the origins of the concept of separating religion from government and how this issue has been dealt with in the courts over the years. His scholarly presentation gave this issue context and an historical perspective.

The second speaker was Matthew Yellin, Social Studies Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Hillside Arts and Letters Academy (HALA), a New York City public high school in Jamaica, Queens (and son of your blogger and Dr. Yellin). HALA is one of New York City's new small schools, with a current enrollment in grades 9-12 of 470 students with over 40 nationalities represented. More than 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of the economic challenges faced by the students and their families. HALA has had only one graduating class thus far, with a graduation rate of 83% (well above the average rate for New York City). As Matt noted, at any point in time, his classes have students with at least five different religions present, usually Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Buddist, as well as one or more Caribbean traditions.

Matt noted that teacher education programs rarely mention First Amendment issues and both teachers and students have what he calls "Folk Understandings" about talking about religion in the public school classroom. As a result, when religion is mentioned at all, it is in "fact bundles", a collection of facts which are taught because they are going to be on the New York State Regents exam: "The three tenets of this religion are...." He notes that this may make even students who follow that religion uncomfortable since they may practice it another way, and the use of fact bundles makes discussion difficult and dry. Instead, he suggests that there is room for meaningful teaching about religion that would include allowing open issues for discussion and talking about religious conflicts in the students' own communities. Further, he noted that the establishment clause does not apply to students and students can and should be encouraged to discuss religion through interview projects and personal narratives. Finally, he noted that  a school that has made respectful interaction the norm in classroom discussions makes all kinds of conversations easier, since students have learned to listen and respect the views of their classmates. 

The full program is available on the website of the Institute and in the link below. 

Matt Yellin's Presentation Begins at Minute 28

  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions

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