Teaching Religious Diversity through Children's Literature
Green, Connie, Oldendorf, Sandra, Childhood Education
It is the first day of school for 10-year-old Tariffa, a new student from Iran. He seems to adapt well to the morning routine; as the class prepares for lunch, however, he retreats to the back of the room and assumes ruku (the bowing position). Many of the children stare at Tariffa as they join the lunch line, leaving their new classmate behind.
In a 1st-grade classroom, Videk, a child who is Hindu, tells the other children at his snack table that his dog died the night before. He describes the family ritual after the pet's death and shares that he is sure his dog will return to earth as another animal or maybe even as a person. Ricky, a child who is Christian, says that the dog is surely in heaven with God and Jesus.
Each week, the kindergarten children in Susan's class set aside one day when they share something special from home. When it is Mara's turn, she proudly brings a book to show the class. She tells Susan it is her favorite story about the Buddha and asks Susan to read it.
As the United States becomes an increasingly diverse nation, scenarios such as the above are more and more common in our public school classrooms, thereby necessitating that teachers and students learn about religious differences. Nevertheless, teachers who honor the multiplicity of cultural backgrounds within schools and communities may be perplexed about the appropriateness of addressing religious differences. The initial impetus for this article came from teachers' questions, university class discussions, a desire to bring more substantive content into the curriculum, and the authors' observations of and interest in religion in the schools.
The purposes of this article are to:
* Give a historical perspective on religious diversity in the United States
* Develop a rationale for teachers and children to learn about religious pluralism
* Provide basic information, resources for teachers, and appropriate children's literature about major religious groups
* Explore developmentally appropriate and unobjectionable ways of introducing children to traditions and practices of various faiths through children's literature
* Provide a selected bibliography of children's books on religious diversity.
WHY SHOULD TEACHERS AND CHILDREN LEARN ABOUT DIFFERENT FAITH TRADITIONS?
A good first step when thinking about teaching religious diversity is examining one's own beliefs and level of acceptance, asking, "Do I accept values that are different from my own?" and "How do I feel about having children and families in my classroom who practice a variety of religions?" (Myers & Martin, 1993). Although many teachers will agree that they should respect their students' diverse religious traditions, they are unsure about what they can and cannot teach regarding religion. Most teachers in the United States accept the principle of separation of church and state and, therefore, find it confusing when they try to determine the content for a curriculum on religious diversity. As a result, some teachers choose not to bring up religion at all. According to Nel Noddings, "Educators are afraid to address religion in the schools and cite the First Amendment, which is really silly because the First Amendment doesn't prevent teaching about religion" (Halford, 1998/1999, p. 28).
Children bring to school not only their cognitive, physical, and emotional differences, but also their cultural traditions, including religious practices. When teachers have children in their classrooms who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jehovah's Witness, they have a vested interest in learning about their religious beliefs and practices. If we want children to feel safe and cared for at school and if we want to respect their families' hopes and beliefs, it is important that we know about their deepest convictions and values. Teachers and students need to move beyond the idea of tolerance toward an "active attempt to understand the other" (Eck, 2001, p. 70).
Classrooms where religious diversity is honored help children develop and preserve their cultural identity. As Esther Horne, a Shoshone Indian who struggled against a dominant white culture, states, "An individual without identity is like a plant devoid of nourishment. It withers and dies. Possessing identity, we feel a sense of freedom from within" (Home, 2003, p. 32).
Teaching about religion is also vital for understanding history, literature, art, and music. According to a coalition of 17 major religious and educational organizations, "Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant" (cited in Haynes & Thomas, 2001, p. 73). Social studies educators are especially adamant about including religion in the study of culture and history. According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), "Knowledge about religions is not only characteristic of an educated person, but also is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity" (NCSS, 1998).
Another goal of social studies education is to develop globally minded citizens who will develop interest in people and cultures different from their own (Merryfield, 2004). To support children in developing global dispositions, Merryfield calls for "substantive culture learning" in which students become more aware of the complexities of world cultures. Substantive culture learning also applies to learning about religious diversity within the United States. For example, simply knowing that most people in the United States are Christian ignores the rich variations within Christianity, such as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Amish, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists.
The religious tapestry of the United States has changed dramatically over time. Before the Europeans arrived, Native American culture was shaped by spiritual forces based on visions and a connection to the natural world that transcended time through oral traditions. The large majority of the first European settlers were Protestant Christian, having emigrated from the northwest region of Europe. The forced immigration of African slaves in 1619 brought a variety of African religious traditions grounded in multiple divinities and connections between states of being (living and dead, natural and supernatural) (Williams, 2002). Many Irish emigrated in the early 1800s to avoid persecution and famine. As a result, by 1850 the Roman Catholic Church was the largest group of Christians in the United States and remains so today, partially because of the growing Latino population. Later in the 19th century, the immigrants who came from Eastern and Southern Europe were primarily Roman Catholic, Jewish, or Eastern Orthodox. The Japanese brought Buddhism to Hawaii in 1868, and Chinese laborers introduced Buddhism to the West when they came to work on the railroads and in the mines in the mid-19th century. Islam came to the United States from the Middle East in the early 17th century with Muslim slaves, with Middle East immigrants seeking freedom from oppression in 1870s, and with immigrants seeking economic opportunities within the automobile industry in the 1920s. Hindus, primarily people of the professional classes from India and Southeast Asia, began to arrive in greater numbers with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In more recent years, immigrants from Vietnam and Laos have brought folk religions such as animism into some U.S. …
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Publication information: Article title: Teaching Religious Diversity through Children's Literature. Contributors: Green, Connie - Author, Oldendorf, Sandra - Author. Journal title: Childhood Education. Volume: 81. Issue: 4 Publication date: Summer 2005. Page number: 209+. © 2009 Association for Childhood Education International. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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