Teaching Religious Diversity through Children's Literature

By Green, Connie; Oldendorf, Sandra | Childhood Education, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

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