Head Scarves and Stocking Feet Pushing Boundaries through Literature: Engaging Students with Literature, Including Religious Literature, Provides a Way to Broaden Their World View

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I look around me at my mostly Christian students sitting in stocking feet cross-legged on the soft carpet. My girls wear head scarves; my boys, ties. Behind them, walls are covered in intricate ceramic tiles soaring two stories up, a stunning medley of colors and patterns but no human forms. The eyes of my students, however, are no longer scanning this art all around them. They are instead looking intently at, listening carefully to, a man squatting on the floor with them and talking about his faith: Islam.

How did literature bring my students and me to this world-changing moment?


In my senior world literature course, we read texts in thematic groups and study connections across the world through both time and geography. Our second theme of the year is "The Search for Self." At the heart of this study are excerpts we read from the major religious works: the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, and the Qur'an.

My students and I approach these religious texts as works of literature, striving to understand both what they say and how they say it. The works though are incredibly complex religious documents, and our study of them only scratches the surface. Our examination of their literary structures is simplified as an initial understanding; yet, by seeing the basic structure of each text, my students gain a broad awareness of the world.

Because I teach at an independent school, I have the luxury of teaching works that might not be allowed in public or religiously affiliated schools. But my students are so profoundly affected by reading these religious texts that I would fight to keep teaching them if I had to. We must be citizens of the world, and only by knowing the world outside of our own can we truly achieve this.


I deliberately begin with the Gita because it's the most unfamiliar to my student population. By starting so far from the students' personal beliefs, I can cement my point with them that we aren't discussing our own religious beliefs. Instead, we are learning how seminal religious texts teach their ideas through their chosen structures. Discussing the Gita this way is a good first step for my students, giving them practice for the harder work to come: the Bible and the Qur'an.

I just wrote that I tell my students, "We aren't discussing our own religious beliefs." That is a half-truth. We aren't discussing what any one student or I myself may or may not believe about a higher power, but literature is always about our beliefs--what we bring to the text, what it gives us, how we change as a result of immersing ourselves in its world. By reading the Gita, the Bible, and the Qur'an side by side, my students' beliefs are challenged and often changed.


Having studied the poetic form of the Gita, my students then discover the stories of the Bible's Old Testament and the direct address of the Qur'an. We discuss how each form conveys meaning differently.

My students find the Gita's poetic structure and narrative dialogue very accessible; listening to Arjuna question Krishna and seeing the give-and-take between authority and a follower appeals to teenagers. I use a Gita translation that is divided into "teachings," and we read the second, sixth, and 11th teachings (The Bhagavad-Gita, 616-624). My students enjoy the flow of the Gita's short stanzas that introduce ideas in steps and its repetition to reinforce and link the steps.

Next, the storyline of the Bible invites individual and group interpretation, with my students understanding that readers are responsible for discerning the message behind the narrative. We read the first 11 chapters of Genesis (omitting the fifth and 10th chapters) plus Genesis 37, using the New International Version (Audio Bibles). My students enjoy this narrative form, which is similar to the literature they read in English class. …


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