World Religions Summer Institute for Teachers

This past spring, Aaron applied for and was awarded a 3+ week long position in the World Religions Summer Institute in New York City. This is a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now that we've experienced one of their offerings, we cannot recommend this program enough! It's truly amazing to see a government agency value teachers enough to fund once-in-a-lifetime enrichment programs that will manifest dividends for students for years to come. 

Aaron was asked by the Interfaith Center of New York to write a blog post about his experience (they are the ones who organized the entire program). Though they are sharing it on their site, we wanted to share it here too in an effort to get the word out as much as possible about this wonderful opportunity for teachers!

Here's his post: 
NEH Summer Institute
The Religious Worlds of New York City
The Interfaith Center of New York
“Learning and Living Religion”
Mr. Bible's first time in the big city! 

 Teaching a world religions class to seventh graders in the middle of the Protestant-dominate Bible Belt of Appalachia has been a challenge. The geographical isolation of our area has led to our students and community not getting enough exposure to other religions of the world, and the only education they are currently receiving is superficial with little to no real experiences of other ways of life. I believe the only way we can create a peaceful and productive society is through an empathic education of true experience and fosters an understanding of religious diversity. This is the very reason I applied to attend the NEH Summer Institute, “The Religious Worlds of New York City,” and after attending the three-week program, I am now equipped with an abundance of resources and knowledge that will help me and my students become better citizens of the world.

Dr. Henry Goldschmidt led the institute with a passion for all the educators in attendance, but equally for the students that we would eventually be teaching back in our own classrooms. The first real revelation that Dr. Goldschmidt made to us was the idea of teaching “lived” religion as opposed to “charting” religion. He explained that simply putting the same religions that are studied year in and year out (Abrahamic, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.…) in the grid of founder, book, and prophet (see below), does not lead to a true understanding of any religion nor its practitioners. 
Jesus of Nazareth
Holy Bible
Jesus the Christ
Siddhartha Gautama 
The Sutras
The Buddha

How many teachers have used this very chart, or one like it, to teach about world religions? I wish you could see me because I have my hand up with all five fingers extended; I just bet you do too, and that’s perfectly fine, but there is a better way. Dr. Goldschmidt had us reflect on the effectiveness of the chart method, and posed some questions for us to think about:

·       Does the chart teach students about the people who practice the religion and how their devotion affects their way of life?
·       Does this method give students a full understanding of the everyday life of the people who practice these religions?
·       Is this method leading to a better empathic understanding between our students of different religious backgrounds?
·       Does the chart make our students better citizens?
Thinking about these questions, it is easy to see the flaws in this method of teaching world religions. Would I truly know about you as a person if I were to put you in the chart?

After seeing the ineffectiveness of the “chart,” and how it separates religious practices as if they needed to be quarantined from one another (this too is a huge problem with the chart method), Dr. Goldschmidt introduced us to the pedagogy of “lived” religion.

 First, teaching lived religion requires students to understand the difference between learning about a religion “devotionally” and “academically.” Most younger students, and maybe older students as well, have only been exposed to devotionally studying a religion- i.e. Sunday school, going to the synagogue, or through studying sacred texts. When a student can study religions and the religious practices of people through an academic lens, they can begin to have a better understanding of the people who “live” the religion. When students see that they can learn about religious practices without being devotional to the religion, and witness the religion being practiced, teachers can begin to expose their students to a whole new world of understanding. We educators learned that this is possible by first inviting an academic panel of experts on a religion and then visit the discussed religious site with the knowledge of the experts in mind. This was the method that Dr. Goldschmidt and the Interfaith Center of New York modeled for all the educators in the institute, and I am now going to share this life-changing experience with you and my students.

 Site Visits:
Here are some of the many places of worship that we visited with the guidance of Dr. Goldschmidt and the Interfaith Center of New York:

1.       Lourdes Grotto: Bronx, NY

2.       The Dergah al-Farah Sufi Mosque: Manhattan, NY

3.       Jumma Service at The Islamic Center of Manhattan: Manhattan, NY

 (no pictures allowed)

4.       Convent Avenue Baptist Church: Manhattan, NY

5.       Hindu Temple Society: Queens, NY

6.       Chogyesa Buddhist Temple: Manhattan, NY

7.       B’nai Jeshrun Synagogue: Manhattan, NY
St. John The Divine Episcopal Cathedral: 

It was truly an inspiring and amazing opportunity to visit an array of religious locations with a group of open-minded teachers who will, without a doubt, bring a new world of experiences back their students, classrooms, and communities.