Saturday, July 1, 2017

Washington Metro Area Teachers Participate in Week-Long Religious Literacy Workshop

The National Council of Social Studies recently recognized the importance of teaching about religion in public schools and published a set of guidelines. It’s the first national education association in the country to publish such guidelines.

Teachers involved in writing those guidelines began this summer to develop
workshops to help teachers become more literate about religion.

Chris Murray, Jr, a public-school teacher in Montgomery County in Maryland who teaches a course about religion, offered a workshop to Washington, DC area teachers in late June.

I attended the five day workshop along with almost 40 other teachers, mostly from Maryland and the District of Columbia. Only a few taught history or religion. I saw math and biology teachers, elementary and middle school teachers and even one school counselor.

This was not a typical teacher workshop. It was an amazing immersion into the world of religion!

State Department policy experts and journalists who cover religion talked to us one morning. Time Magazine writer,  Elizabeth Dias and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly correspondent, Kim Lawton, explained that covering religion was not really a narrow assignment because almost every story has a religious angle.

We saw a PBS documentary one afternoon about the Christian right and gay rights called "For The Bible Tells Me So." It featured Gene Robinson, the first Anglican gay bishop. The filmmaker, Daniel Karslake, and the bishop himself, answered questions about the film. They suggested that gay rights had improved in the years since the film. Bishop Robinson had to wear a bullet proof vest when he was ordained in 2003.
Photo by Chris Murray
We learned about Islam at Georgetown University. Dr. Susan Douglas reviewed Islamic history and "hot button" issues like Sharia law and the meaning of jihad. In the afternoon, another professor discussed the many meanings of caste in South Asia. She helped us to think about caste as not just religious but rather as a combination of religious, cultural and political influences.

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church offered us some interesting black history. Built in the Gothic Revival style, it sits in northwest Washington, DC incongruously between two tall modern glass and concrete structures. It is the oldest black church in Washington, and was founded in 1872.  It held funerals for famous black leaders like abolitionist Frederick Douglas and civil rights activist, Rosa Parks. Many presidents including Obama addressed the congregation.
Photo: Public Domain
The highlight of week were the site visits on Thursday and Friday. We visited five sites on Thursday--Washington Hebrew Congregation, DC Sikh gurdwara, Washington National Cathedral, Soka Gakka International Buddhist Center, and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Murray told us that the tour was a little like the Interfaith Unity Walk which takes place every September and starts at the Washington Hebrew Congregation like we did on Thursday.

The DC Sikh Gurdwara was perhaps the most interesting, maybe because it was so different from the other sites.
Upon entering the gurdwara, we  had to remove our shoes and wear a head covering. Sikh men all wear turbans. The gurdwara had scarves for the women and bandanas for the men.

We gathered in the prayer hall and took part in langar, a Sikh tradition that you’ll see at any gurdwara around the world. Langar is a vegetarian meal that is funded by worshippers and volunteers. We ate rice and chick peas, and samosas.

After the langar, a panel of young Sikh students answered questions and a Sikh teenager showed us how to tie a turban.
Most of the questions for the panel revolved around the turban. For example, do women wear turbans? (some do, but not all) Do you sleep with your turban? (no) And do you swim with your turban? (yes)

The teenagers also dispelled some common misconceptions about Sikhism explaining that their faith is not a combination of Islam and Hinduism, but a separate faith tradition. They also noted that Sikhs  are almost the only people who wear a turban.

The week ended with a visit to the Diaynet Center of America in Lanham, Maryland. It's a huge mosque built by the Turkish embassy and finished just a few years ago. In addition to the mosque, it includes a Turkish bath and a gymnasium.  We got to observe prayer inside the mosque. Chris Murray captured some of it in the clip below.
It was an amazing week with terrific scholars and speakers and visits to eight religious sites. For those of us who teach religion, it offered new resources that will enhance our teaching and for those who do not teach religion, it offered an engaging course in religious literacy.

You can view our itinerary here and the biographies of our speakers here. And if you are a Washington area teacher and interested in the course, follow Chris Murray on twitter for updates on course offerings for next year.

1 comment:

  1. Mr murray is an amazing teacher. Everyone at Walter Johnson that had him for a class will agree.