by Sarah King
Teacher, Chancellor Middle School, Spotsylvania, Virginia
This is the story of an 8th grade world history project, “Monotheistic Misunderstandings of the Medieval Age and of Modernity,” which I created at a Buck Institute workshop in March 2016 and students executed in May.
In looking at what topics lay ahead for the school year, what might excite the students and me, and how I could connect my world history course to current events, I chose a controversial topic: the Crusades and the three monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, including, as the standards say, their legacy of bitterness.
Why did I choose this topic for a project? In addition to my rationale that an in-depth academic approach to religion is a useful demonstration of understanding world history, there has been significant discussion about Islam recently in the U.S. and misunderstandings abound around Islam. Children are exposed to a lot of social media and spews of information both on the national and local level. Just this last fall in our own county, a proposed mosque caused a lot of attention. (See this news article about it.) Since the standards cover the legacy of bitterness, the connection to current events provided authenticity.
Students could choose one of the following driving questions:
Making it Public: Parent “Buy-in” & Student Presentations
All of these topics are standards addressed in my curriculum, but I wanted to be careful not to have the academic pursuit taken out of context, so after a couple days into the project, I invited parents to an information session. Parents were as interested in the Project Based Learning approach as the topic. I made it very clear to the parents (as I had to the students) that this was an academic endeavor; I was not trying to make believers out of non-believers or atheists out of followers of a religion. Because I had modeled this approach to religion all year, students were accustomed to these type of discussions. At the session, students showed their proposals to their parents, which included their driving question, their product proposal and their personal/group "need to know" questions.
A couple weeks later, students presented their finished projects and demonstrated their ability to grapple with hard issues. Products ranged from overall informative sessions to mock TED talks, videos, artwork and websites. Their intellectual curiosity and sustained inquiry showed their ability to respect the topics and to make the connections between current events and religion in the scope of world history. Students understood these issues are not easy, and neither are the answers as to how to eliminate bitterness. Many students chose to use more resources than I required, demonstrating their commitment to the quest for reliable information in a sea of misunderstandings in current media.
One student who a few weeks earlier asked to leave the class, because she was so uncomfortable talking about her religion in an academic way, presented a very honest description of Christianity. On the morning before another student presented her question about why Muslims are seen as terrorists, she came to visit me and said, “Mrs. King, I have to tell you that we came up with few answers; I have more questions than when we began.” It was one of the proudest moments I have had as an educator.
After the presentations, the experience culminated in a Socratic Seminar where students discussed their questions after the project and an article they read from Newsweek, “In the Beginning, There Were the Holy Books” (Student assignment is here).
One student revised her project for a county-wide presentation after the school year had ended and included the July 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando. Her project stunned me! The treatment of Islam was fair and also raised insightful questions.
One last student story: a young woman who did the project in the spring spoke the following fall at a school event. She gave a heartfelt explanation of how much she gained from the project. See the video below:
Why This Project – Authentic Community Connection
I think the way I teach religion in an academic setting, build a classroom culture of scholarly inquiry for an aspect of human history, and release students to discover the truths and complexities, builds tolerance and promotes the value of equity. There is no better place for this to occur than in a social studies classroom; see this prezi and this article on teaching religion from Teaching Tolerance.
Equity in this academic setting encourages students to learn about various religions other than the dominant one in a culture. In a time where religion is seen as anti-intellectual, learning about the vast contributions to mankind of any religion is valuable. When students learn the skills of inquiry, respect, and honesty, they become the type of citizens who exemplify tolerance for diversity and an intolerance of social injustice based on bias.
In the fall of 2015, controversy abounded in our area with the proposed building of a mosque. When I think about how adults treated each other, I note the contrast to my students’ discussions on these difficult issues. People are going to discuss hard topics where the truth is often convoluted, yet approaching a topic and each other with a desire for understanding, clarity, and an open mind is best. Thanks to what I learned about PBL, students in my classroom are becoming the type of citizens we all need for our democracy.
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