05/01/2014: Over the past few months, the Hindu American Foundation, Kaur Foundation, and Sikh Kid To Kid worked with the Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools to implement a three-part training for teachers, involving cultural immersions at Sikh and Hindu places of worship (separate trips), followed by a reflection session designed to improve classroom approaches to teaching about the two faiths.
The workshops were a product of conversations between the groups and Maria Tarasuk, the social studies supervisor for the Montgomery County Public Schools, who has long advocated for community-based approaches to teaching about diversity.
Following yesterday's reflection session, it was apparent that the school district had helped to lay the groundwork for something sustaining in the county, and replicable in other parts of the country. The teachers who participated in the trainings agreed that they were eye-opening and useful, but also took the time to provide feedback on how to improve the program in the future. Tarasuk said the experience was "powerful" for teachers.
"It helped them connect on an emotional level, not only with the content but with their students," she said. "Because of that, teachers are going to be much more comfortable sharing with their students. It was a wonderful partnership between the schools and all the organizations involved."
Over the past month, teachers who attended the workshops (an early April visit to area Gurdwaras, the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation and the Guru Nanak Foundation of America, followed by a visit last weekend to the Chinmaya Mission of D.C.) learned about several commonly misunderstood facts about Hinduism and Sikhism. The Hindu American trainers -- D.C Rao and I -- helped to explain key concepts of Hinduism such as dharma, karma, and moksha, and how they relate to daily practice, including how Hindus worship the Divine. We also helped to showcase the evolution and the development of Hindu history over 5,000 years. The teachers learned, for example, that the Aryan Invasion Theory - long a staple of textbooks - has been debunked (though the Aryan Migration Theory is still popular among many linguists), and that caste is not intrinsic to Hindu philosophy (caste is an Indian social practice). Our Sikh-American partners -- Mirin Phool and Harminder Kaur -- were able to emphasize core philosophies such as the three golden rules, and the 5 K's of Sikhism. They also taught the teachers that Sikhism is not a branch of Hinduism or an offshoot of Islam, but a separate religion that is now the world's fifth largest.
While this was a great opportunity to clear misconceptions about Hinduism and Sikhism, and help to fight anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh bullying, the trainings have an even greater significance: cooperation between Hindu-Americans and Sikh-Americans on these kinds of issues. Though Hinduism and Sikhism are distinct faith traditions, Hindus and Sikhs share many of the same values (including service, dharma, pluralism, and a non-proselytizing philosophy), reflected in the historical syncrety of practice. In other parts of the country, Hindus and Sikhs share the same concerns, and are often commonly targeted for bullying in schools, which make workshops such as these vital to ensuring that teachers remain aware of best practices in teaching about the religions.
I was particularly impressed by the efforts of the Sikh-American youth from Sikh Kid To Kid to combat stereotypes and bullying. When their teachers expressed ignorance about Sikhism, the students stepped up to help explain key concepts and even developed classroom materials to help their teachers. There are a number of Hindu American students across the country who have done similar things, but a collaborative effort among Hindu-American and Sikh-American youth would be a significant step toward ensuring that future generations appreciate the importance of both faith traditions as part of America's cultural and religious mosaic. The Montgomery County Public Schools initiative gets our communities started on that road.