CPD¬37 Religious Literacy for Educators
The week of June 27th Montgomery County Public Schools made history when 30 educators, representing elementary, middle and high schools within the county, completed an intensive academic study of religion. The course, which rewards MCPS teachers with three Continuing Professional Development credits, exposed teachers to the diversity of religious practice within Montgomery County and the United States as a whole, while giving them the tools and knowledge to return to their classrooms in the fall empowered to incorporate religion into their lessons and build safe spaces for all students.
The course, which blended local religious communities with leaders in Academia and politics, began with a dynamic question and answer with Montgomery County Interfaith Community Liaison Rev. Kasey Kaseman and former Press Secretary, now theological professor, Mike McCurry. The two shared their combined 80 plus years of experience as community leaders and the need for our teachers to better prepare our students to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The remainder of the first day included lessons from experts on Buddhism, creating conversations around religion, the dos and don'ts of teaching religion, and how teachers can use children’s books, like Rockville’s own Hena Khan’s It’s Ramadan Curious George. The day which included 10 speakers who represented Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Christianity was capped off by a keynote from Melissa Rogers who serves as Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith¬based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Ms. Rogers shared with teachers how important religious literacy is to President Obama and shared details of just how vital the current administration believes educating Americans about the world’s religions is to the future generation.
The second day of study picked up right where day 1 left off with a trip to Temple Beth Ami in Rockville where teachers had the chance to hear from Special Envoy Ira Foreman of the US State Department who was given the task by Congress to monitor and combat Anti¬Semitism worldwide. Mr. Foreman reinforced the messages of the first day with chilling stories of rises in anti-religious violence throughout the world, not only against Jews but of countless religious minorities. He forewarned teachers that if they did not help create a generation of citizens who are going to stand up to religious intolerance we will lose whole communities of religious minorities. Teacher then received an in depth and new way to think of Judaism, that will enhance their own abilities to teach about Judaism either in world religions or within Holocaust literature before heading down the street to have lungar (lunch) at our local gurdwara (Sikh house of worship). The community at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation came out with over 40 members of their community that cooked and served a delicious traditional meal before performing a typical prayer service, which was lead by our own MCPS students. The community shared their practices and traditions, like the turban and prohibition in cutting owns hair and explained the impact these practices have had on both the boys and girls within our school system. Many teachers openly shared how little they had known about our Sikh students before the day and how they now assured the mothers, fathers, and students at the Gurdwara that they would be more attentive to acts of bullying against Sikh students within their schools.
Day three showcased MCPS close partnership with Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service when they generously hosted our teachers and shared scholarship from The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, The Bridge Initiative and the Center for Jewish Civilizations. Susan Douglas, who has been a leader in creating curriculum on Islam for decades shared resources and answered the questions that so many of our students are asking about what Islam is and its relationship to violent extremism. Teachers were then given excellent resources from the Bridge Initiative to share how to teach about Islamophobia and from Unity Production Foundation, who have produced over a dozen films with PBS that teachers can use in the classroom. After yet another fantastic lunch provided by our gracious hosts teachers had the great pleasure to interact and speak with Fr. Denis McManus who explained the history of the various branches of Christianity in a way kept teachers laughing and engaged for the final three hours of the day.
The fourth day showcased MCPS partnerships with leading NGOs in the area starting with the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum and ending at the Center for American Progress. Three of the finest experts on Religious liberty in America spend the morning sharing with teachers the importance of religious literacy, dialogue, and a deeper more meaningful approach to teaching about religion in the classroom. The session was enhanced with the presence of the Hindu American Foundation and Kaur Foundation, two of the other wonderful organizations who partnered with MCPS to create this course. The afternoon of the Thursday class gave teachers the unique opportunity to sit with Bishop Gene Robinson as we screened the critically acclaimed film For the Bible Tells Me So that takes an indepth look into the intersection of LGBT lives and the Christian church. Teachers had the opportunity to see the impacts, both positive and negative, that religion can play in our students own lives while hearing from a key leader in both the LGBT and Christian community. Additionally, teachers had the chance to learn more about continuous legal battles many religious minorities, like the Sikhs, continue to fight for equality from a Sikh lawyer on staff at CAP.
The final day of the course took us once again back out into the community, this time in Lanham Maryland where teachers had the chance to do visit two of the most beautiful houses of worship in the entire nation. First teachers were exposed to the realities of Hinduism from two experts on the subject who addressed many of the false concepts in American textbooks before receiving a tour of the massive temple and received yet another wonderful meal representing our diverse community. Like Tuesday’s class, we only had to venture a mile down the road to expose teachers to the largest Muslim campus in the Western Hemisphere, the Diyanet Center of America. Teachers were able to sit and watch the mosque swell is size before Friday prayer and see the many races and ethnicities that make up our Muslim community. The day concluded with a tour of the grounds of the center and a final session inside the beautiful mosque built in the style of 16th¬century Ottoman architecture where a retired MCPS administrator, Sharif Salim answered our teachers last questions for the the week.
The feedback has been wonderful to hear from all parties involved, from federal government officials who praise MCPS for being a leader in religious literacy training, to community members who feel safer knowing more teachers understand who their children are in school. But the greatest feedback has been from the teachers themselves who rose to the challenge of an intense and tiring course that in the matter of one week took them all over the area and exposed them to so many deep topics.
“I am impressed and grateful to have been a part of the experience. It was an enriching and valuable experience for all educators, especially social studies teachers. MCPS went above and beyond to plan, facilitate, and lead the course. From what I've seen, heard, and read, the course experiences were also a product of MCPS participation in a range of community experiences and partnerships all in the name of educating students and teachers.” ¬
---Chris Ascienzo Social Studies Content Specialist Farquhar Middle School
The speakers MCPS got for us were incredible & I can't tell you how lucky I feel to have been able to be a part of this and to have met such amazing people. I appreciate the effort MCPS put into making this class so phenomenal...I have grown not only intellectually this week, but emotionally and spiritually as well. I have already been researching religions more on my own since the class ended and cannot wait to impart some of my new found knowledge to my students. Thank you for such a rich, fulfilling experience!
¬ ----Kimberly Maffeo Spanish Teacher Sligo Creek Middle School