Down-To-Earth Religious Education
multicultural education is often misunderstood and feared, it has been embraced
by many educators as a necessary approach to preparing the next generation for
the complexities of life in th
21st Century. This study
describes the work of three Catholic secondary religion teachers who inform
their classes with multicultural strategies. Data come from classroom
observations in metropolitan schools in the Keyword:
Multicultural education is
changing the way teachers approach today’s diverse students. While secular
education is being transformed through a student-centered approach,
the majority of Christian religious
educators continue to rely on a traditional didactic, teacher-centered methodology.
education is an approach that moves the focus from teacher to students ;
it honors students’ background experiences ; it
promotes multiple perspectives. It poses real world problems and
asks students to respond in a meaningful
manner. It seeks transformation through reflection, leading
to new insights and social action. In a word, it is a new paradigm .
It is a new
lens through which to view, interpret, and act in life.
Purpose of Research
Classroom Strategies for Religious
Education While each religious tradition presents its own
canon of beliefs and practices, specific
multicultural classroom strategies emerge as being particularly appropriate for
religious education. One, the formation of a caring community ,
provides an essential context in which students
comfortably pursue the tasks of religious education (Pang, 2001). Within
this community, students begin with their own experiences, beliefs, and values.
A second strategy for faith development is direct
engagement with the scriptures as a source of powerful ideas (Banks, 1994).
A third strategy, social analysis , enables
students to understand the socio-political reality in which they
must function (Neito, 1999). Lastly,
students participate in social action that enables them to experience their own ability to bring about social change (Bennett, 2003 ).[This paragraph
is unclear. The subtitle suggests that
all religious eduators uses these classroom strategies. The paragraph states that these strategies
are common to multicultural education only.]
Creation of Caring Communities
Humanist educators focus on caring as both the message and
method of education. (Noddings, 1992; Rogers and Freiberg, 1994). Pang (2001)
states they develop
the necessary skills to participate in a democratic society pledged to
create a better world.
Sister Bernice’s Caring Classroom
Every day, just before lunch, 28 young women walk
through the doors of
for 45 minutes of junior level “Peace and Justice.” I see
the pained and silent faces of young women who have experienced too much of
life too soon. These young women are primarily Hispanic and African American s
whose stories reveal the plight of young urban
women trying to make sense of a fractured world in which they are
often the wounded. In the steady flow
of stories shared throughout the semester I recall
very few that were without pain, oppression, and struggle.
Sr. Bernice respond
to their pain by welcoming them into a “holy
place.” “In this room the hand of God helps us to join
hands.” ,” creating an atmosphere in which her students
feel free to be themselves.
She envisions her class as a community of young women who care about one
another and who feel “free to talk about their beliefs, their dreams and their
hopes.” She says, “I like to have openness of mind and heart in my class.” True
to her desire, she frequently beg ins
class with a request to her students. s
a climate of openness by being open about herself. In talking about
hunger, she told them about her own continual struggle with food and weight
gain. Nor is s he
afraid to let the students know that she too needs affirmation and support from
others. In sharing herself, she offer s
the students a model for classroom discussion, thus inviting them to respond in
The circle of
care she create
her classroom serves as the beginning point to take her students from an inner
circle of care and concern about their own issues to the larger circle of care
for the entire human family. On the topic of Third World Hunger, she began with
a simple question, “Have you ever been hungry, really hungry?” With further
questioning, she walked them from the local and familiar
to the global with new
At the end of
the semester, I
interviewed three students from this class.
One student liked the class “because it brought us closer together
and made us friends.” Another appreciated Sister Bernice’s encouragement to
talk about “the things that are happening to us.” A third student
change in her attitude toward people who are different from her
“I stereotyped black people and other groups. Now I see how wrong that is .
. . . I want to go out and help the world. I want to be like superwoman.”
Teaching With Powerful Ideas
reading levels , gimmicks
to hold students’ attention, and failure
to engage students in the necessary skills for acquiring knowledge (Sowell,
1996). Banks asserts that a multicultural
curriculum focuses on powerful ideas that enable students to understand and
transfer knowledge (1994) . While
it is assumed that religious education textbooks will
present the doctrine and right practice of a particular faith expression, they
also suffer from the same flaws and
cultural bias ,
the most powerful text available :
Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Pat Engages Students in Scripture
During the many months I spent in Pat
Lacey’s class, I never saw a textbook , bible,
placed prominently in the front of the room , and copies on
almost every student’s desk because
she believes that the most powerful
source material for Christians is scripture.
Actual instruction, for Pat, meant that the 9th female suburban
“engage in the scriptures.”
Her methodology is a
dialectic process in which she and the students move
between their own story and the stor y
of their ancestors in faith. In this process, she invite s
the students to imagine themselves within the context of the biblical
story, as though they participated in
the original event. Through questioning, she help s
them analyze what is
happening and how the
the original story must have
thought and felt: What is
God saying? Why did God say that? What meaning did it have for those people?
is satisfied that they ha ve
sufficiently entered the dialogue and understood
the event from the inside, she turn s
the focus to their own stories. For example, in studying the healing stories,
she asked them to write about and share with
others their own stories of healing. not
only the events of the drama , but their
feelings and interpretations of what happened. back
and forth, she guide s them,
between the stories of the b ible
and their stories, between scripture and lived
experience . Mrs. Lacey’s desire to “engage the students in scripture”
was effective with the student s I
interviewed. One student appreciated her teacher’s approach to scripture:
“She taught us how to get into the scriptures
and how to read it.” Her effort to relate the scripture stories to the
personal lives of the students was caught by another
student who said :
“She makes you think a lot more, go deeper. She’ll be talking about a topic and
relate it to something that happens in everyday life, so you can understand the
topic more and say, ‘Oh, she’s right.’ She relates it to things that happen to
us.” Another spoke to the helpfulness of the reflective questioning .
“She gives us meditating questions and wants to know who you are as a person,
where you stand spiritually and religiously.”
complex world, social analysis enables learners to see themselves in a
particular social situation and to think critically about it (Holland and
Henriot, 1983). Talvacchia (1997) states that social analysis is necessary if
religious education is to be faithful to the prophetic Christian imperative to
promote just relationships
in society. Social analysis invites learners to become aware of their
in society, to look at it critically, asking such questions as: “Who
has the power and who does not? Who decides? Who benefits and who loses? ”
In the context of faith formation, three additional questions must be asked: “What
do our scriptures and religious traditions have to say about situations like
this? How might things be different and what action would be necessary to
change the situation? ” (Center for
Media Literacy, 2003 ).
Mike’s Critical Approach
The senior level honors course in faith formation for white suburban young women is
entitled “Church in the It focuse s
on three groups of indigenous
peoples of North and South America who suffered at the hands of the
invading Europeans — their
histories, their cultures and religious beliefs .
Mike Longo uses film their
stories : Mission, Eyes on the Prize, and Dances
with Wolves, because “We have to come out of a story , because they are not going to
remember concepts. The message is so, so different from what they are hearing [elsewhere ] because then
they have to fill in the blanks and say, ‘Well, how come?’”
the students through the process with
a series of questions, which he articulated during one interview .
What are your experiences? How does your story relate
to the larger human story, particularly
those that are suffering in a variety of ways?
2. Do you see yourself as being oppressed in different ways?
3. Can you connect that in some way to the oppression of others?
Where does the
speak to that?
it be transforming?
What can we do so that our action transforms our lives? Mike says that social
analysis is a necessary skill for all Christians in United States culture today
if there is to be any hope of transformation for society as a whole and for its
individual members. Student responses showed that he had taught them effectively. One student
spoke of a growing awareness for the need to look more critically at events,
people, and their stories .
“The whole way the system actually works. ? Or,
it there something else behind it?’” Another student responded
“I am more aware of how our government will tell us one thing and do another.
Iraq. They said they we were going there
to help, but really they were after the oil fields. It made me feel angry that they are lying to
us. . . . He means that we have to continually ask questions.”
are a natural outgrowth of critical reflection. For Bennett
(2003), social action skills are one of the six goals of multicultural
education. These skills include “the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to
help resolve major problems that threaten the future of the planet and the
well-being of humanity” (p. 34). Nieto’s (2000) model of multicultural
education includes “decision-making and social actions skills as the basis of
the curriculum” (p.343). Wink (2000) says that Freire’s “problem-posing”
approach (1970) is straightforward enough for the youngest
children. It is a three-step process: to
name, to reflect critically, and to act.
Mike contends that social action must be an integral part of
his course for two reasons: The integrity of the discipline [religion] requires
that students be given many opportunities to care for others since “every world
religion has at its core the care for the community.” He also believes that action
projects give caring and compassionate students a chance to
to topics discussed in class. . During
the one semester I attended his class, I noted the Crop Walk in October, the
Oxfam Banquet in November, and the Cross Cultural Crafts sale in December . Mike
coordinates the events while
his students carry out these school wide projects. In
addition, he also invites
students to purchase
coffee directly from a Central American cooperative and Christmas cards from
Each of the students in Mike’s class spoke
about an experience of self-insight and
empowerment. One student said that the class had given her the ability to
respond to global issues with greater confidence. Another student reported, “If
I want the world to change, I have to take responsibility to make those
changes.” A third student came
to the awareness that “people of other cultures are like us: we
want to care, to be friends. . . . They are just like us but they lack the
advantages we have, so we want to help them .”
brevity of this article does not permit a full presentation of all the data that
support my conclusions. While my
experience revealed three distinct educators at work, several common themes
emerged from among them. First, for each of them multiculturalism is a
preferred personal perspective through which to view the world. Second ,
theirs is a worldview strongly colored by oppression and discrimination. Third ,
each believes that a multicultural approach is an effective way to enable
students to realize their potential as contributing members to society. Fourth ,
these teachers create their day-to-day curriculum from the personal experiences
of people—their own, those of their students, and stories from literature and
scripture. Fifth ,
each of the teachers incorporates some kind of social analysis and social
action into the ir curriculum. Sixth , these teachers
share the same goal for all their students: building a multicultural society
based on personal respect and compassion for others and encouraging students to
work together to create a more holy and just society for all members of the
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