We seem to be having a slight problem in my first grade class. The children, all sweet, wonderful, caring students, seem to be very, very religious. This isn't the problem, but of course they all have different religions, and they all like to talk about them.
The devil has come up when discussing thunder storms and just because. Debates over whose name is actually in the Bible have occurred. Of course, just like with all religions- that are different, but not actually all that different- many of them share common theories and ethics despite their belief in different gods. As Thanksgiving comes up and we get ready to teach about why the pilgrims came to the new world religion only promises to become a more prevalent conversation piece.
The religion major in me loves this. My senior thesis was on how Indian 6th and 7th grade text books discuss the history of Hindus and Muslims relations. The interpretation of different religions and how they interact fascinates me (clearly, if I chose to spend a year writing about it). Of course, like the Indian textbooks I studied in my thesis, we are suppose to be a completely secular school- where gods or God remains on the outside. (Then again, in Virginia we have to hang signs in our schools that read "In God we trust" but that's another story for another day.) So, talking about religion in our first grade classroom when we are really trying to learn how to read seems like a great way to get every parent in the class angry with us.
My first year teaching I had children from just about every religion out there. I had a little girl from North Carolina whose mother had just remarried a man from India, so had just converted to Islam. I had a Muslim from India, a Hindu from India, a Christin from India, Catholics from South America, a boy from Argentina who claimed he was Jewish, and a Southern Baptist. If we'd been in a bar it would have been a bad joke.
Religion came up frequently because being six they don't discriminate between what's a school topic and a not school topic. The division of church and state means nothing to them. They were encouraged to ask questions about why it rained, why the e is silent at the end of some words, and how we add, so why couldn't they ask questions about gods? It felt wrong to say, "we can't talk about that." so instead I listened. We talked about how we can listen to one another even if we don't agree, that we can all be friends even though we have different religions, and how cool it is that we can learn about one another's religions since we're friends.
As they asked questions and listened to one another's question our classroom community grew stronger. Sure, there was the day that my newly converted Muslim slammed her hand down on the table and claimed that Halloween was dirty, Jesus was dirty, and boys were dirty. The Catholic boy sitting beside her just about had a heart attack that she'd called Jesus dirty. But again, a conversation about how we are all different- just like we all have different ways to learn, we all have different beliefs and that is OK. So maybe we wont say Jesus is dirty in school, and saying boys are dirty may hurt someone's feelings.
There was the argument that broke out between the Indian Christian and the Hindu. "But why just love Jesus?" the Hindu asked, "Why are you ignoring all the other gods, like Krishna and Vishnu?"
"I don't just love Jesus" he explained, "I love 3 gods- the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. and Jesus"
or the day I was having such a terrible hair day that one little boy shouted out, "How are you even going to find a husband if your hair looks like that?"
"It's easy!" a boy from India announced, "Just ask your parents!"
Of course I didn't stop and explain religion to any of them. I didn't say, "Actually, friend, those 4 you just listed, they are all one God"
I didn't explain to the Muslim girl that in her religion Jesus is a prophet just like Allah so therefore isn't dirty. We focused on respecting each other even though we were different. And of course, a lot of, "Wow- you learned that at church/mosque/temple? I'm not sure about that- Ask your parents" but, really, encouraging children to talk to their parents- that's not a bad thing either.
This year's religious discussions make me a little more nervous because there is such a stronger presence of Christians than Muslims or Hindus. The religion major in me likes all religions to be represented so we can have a real discussion on comparative religions. Of course, the want-to-be lawyer in me knows exactly where religion belongs- outside the school doors. And the teacher in me sees the teachable-moment of teaching respect for differences, which really is the largest life skill anyone can learn to be successful in this world.
What are your suggestions? Keep religion out of the public school classroom? Tell them to talk to their parents? How can we have a responsive classroom class meeting about why we don't talk about religion in school?