Interfaith Panel Explores Beliefs with Middle Schoolers

As part of the Cultural Studies curriculum in our Middle School, last month we partnered with Islamic Network Group (ING) to host an interfaith panel that included a Buddhist, Christian, a Hindu, a Jew, and a Muslim. We sat down with Kim Lenz, our Cultural Studies teacher, to talk about this powerful learning opportunity.

Gateway School: Why did you organize this panel?

Kim Lenz: In 6th and 7th grades, our curriculum includes the development of various religions. This panel was a way of bringing these constructs that can seem ancient in the historical context and connecting them to the present for our students. In particular, having people who are representatives of their faiths and come from a viewpoint of sharing values across faiths helps students connect with those perspectives.

GW: How did you prepare students?

KL: We’d been talking about beliefs and values as a general theme of cultures as a basis for understanding diverse cultural perspectives. The panel was actually providing important concrete knowledge about these specific religions, and we will now be able to go deeper into the content with that prior knowledge in mind. It was amazing to have five major faiths represented because they have different sets of beliefs, and at the same time they can all be friends and treat each other with respect, and that really impressed our students. We’ve hosted ING panels before, but we’ve only had monotheistic faiths represented before. This was the first time we had a Buddhist and a Hindu on the panel, which is really beneficial for our ongoing discussions on diversity and variation of beliefs and practices

GW: What did the panelists talk about?

KL: Primarily, they gave us a glimpse into a group of people with diverse religious identities who have shared values between them. Our students are learning how cultural values and beliefs (religious or otherwise) affect human behaviors. Reflecting on these aspects of culture in ourselves and others allows us to consider the why of people’s behaviors, and also allows us to have critical conversation with different perspectives in mind

The presenters also focused on the concept of extremism, which exists across all of the religions, and how violence can manifest in those viewpoints. They discussed extremism as when a highly selective perspective on a religion excludes many points in the general philosophy, and I think this was helpful for our students who hear the word “extremist” to have a sense of the context and definition that carries. They explained that extremist views and behaviors do not exemplify the majority of beliefs and practices that people of faith have and that because of media exposure, these views often represent what people assume is the entirety of a religion. This leads to stereotyping, which can increase the power that extremist groups are trying to obtain through often violent behavior.

One thing that jumped out at me is that the students haven’t heard about many critical events in recent history, such as the shootings in Christchurch or at the Tree of Life Synagogue. However, they were very aware of stereotypes associated with different religions, and that violence does occur in the name of religion.

GW: How does this discussion and work tie into the school’s Social Justice standards?

KL: In our standards, the domain of Identity requires that “students will recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.” So this dug into that idea deeply. It also connected with four of the Diversity standards, including “Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people” and “Students will examine diversity in social, cultural, political and historical contexts rather than in ways that are superficial or oversimplified”. And finally, in terms of Justice, the students were investigating this topic as they became aware of the inequities and power structures both within these religions, and in the relationship between society and religion more broadly. Awareness of these concepts allows students to choose to take Action, the fourth domain of the standards.

GW: What comes next in the curriculum?

KL: I asked students to write reflections about their experience of the panel, which included identifying additional and new questions that they have. We’re going to investigate some of those, such as “Why do people choose to associate with a religion when they don’t follow the standards?” and “If you are an extremist, do you not communicate with other religions?”

Going forward, as we trace the development of these religions, we are also looking at current events and how people are treating each other in different parts of the world. We are starting the young readers’ edition of I am Malala in 7th grade, and then we’ll look at Girl Rising to look at how different cultures have different behaviors based on their values and beliefs. This helps give perspective, and not just critique something that seems different. And in 8th grade, we are looking closely at Christian ideals that have influenced much of modern American culture. For example, we’ve talked about “what is a Puritan” and why they wanted to dress the indigenous people who were here, and why they were caught up in their comfort with nudity and their bodies. We will look at our currency and how that depicts our culture as well, from religion to politics, and examining that through a lens of beliefs and comparing personal to societal. And then we’ll look at regional development in the US, and how religion ties into that, such as white supremacy of the Mission era and how that unfolded. This leads to important conversations about power, and how our beliefs and values cause us to act in certain ways, which can include pushing aside other people’s beliefs.

GW: This sounds very powerful! Thanks for sharing about it with our community.

KL: My pleasure. Ask the kids — it’s very compelling content for them, and so important to learn and think about.