Religious Literacy in Public Schools

Recently I taught my first lesson on the crusades in my intro to teaching class.  This is not a student teaching position.  I just show up once a week to help out with the classroom.  It is a social studies junior high world history class, and I have to teach two lessons.  I did the first one last week.  I was very surprised by the results.

I went through a brief history of Israel with the students, then we read one document from Pope Urban II and one document from the Arab perspective.  After this, we talked about bias in documents.  After the lesson my host teacher told me that the information had gone totally over the students heads.  I was stunned.  I had gone through the documents slowly because I wanted to make sure they understood the documents.  I had explained all the difficult vocabulary words.  What was the problem?

She suggested that I had made the crusades too religious.

“They don’t all have a religious background, you know,” she said.

I really didn’t know what to say.  I am living in a generation where it is a stretch for students to understand the religious aspects of the crusades.  The study flabbergasted me so much that I went to Barnes and Noble today to look at information on religion and education.  I picked up a book by Stephen Prothero called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to know.  He believes along with others that these problems of religious illiteracy can be traced to “John Dewey and other progressive-era education reformers, who gave up in the early twentieth century on content-based learning in favor of a skills-based strategy that scorned the piling up of information” (4).  Prothero began to find that he could have “challenging conversations” at the college level without “common knowledge” (4-5).

We have to find ways to bring this “common knowledge” at the junior high level.  If we don’t inculcate students with proper vocabulary at the junior high level, I don’t think we will ever be able to reach students.


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