Taking religion seriously across the curriculum

“That is, it makes sense constitutionally to talk about religion apart from God”

-Court Justice Tom Clark

The place of religion in public schools is, like most hotly debated topics, a very important subject. While I started the week’s readings I was interested in the viewpoint of the Nord and Haynes (1998), and I was pleasantly surprised at their lack of tunnel vision when dealing with such a controversial issue. I find it unappealing that certain people and factions view other religions, especially closely related religions who worship the same God, as a threat to their own beliefs. The domination of one viewpoint is rarely a good thing, such as the authors’ reference to America’s early education history being dominated by one group, “enjoyed a favored status in the ceremony, rhetoric, and often in the curriculum and textbooks of public schools. That was unjust; it meant that education didn’t take others of different (or no) religious convictions seriously” (1998, p. 8). If they took a view from their preface regarding the conservative versus the liberal view, then it would be hard to see the validity, but they speak instead to the intrinsic part that religion plays with our nation and our world.

A problem I see in the elementary school level is one that is reinforced by conversations with teachers, and that is there is not enough time in the day to expand the curriculum. In school systems that are cutting the arts and focusing on mandated test results the common reaction is that there isn’t sufficient time to cover the subjects they already have. Comparing music and art to religion may seem trivial, but if we are not speaking about indoctrination then it becomes another subject to find time for. Plus, as shown in chapter 6 (1998), throughout history, art has been connected to religion. I do believe that religion and theology is a very important foundation, and a large part of our world’s history, but if we are trying to be fair and cover most or all religions then the topic becomes immense and time consuming. As important as the subject matter is, rather than trying to squeeze blood from an orange, I see the upper grades as a better platform. In my high school (many years ago in galaxy far away) there was mythology class, and I found it important because countless references and literature are based on classic mythology. So if there is the time and place for that type of subject then why not religion. In this context it is an elective (chapter 8), so the student can then choose it without the feeling of being forced into it. This may be more attainable than in the earlier grades as well, “when a captive audience of “impressionable young minds” is involved, the courts are stricter about practices that suggest state endorsement of religion” (Roberts v. Madigan, 1991, as cited in Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 26). Hatred stems from fear and ignorance, so if we can educate impartially then maybe much of this attitude can be avoided. I feel this is the reflected in the statement, “We propose a third model that is consistent with First Amendment principles and broadly supported by many education and religious groups: the “civil public school,” where people of all faiths and no faith are treated with fairness and respect” (Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 16). The school in Ramona (CA) is good example using principles such as rights, responsibilities, and respect (Nord & Haynes, 1998), and these examples are probably the best way to reinforce the 1st amendment’s statement regarding free exercise.

I was very interested to see how the book’s authors would treat elementary school level instruction of religion, and I was glad to see a whole chapter pertaining to it. I think there were pros and cons related to their discussion related to Core Knowledge, “takes religion seriously in the early grades. The major faiths of the world are well represented, though Core Knowledge places more emphasis on biblical literacy because of the pervasive influence of the Bible in American culture” (Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 67). While I was open to program I felt to be truly equal it must not show more emphasis on certain aspects regardless of the population. It creates a system that will not be applicable throughout the country, and brings us back to comments about the protestant influence on our educational system’s history. I did agree that one way to find time in the elementary level is to make history a test subject or priority, and to include the religious perspective as a part of it.

Another reason to start in elementary schools if possible is for early intervention of ignorance. Nord and Haynes talk about a high school student’s discovery of this:

Eight faith groups were represented among the 20 students who participated with her in the program: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, and Lutheran. She was amazed at how little they knew about one another—and what they did “know” about other faiths was distorted and wrong (1998, p.67).

I know that the holiday subject is one of the most discussed areas of religion in schools, partly because it is so visually apparent. My first thought was something akin to the “Role-Playing” (1998, p. 73) section that discussed it as a study instead of a participation, which if we are staying with the thought of education instead of worshiping then we could include staff and all students. Once again I affirm that religious beliefs or lack thereof is a powerful part of our society, and that, “An elementary school curriculum that ignores religion gives students the false message that religion doesn’t matter to people—that we live in a religion-free world” (Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 75).

I addressed much of these questions in my first two answers, but I haven’t touched on my specific field yet. Implementing religion into elementary level special education may be one of the most difficult areas. If the general education classroom is a battlefield for the “impressionable young minds” (1998, p. 26) then teaching elementary aged children with disabilities anything concerning religion is a situation ripe for conflict in this land of lawsuits.

Even Nord and Haynes list certain practices as, “nonsectarian,” and that “educators sometimes believe that it isn’t religion and encourage spiritual practices (such as meditation and visualization exercises) in the classroom” (Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 3) as a spiritual practice. In our classrooms these exercises are purely a therapeutic intervention, but if these could be interpreted as a religious practice then I would be very careful about actual implantation of religious education in a special education environment.  I realize they weren’t speaking on that directly, but when the goal for my year is to get a student to make eye contact or hold a crayon independently then the subject of religion as a concept instead of a devotion might be a far reach because many students with disabilities do not relate to the more abstract concepts. In my experience though, many do hold the idea of God and religion close to their heart, but I feel I would stepping over my boundaries to approach such subjects.

I made a comment in a classmate’s discussion regarding the challenges of teaching ethics to children with disabilities, and I think that is a reachable goal. Nord and Haynes (1998) talk about how morality is embedded in to what it is to be human, and even with certain disabilities that affect children with a lack of empathy or social construct, they are still human beings who know right from wrong. I know from working with these incredible kids that helping them override some of their impulses is one of the biggest challenges, and one of the greatest rewards because it sometimes obscures the truly engaging child within.

On a different and final note, the story in chapter 3, “One Nashville teacher told us with pride in her voice that she had managed to celebrate Christmas in her classroom for 23 years—and she hadn’t mentioned Jesus once! This would be funny if it weren’t so painfully revealing about the confusion surrounding religion in many elementary school classrooms” (Nord & Haynes, 1998, p. 61) reminded me of when I was in the 4th grade. I had drawn a life size picture of Jesus on butcher paper for our classroom door. I have to say it was by far the largest and best drawing of my 9 years, but when we presented to the teacher we were told that we couldn’t hang it up. I was so confused by the thought of decorating the room for Christmas, but not being able to show his picture. This illustrates the confusion that the curriculum held for me, and for the most part the school systems have used butcher paper and scotch tape to fix the problem instead of starting from scratch.


Nord, W., & Haynes, C. (1998). Taking religion seriously across the curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This entry was posted in L3: Family/neighborhood centered, L4: Contextual community centered, P3: Informed by legal and ethical responsibilities and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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