- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

Arlington, Va. public schools' social science teachers yesterday studied techniques for presenting courses dealing with the touchy and sometimes explosive topic of religion in ways that fully respect students' diverse religious backgrounds.
"Maybe you are a little fearful of teaching about religion," said Diane Sherwood, noting that if they avoid the subject, "You leave out an important part of your students' lives."
Miss Sherwood is affiliated with the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, a co-sponsor of the three-hour workshop for high school and middle school teachers. She was joined at the Wakefield High School session by Marcia Beauchamp, a Harvard-trained former teacher, and lawyer John Ferguson, who teams with Miss Beauchamp for school presentations.
Miss Beauchamp routinely conducts forums for public schools on the history of teaching religion as a social studies course and suggests approaches for treating the topic in an era of religious pluralism. Her work is sponsored by the Arlington-based First Amendment Center.
She told yesterday's participants: "Our students bring with them their religious education, and the last thing we ought to do is undermine [that]."
A respectful "we agree to disagree" approach is necessary to prepare students for society, she told the nearly 100 teachers in attendance. "There is a danger in focusing only on the similarities and not the differences."
The 1980s debate on prayer or religion in schools prompted studies showing the topic was either absent or sanitized in textbooks and curriculums. Then in 1995, the Education Department heeded studies produced by a coalition of education and religious groups and issued national guidelines to prevent classrooms from becoming "religion-free zones."
Since then, the First Amendment Center has helped publish national guides and booklets on the topic. And now the Interfaith Conference proposes to offer forums dealing with the subject at schools in the District and nearby counties.
Virginia's education standards require that students learn about the world's five major religions, but counties design the approach.
In yesterday's session, Mr. Ferguson gave the teachers various scenarios to consider. He asked them to discuss, for instance, the appropriateness of having a Methodist minister speak in class on the Protestant Reformation. And in another challenge, he asked the teachers to consider the value of instructing students about Jewish Passover by having them role-play a ritual Seder meal.
The teachers' opinions varied. But role-playing was seen as more likely to offend in class, while a minister — of any faith — who understood the classroom protocol was valued as an "authentic" voice in a lesson about religion.
"This is our age-old dilemma, and our opportunity," said American studies teacher Jeff Fishbein of Kenmore Middle School. "That [religion] is on the radar screen means it's a good time to review the [Education Department] guidelines again."
Swanson Middle School teacher Cathy Hix said the fact teachers were being given training on dealing with religion as a study topic confirmed there really is openness in dealing with religion in the classroom.
She remarked that her class studied Islam by having a Muslim student give a presentation on Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The presentation "was student-initiated," she said.


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