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Re-Thinking How to Teach about Religion in the World History Classroom through Collaborative Peer Education

Clare R. Sisisky

Director, The Center for the Humanities, Henrico County Public Schools

    Although much of the literature surrounding religion and public education in America concerns the lack of recognition of the religious perspectives or acknowledgement of religious world views as valid in the curriculum, perhaps a more compelling question for scholars of religion and educators should be how religious studies are being taught in our social studies classrooms. Required by state frameworks to instruct students about the religions of the world, how are teachers teaching about religion?1 What are students grasping about the complexities and the diversity of religion? How are teachers preparing to cover these aspects of their curriculums? 1
    As a teacher and an administrator overseeing curriculum design in a humanities program for public education, my primary concern is not to articulate a justification for including religious studies in our social studies curriculums, as this should be undisputed at this point.2 Warren Nord in his comprehensive volume Religion and American Education concludes that "no doubt everyone agrees that there is some place for religion in education, for we cannot understand history and historical literature without understanding a good deal about religion."3 My concern is, however, focused on what our students understand about religion. In much of my experience with teaching colleagues and exploring the coverage of religion in world history textbooks, I continue to find the coverage of world religions as either missing or extremely condensed and taught as broad, overarching general ideas that are outlined quickly and simplistically. Of course teachers are concerned with the challenges of teaching about religion, not only because the content is so vast and complex, but also because it is both regulated by the Constitution in the First Amendment and because "religion is intensely personal and is of overriding importance to many people."4 Educators are not used to teaching about religion in their classrooms but our religious illiteracy goes beyond that, as Nord again points out: "Because it has been ignored in education, and because it has become such a private matter, most of us have had little practice talking about it in public places."5 So if we as educators agree with our state mandate to teach about religion, but also have little experience or training in how to do so, where do we go from here? 2
   Culturally teachers are expected to be experts on the topics they teach in their classrooms. Our educational and pedagogical models in the classroom often equate knowledge of content with authority and power in the classroom, and often these models dictate that teachers must retain that authority absolutely. As teachers have often received little or no training in religious studies, perhaps the "larger cultural expectation that teachers must be certain in their knowledge," prevents them not only from teaching about religion in any kind of depth or complexity, but also from coming forth to re-think or re-train their approach to religious studies.6 As a graduate of a unique teacher preparation program and with an advanced degree in religious studies, I realize that my background in teaching about religion and discussing pedagogical and curriculum issues regarding religious studies in secondary education is a product of years of training and experience, and will always be the exception. I am not implying that all current and future world history teachers return to graduate school to become expert religious scholars. However, if we are to closely examine how religion is being taught in public schools and to encourage teachers to tackle the challenge of effectively teaching about religion, then we must provide them with the resources and tools to accomplish this goal. To this end, there are two important steps that we as educators can take. 3
    The first is that school administrators and teachers can move toward recognizing the value that potential teachers with a strong background in religious studies can contribute to a social studies department and can offer as a resource for their colleagues. Often teachers with undergraduate majors in religious studies rather than history are not considered as capable of teaching social studies, despite the fact that all religious studies programs extensively cover history while many history programs do not contain much religious studies content for many of the reasons outlined above. In an interview for a social studies teaching position, I was asked with a tone of disdain "why did you major in religion if you wanted to be a social studies teacher?" by a department chair. Despite the clear mandate to teach extensively about religion in most of the state frameworks, many state requirements for teacher licensure in social studies or history are reflective of this attitude of avoidance and fear in regards to religious studies. The first step towards creating a shift in social studies education regarding religious studies, therefore, is also a shift in the value placed on religious studies by educators themselves. Just as a potential teacher with a keen interest and background in studying the civil war might be considered a valuable asset to a social studies department, so should a potential teacher with a religious studies degree focusing on medieval Christianity. 4
    The second step recognizes current teachers as willing and able to think critically about how they teach about religion. Although there are a few opportunities for teachers to take coursework or attend workshops on religious studies, taking teachers seriously as scholars and capable students in their own right can lead us in another direction. Teachers, given the right support and opportunity, are often able to become their own teachers through peer education and group study. This type of opportunity could range from undertaking readings and discussion on a regular basis to the sharing of experience and materials from a colleague more versed in one particular area through academic background or a recent professional development opportunity such as a graduate course. Despite the instincts of some to gravitate toward 'experts' when undertaking any educational endeavor, teachers within a department are often their own educators through collaborating, sharing articles, ideas, and materials for teaching. Although many teachers claim to strongly value their independence, Deborah Britzman identifies three "cultural myths" that perhaps stand in the way of teacher peer-education: "(1) everything depends on the teacher; (2) the teacher is the expert; and (3) teachers are self-made."7 These myths in and of themselves present several obstacles in moving beyond the religious illiteracy of our social studies classes, but primarily they "valorize the individual and transform the teacher's actual isolation into a valued autonomy."8 Overcoming these myths and moving toward more collaborative learning and professional development opportunities for teachers seems overdue as our pedagogy for our students have made great strides in that direction. In regards to religion specifically, with both increased value and recognition given to the academic backgrounds in religious studies of colleagues, paired with the willingness of teachers and administrators to adopt peer learning opportunities in religious studies, we can move our teaching about religious studies toward a more comprehensive model. This model would treat religion as the complex, diverse and interconnected part of history that it continues to be, and would allow us as teachers to feel confident in conveying this complexity to our students without over—simplifying some of the most critical content of their social studies curriculum. 5
    So how do we provide teachers with these tools? My own graduate education was partially through the Program for Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard University Divinity School, under the guidance of Dr. Diane Moore, and has greatly shaped my experience as a teacher. In the program, through small group seminars and colloquiums as well as regular discussions throughout my student teaching, new teachers are able to develop the skills of collaboration and intellectual engagement with their colleagues regarding both the content and pedagogies of their classes. This skill has served me well while on the faculty of Phillips Academy Andover, where I was able to continuously engage and revamp my curriculum based on new ideas and conversations with fellow teachers. In terms of my professional growth as an educator, however, the most significant aspect of my time at Andover was my continued relationship with Dr. Diane Moore, as she was also teaching a course on the faculty. Although many schools and school systems assign new teachers a mentor, many of these relationships are thwarted by the cultural myths outlined above and can lead to a struggle with assumptions about authority and power even between teachers. For me, the mentor relationship was invaluable not only in terms of support in my early years of teaching, but also in terms of my own self perception as a teacher. 6
    The mentor relationship can either solidify our cultural myths and assumptions about teaching or it can break down these hurdles and allow newer teachers to see themselves and their colleagues as valuable assets in the continuous process of learning. For many new teachers, the mentor relationship and the required meetings can be another addition to the long list of tasks and building a strong and meaningful relationship can seem both time-consuming and fruitless. However, if we as teachers, both mentors and new teachers, are able to let go of our need for autonomy and become more open to learning and re-learning in terms of our content, our teaching methods, and our self-awareness we can perhaps begin to build the types of collegial relationships that could foster true peer education. For example, several colleagues at Andover and I undertook this type of learning opportunity one summer when we received a small grant and spent a week working through materials (primarily in the Encyclopedia of Religion) to explore the theoretical approach to teaching about religion that we felt would be best for our students. Although this dialogue was focused on the theoretical, of course there was a great deal of discussion of application and sharing of ideas. Despite the fact that I was the most inexperienced and junior of the group, the relationships of trust and respect that the group embodied allowed each member to feel empowered as both a teacher and a learner, contributing greatly to the learning experience of others. This type of peer learning could easily be adapted to different topics and could earn teachers professional development credit in accordance with their states licensure requirements. 7
    One way that this type of teacher-to-teacher learning can take place is through the sharing of specialties and interests through the distribution of materials and curriculum design. The following description and outline of examples of lessons come from the Asian Religions unit I designed, based on the term-long course I reconfigured and taught at Phillips Academy, Andover, from 2003-2006 in the Philosophy and Religion Department.. The unit is currently being redeveloped and condensed for inclusion in my world history and humanities courses for Henrico County Public Schools in Richmond, VA for the school year 2006-2007. The aim of this unit is to introduce students to religious traditions that originated and flourished in Asia and are practiced by people throughout the world today. Students are also introduced to religions as complex, diverse and connected to all other aspects of the societies in which they live. Using an approach that is both critical and empathetic, students explore the fundamental structures of belief, meaning and practice that constitute the traditions of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and the diversity within these traditions. The pedagogical model is one of inquiry based, student-centered learning employing a cultural-studies approach to the teaching of religion, an approach that allows students to make the connections between religions and their cultural contexts. Although many teachers utilize this type of teaching method in some of their classes, very often teaching challenging content and material, such as teaching about religion, results in teachers slipping into 'safer' methods of teaching such as lecturing or assigning worksheets. 8
    One primary characteristic of this unit as part of a world history course is that it does not try to cover everything about each religious tradition. The unit attempts to offer students tools for understanding the specific traditions and religion in general in all its complexities by combining a 'foundational' lesson with a more in-depth exploration, using some sort of 'case-study' style lesson. This specific pattern manifests in various ways, on the same topic over one lesson or over several topics and several lessons. The Asian Religions unit attempts to move students away from an oversimplified and essentialized understanding of religion as merely phenomenological or a set of beliefs. The unit follows the pattern outlined above through multiple topics beginning with Hinduism, then a short section on Sikhism, and ending with Buddhism. The first aspect of the pattern introduces the 'foundational' part of the lesson. While these foundations are also debatable and not necessarily completely universal to their respective religions, the foundational lessons are widely recognized and taught; an obvious example for the study of Islam would be a reading on Islamic prayer. The foundational lessons for the unit introduce students to both the religious traditions in question and to the academic study of religion. The lessons introduce sacred texts, historical figures and developments, and basic theology or philosophical worldviews. In encountering this material, students engage with primary sources such as translations of the sacred texts, or audio / video interviews or discussions with contemporary religious practitioners. Although these foundational lessons are designed to be basic and introductory, they are not confined to lecture style lessons and always involve some kind of reading and discussion. 9
     The second aspect of the pattern builds from the specific foundational lesson by focusing on the various interpretations and expressions of these foundations. As a possibility for the second part of the Islamic prayer lesson example, students could research online various prayer times in various parts of the world or could explore various calls to prayer through online audio files. The second part of the lesson grows from the initial learning but shifts in focus to directly highlight the diversity, multiplicity, and complexity of the topic. The nature of this focus lends itself to inquiry-based learning, where students become the principle investigators and uncover the ambiguities and diversity of religious expressions and influence.  10
    This pattern assists students in the development of numerous skills as well as introducing students to the complex nature of religion and religious studies. Students make connections through this student-centered model as the second part of the lesson leads students to question the reasons for such diversity of expressions, practices, or views. Students make connections between the often historically focused foundational initial lesson and the often more contemporary second aspect of the lesson. Starting with historical transformations and moving into the diversity of the traditions, students are able to understand how geographic areas or other cultural contexts can determine the variety of practice. When guiding students through these explorations, the teacher is able to emphasize and encourage students to discuss the interplay of religion with history, economics, politics, gender, geography, and other cultural expressions. This curriculum unit acknowledges the complexity, diversity and inter-disciplinary nature of teaching about and learning about religion, and allows students to engage with religion and religious views throughout their curriculum with a new approach. The new perspective on religion that students gain provides them the skill to think critically about the role of religion in today's world and empathetically at the diversity of religious practice and expression within traditions and within their own communities. 11
    The following lessons are examples from the Asian Religions unit and can offer insight to both the pedagogical model outlined above and the cultural studies approach in regards to curriculum. 12

  • Geography of Asian Religions (foundational)—Introduce the geography of various religions of Asia using map of world religions from the Atlas of World Religions.9 Provide students with a world map and ask them to illustrate the distribution of major religions, and then shift focus towards Asia. Students could also be interested to see a list of world religions by population in conjunction with their map work. Instructor can use this time to discuss why Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism are the focus of the unit.
  • Asian Religions at Home—Using the religious centers online directory of The Pluralism Project to find local religious centers.10 In most diverse metropolitan areas, teachers can find listings for numerous religious centers that cater to largely Asian or Asian-American communities. As the continent of Asia is so vast and religiously diverse, along with Hindu and Buddhist centers, many Muslim, Christian, and other religious traditions have centers that have primarily Asian or Asian-American congregations or members, such as Korean Churches. Most of the listings from the online directory include websites for the centers and most of these websites include images of the center. One way to introduce students to the religious diversity within their local area is to print these images, and place them around the classroom. Then distribute the names of the centers on pieces of paper and ask students to go around the room and try to match the names with the images. This activity can lead to many interesting discussions both about Asian religions in America but also about students' assumptions and awareness about their own communities.

  • One God, many gods (foundational)—Using readings from Diana Eck's book Darsan, students explore the Hindu theological concept of the oneness of the divine and its many manifestations, and how this relates to the visual image.11
  • Seeing the Divine—Bring in images of various Hindu gods and goddesses with emphasis on the diversity of representations, including specifically regional deities, modern day gurus, and representations of the same god/goddess that have different appearances and symbols. Students can make observations about the images, noticing the details and symbols, and share with each other. This leads to a discussion how/why a Hindu chooses to worship a deity, emphasizing the factors that determine this such as geographic region, caste, family, and personal preference. The Asia Society has an excellent online essay and accompanying images entitled "The Role of the Devotional Image in Hinduism."12 There are so many websites with images of Hindu gods and goddesses that are a great resource as well as a tool used by Hindus for worship.13
  • Sannyasin Stage of Life (foundational)—Most traditional introduction to Hinduism texts cover the four stages of life that Hindu 'twice-born' males traditionally undertake, the last stage is the Sannyasin stage. There are also many readings and images available on the concept of Hindu asceticism as the basis for this stage.14
  • Monasticism and Asceticism—Students can directly engage in a comparison between a traditional sadhu (or rennunciate in the Sannyasin stage of life) and the life of a contemporary monastic (monk or nun) belonging to a specific order (students can use websites, books, or guest speakers). Contrasting these two roles allows students to look at some of ways that the same value or ideal of asceticism can be interpreted differently in varying contexts. This lesson also allows students to understand the evolution of modern Hindu movements, and that religious traditions grow and change over time and as they struggle with modernity.15
  • Rama and Dharma (foundational)—This lesson introduces students to the concept of dharma or sacred duty by reading excerpts from an English translation of the Hindu epic The Ramayana.16 A good scene from the epic to focus on to help students understand dharma is the scene when the king, Rama's father, decides to send him into the forest for 14 years of exile. The ensuing confusion about what to do and conflicting emotions from various characters facing various duties and obligations gives students an interesting insight into the intrigue of the epic. Students can discuss how Rama seems to have conflicting dharmas as a leader, a son, a husband etc. Students also look at other characters such as Rama's wife Sita. The discussion can then be redirected by asking students why Hindus might see Rama as the 'ideal' or a role model.
  • Rama as Political Icon—This part of the lesson builds on the notion of Rama as the ideal but allows students to understand the political connotations of this imagery in the context of contemporary Hindu Nationalism. Students can read 'objective' overviews from an international news source on the events leading up to the communal riots in 1992 and the conflict over the Babri Masjid (mosque) in northern India and the impending significance of Rama (the BBC website has good material on this issue).17 After examining these news sources, students can begin to explore the two sides of the dispute and consider both perspectives. As students begin to grasp the significance of this conflict, instructors can hand out a copy of a common image of Rama picture as a warrior standing over a large Hindu temple on this contested site.18 Because of their background understanding of Rama as a Hindu 'ideal' they can engage in a discussion on why Hindu Nationalist leaders might use the image of Rama and the significance of Rama as a political icon. This can lead to a more in-depth discussion of the nature of the inter-play of religion and politics in this conflict, and beyond.
  • Women in Hinduism: An Introduction to Sita and Sati (foundational)—As students have encountered Sita in the Ramayana, they can re-examine their reading of the sacred text looking more closely at the role of Sita as an exemplary Hindu woman and wife. Students can deconstruct her dharma and her decision to follow Rama into the forest despite his protests. Students then look at the practice of Sati, or self-immolation of a Hindu widow, through a reading on the topic. The discussion on this reading can include a brief history of this marginal practice, and its outlawing in India and decline in practice.19
  • Sita and Sati: Powerful or Powerless?—Now that students have the requisite background on both goddesses, students can begin to inquire what they can learn about women in Hinduism through learning about these two figures. Students can split into four groups and each group can discuss how either Sita or Sati is an example of the power of women or an example of disempowerment, or even oppression. Each student group should try to understand and articulate one of the four unique perspectives (e.g. that the notion of Sati as a goddess and an act empowers women) in a brief presentation to the rest of the class, taking care to focus on how women might view the issue. The whole group can then discuss the issues arising from the group work and students can share their personal opinions as they debrief the exercise. Despite the variety of opinions that will arise, students should also know that in these cases there are clear majorities in India and that the practice of Sati is illegal in India.

  • The 5 Ks as Identity Markers (foundational)—The five traditional symbols and commandments of Sikhism provide students with a solid introduction to Sikhism. The online resource can be utilized for student-led research on the 5 Ks, perhaps working in groups and presenting their findings to each other.20 Students should also be asked about the symbolism of the identity markers, such as the turban, and why they think they are important to Sikhs.
  • Identity Misunderstood—What happens when traditional religious identity markers are misunderstood or take on political connotations? Students read articles from U.S. newspapers on the discrimination facing Sikhs after 9/11. This raises so many issues for discussion including religious freedom in the U.S. as well as the purpose and politics of religious identity markers. Newspaper articles can be found in the "Religious Diversity News" section on the Pluralism Project website where several specific cases as well as the topic in general have been tracked since 2001.21

  • The Story of Buddha (foundational)—Students read the story of the historical Buddha and begin to understand why this is a foundational story for Buddhists. There are several versions of this story, but most follow basically the same trajectory; students can read one or a couple of versions.22

  • The Buddha is Now—Without discussing the story of Buddha as a group, students can break into groups and attempt to create some sort of artistic interpretation of the story of Buddha that would be meaningful in contemporary America, usually performance orientated. Students are asked to limit their presentation to 5-7 minutes, so that they are not able to include every detail. The students then perform their interpretations, which often differ greatly from each other and are usually modernized in some way. We then discuss the variety of the interpretations of the same story, and the cultural influences on our interpretations. This sets up a study of Buddhism with an emphasis on the different interpretations and cultural influences through the Buddhist world while maintaining a historical connection to the Buddha and his teachings.

  • Tibetan Buddhism (foundational)—Students can complete some brief readings on one or several topics on the main teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, for example the role of the Dalai Lama, visualization as a meditation technique, the life in a Tibetan monastery etc.

  • Visit to Tibetan Buddhist Center—In most metropolitan areas in the U.S, the Tibetan communities have established religious centers and many of these centers have both Tibetan immigrant members and Euro-American members who practice Buddhism. Students can experience incredible learning from a field trip to a local Tibetan center where they can meet a monastic member (monk or nun) who could give a tour of the temple, discuss the life of a monastic, and discuss some of the same concepts learned in class from a personal perspective, such as the role of lamas. After the trip, students can complete a reflection paper about the trip, which can be complemented by class time discussion of the field trip including how things in the U.S. are different than the same kind of center in Tibet, and than in the Tibetan community in exile in India or Nepal. This demonstrates the influence of context.23

    If we are to critically examine how and why we teach certain aspects of our curriculum, we must take ourselves seriously as educators and capable scholars. In re-thinking and learning more about religion, my hope is that the unit outlined briefly above will serve as a building block as teachers begin to engage in and develop their own curriculums in religious studies as part of their well rounded world history courses. 


Biographical Note: Clare Sisisky is the director of the Center for the Humanities for Henrico County Public Schools in Richmond, Virginia, where she teaches social studies and in the inter-disciplinary humanities program. She previously taught in both the History and the Philosophy and Religion departments at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She graduated with a Master of Theological Studies in World Religions from Harvard Divinity School, where she was also a member of the Program for Religion in Secondary Education and a research associate at The Pluralism Project.   

1 The Commonwealth of Virginia (for example) explicitly requires the teaching of world religions in its following Standards of Learning (SOLs) for World History I and World History II courses: WHI.3c, WHI.3d, WHI.4c which mandates (as an example) that students are able to answer the question "How did Hinduism influence Indian Society and Culture?", WHI.4d, WHI.4f, WHI.6h, WHI.7d, WHI.7e, WHI.8a-8d, WHI.9a, WHI.10b-d, WHI.11a-b, WHI.12b, and WHII.2c, WHII.3a-c, WHII.4b, WHII.14a-b, WHII.15a.

2 My position is the Director of the Center for the Humanities for Henrico County Schools as well as a teacher in both the Center for the Humanities and the Social Studies Department at Hermitage High School, Richmond, Virginia.

3 Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 5.

4 Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 5.

5 Ibid.

6 Deborah P. Britzman, "Cultural Myths in the Making of a Teacher: Biography and Social Structure in Teacher Education," Harvard Educational Review Vol. 56 No. 4 (November 1986), 53.

7 Deborah P. Britzman, "Cultural Myths in the Making of a Teacher," 53.

8 Ibid.

9 Ninian Smart, Atlas of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

10 The online directory of religious centers from The Pluralism Project at Harvard University can be accessed at

11 Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

12 "The Role of the Devotional Image in Hinduism" from The Asia Society online at

13For some more contemporary online images of popular deities see

14 For images and a brief overview of the final stage of life see part of the webpage accompanying the "Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 2001-2002:, and for more images from the same photographer see

15 A useful example of a modern Hindu movement is The Ramakrishna Mission and an example of a vibrant monastic community of this order in India can be found at

16 For an accessible translation see Ranchor Prime's Ramayana: A Journey (Welcome Rain Publishers, 1999).

18 For an example of one of these images of Rama see

19 A great resource on the complex issue of Sati the compilation of essays Sati: The Blessing and the Curse edited by John Stratton Hawley (Oxford University Press, 1994).

21 For articles on hate crimes and violence see and for outreach and reaction from the Sikh communities in the U.S. see

22 One good resource for the story of the historical figure of Buddha and the narrative of his life is Donald Lopez's The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to its History and Teachings (HarperCollins, 2001).

23 This type of trip can be taken to a variety of Buddhist centers, although having a community of both immigrants from Asia or Asian-Americans and non Asian Americans gives students an interesting insight into Buddhism in the West. Buddhist (or Hindu) centers can be searched by location using the Pluralism Project's directory at


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