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Mar 25, 2011 | Sharon Sheridan

Guidelines Provide Best Practices for Teaching Religion in Episcopal Schools

[Episcopal News Service] New guidelines on best practices for teaching religion aim to help Episcopal schools enhance religious literacy among their students, maintain academic standards for religion instruction and outline qualifications for religion teachers.


"Principles of Good Practice for the Study of Religion in Episcopal Schools" is the fourth in a series ofpamphlets produced by the National Association of Episcopal Schools, an independent organization supporting and advocating for more than 1,200 Episcopal schools and early-childhood education programs. The others address the principles of good practice for furthering Episcopal identity in Episcopal schools, governance in Episcopal parish day schools and leadership transitions in Episcopal schools.


The latest principles address topics such as the relationship between religion study and chapel or religious-instruction programs, the importance of studying world religions, the place of ethics in religion study, age appropriateness for religion study and who should teach religion at Episcopal schools. The guidelines were developed over two years, with school chaplains, rectors and NAES board members providing feedback, said the Rev. Daniel Heischman, association executive director.


"We have a very wide variety of schools who do not utilize common curricula who teach courses in religion at different levels of the school," he said. "They're hardly uniform, and yet at the same time are looking for some guiding principles for their work. This is where we feel we do some of our best work as an association, which is by holding up what we call principles of good practice."


Looking at the "really large picture," Heischman said, the guidelines address concerns about religious illiteracy in the larger culture and the need for "understanding of biblical concepts and stories, awareness of the great religious traditions of the world and also what I'd call ethical and moral literacy, capacity to reason and to converse in a moral framework."


"I think a very compelling case could be made that to be a responsible citizen of the world today, you need to have a working knowledge of the great religious traditions of the world and the impact that they have," he said.


Liz Harlan-Ferlo, upper school chaplain at the Oregon Episcopal School, agreed.


"At OES, we want to create responsible global citizens, and we acknowledge and highlight the fact that to be a responsible global citizen in 2011 you need to understand how religion functions in people's lives," she said. "Religion in general for most people in the world is a major part of their identity and a major driving force of their decision-making. For our students to be able to understand how the world functions and their own place in it, they need to have a grounding in the major world religions."


"The goal is definitely that students be religiously literate," said Harlan-Ferlo, who was among the chaplains providing feedback on the guidelines. "What we're striving for in part is a depth, not necessarily that they know tidbits about every major world religion."


At All Saints' Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas, the guidelines released last fall already are affecting the curriculum.


"I really realized that we were not doing as good a job at All Saints as we could have been with regard to the study of world religions," said Assistant Head of School and Upper Division Head the Rev. David Madison, who also provided input on the guidelines. "Working through that document really inspired me to ask some questions and see how we could get better in that particular part of our religious-studies system."


All Saints' has added a fourth-grade world religions class that corresponds with a geography class that studies the communities and cultures that settled Texas, he said. They've also added an eighth-grade unit and want to add a 12th-grade one, he said.


The Rev. Vicki Davis said she eventually would like to see a curriculum study to develop a clearer understanding and coordination between religion and other academic classes at Grace Church School in New York, where she is chaplain.


"The more I teach Bible classes to these young people," she said, "the more I'm actually convinced that we really kind of do a disservice to students in the public schools by not allowing religion to be taught, in that so much of what the students learn in history and literature, in art, in music, is rooted in the Bible and church history."


The NAES guidelines emphasize that "religious studies should be at the same level as any other core academic offering," Madison noted. "I think that's critical. … This community has always viewed religious studies as a core class in the same way that English or history or math is treated. From hearing other chaplains speak, I think that sometimes is not the case. Episcopal schools view religious studies as important, as critical to that development of body, mind, spirit as any other offering."


Along with this, the guidelines encourage religion teachers to have "proper academic credentials" and to pursue professional development opportunities. They "recommend that teachers of religion be people who have good training in this academic subject matter and can represent their subject matter as adequately and appropriately as those teaching in other academic disciplines," adding: "Commitment to following a particular religious tradition cannot, on its own, stand as a compelling qualification to be teaching the subject matter in our schools."


The guidelines also emphasize that the academic study of religion differs from catechesis that may occur during chapel programs, Heischman said. "We want [teachers] to be passionate about their subject but at the same time to understand that the academic classroom is a different setting from chapel."


Said Harlan-Ferlo, "I think the guidelines are very clear about the goals of teaching religion … but they also really lay out nicely the relationship between the academic study of religion and the sort of spiritual growth and pastoral care aspects of a chaplain's role in a school."


Other denominations take different approaches in advising their parochial schools about religious instruction.


As part of its school accreditation process, the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of American-affiliated organization similar to NAES, has religion standards outlining what students should know by the time they complete kindergarten, fifth grade and eighth grade, said Gayle Denny, association executive director, adding, "we do not have a particular religious curriculum that we advocate."


About 1,700 ELCA congregations nationally have a weekday school or early-childhood program, she said. Of these, about 125 are elementary schools and six or seven are high schools.


Religion instruction typically is integrated into the classroom as a Christian studies component and generally is not taught by clergy, Denny said. "We hope [clergy] are the ones leading the chapel experience, which is usually done on a weekly basis."


For the early-education pupils, she said, "there is nothing denominational going on at all. It is simply teaching children about the love of God and taking care of creation as God's world."


At that youngest level, according to the standards, children are expected to be "familiar with basic Bible stories," while fifth-graders should be able to identify biblical terms and texts such as the Old and New Testaments, chapter and verses, prayers, psalms and parables, and to "understand that the Bible is the inspired Word of God." Eighth-graders also should understand biblical notes and cross-references and be able to identify sermons and prophetic writing within the Bible. The exit standards for both K-5 and K-8 schools specify that "students will have a knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith, and in particular, Lutheranism." They also specify that "the school supports the faith formation of children" and that "Christian studies are delivered in a nonjudgmental, positive, loving context."


Said Denny, "we allow for the fact that very few of the students at our Lutheran schools are actually Lutheran."


The Roman Catholic Church in the United States takes a more catechetical approach.


"Each bishop, of course, is in charge of his own diocese, so he approves the textbooks that are used in all Catholic elementary and high schools," said Kathy Schmitt, administrative assistant for the National Catholic Educational Association's communications office. At the high school level, a new curriculum framework for textbooks – "Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age" – was published in 2008 and is posted at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website here.


The framework outlines core-curriculum topics, including "The Revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture," the sacraments and "Life in Jesus Christ." Electives include studies of the Bible, Catholic Church history and ecumenical and interreligious issues.


Non-Catholics represent 14.9 percent of total enrollment in the 5,774 elementary and 1,206 secondary U.S. Catholic schools, according to the educational association' annual statistical report.


In contrast, "most Episcopal schools are not hotbeds of Episcopalians," said Harlan-Ferlo. At the pre-K-to-12 Oregon day and boarding school, she estimated, 5 to 8 percent of students are Episcopalians. Muslims, Hindus and Jews as well as Christians and unchurched students attend the school, which includes a "fairly sizeable" number of pupils from China, she said. During her philosophy of religion class in which students researched their families' religions, one student inquired about using the Communist party as the family's religion.


"I think it's very helpful to have these guidelines out there as a touchstone, that it does mean something to say you're an Episcopal school," Davis said. "Part of what the Episcopal principles emphasize is that everyone's welcome."


Response to the guidelines generally has been "very positive," Heischman said, although "there have been some who said it was not specifically conservative enough or in their view Christian enough."


"Our schools are all across the theological spectrum," he noted.


Overall, the guidelines are intended as "a discussion starter," he said. "We would be delighted if these principles were the basis of a discussion as a department does a review of its offerings, as a school searches for a new chaplain or head of a religion department."


-- Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.