Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two Stories About Religion and Public Schools

I want to relate two stories today, one that happened to a fellow teacher and one that happened to me.

The first story starts with me working in the teacher's lounge. One of the Spanish teachers walked in and we could all tell she was upset about something. It seems that the previous day she had been teaching a lesson where the word "ojala" was on the vocabulary list. She said she had explained to the students that the word meant "I hope" or "hopefully." She had also explained that, while the roots of most Spanish words come from Latin, this word came from an Arabic word meaning "Oh, Allah." That next morning, one of the students in the class, a fundamentalist Christian, came to her and said that she and her mother had discussed the word "ojala." They had decided that she shouldn't use that word because of its origins and because they didn't believe in Allah. The teacher was a little shaken and asking for advice. We told her to try to explain that the word didn't have anything to do with Allah. We also told her to tell them that many words have origins completely unrelated to what the word currently means. Even the word "Amen" might possibly have come from the Egyptian god Amen-Ra.

The second story has to do with a worksheet I had given the students. It was a puzzle worksheet where they solved some math problems and, once solved, they were able to answer a question that was the title of the worksheet. I don't remember exactly what the title of the worksheet was, but it was a historical question, something about Pericles. The worksheet told a little story about his life from 495 B.C. to 429 B.C., then there were math questions to solve. The correct answer matched with a letter and the letters solved the puzzle and answered the historical question. Anyway, one of the students asked me what B.C. meant. I told him that it was a way to measure time and referred to "before Christ." I explained that dates before the birth of Christ were B.C. and after were A.D. When he looked up at me, I knew there was trouble. He told me that he couldn't do the worksheet because it was about Christ and he didn't believe in Christ. I tried to explain that the worksheet was about Pericles and practicing some math problems, that it had nothing to do with Christ. There was no convincing him. He actually tore up the worksheet. If had known beforehand that I would get this kind of reaction, I would have told him that it was short for B.C.E. and meant "before the common era." Unfortunately, that thought never occurred to me until afterwards. The strange part of this story is that the next day the school had its holiday assembly and this young man was on stage with the choir singing Christmas carols. Evidently no had told him what the words to those songs meant.

I relate these stories because there is so much misunderstanding when it comes to religion. Students need to know that saying a word like "ojala" does not mean that you are praying to Allah. They need to know that when you use a term like B.C., you are not advocating Christianity. Such ignorance only intensifies bitter feelings between different religions and those who choose not to accept religion. While I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I can't help but feel that a course about religion, one that compares and contrasts a variety of beliefs, might be of benefit to many. Perhaps it would curb some of the prejudices and give a deeper appreciation and tolerance of many faiths. However, I am sure there are parents who do not want their children learning about any religion other than their own. And I believe no good can ever come from a fear of knowledge.

1 comment:

  1. This was an excellent post on how far is too far when it comes to religious beliefs. It is a blatant reminder that children's minds are sponges, and it raises good questions about how to teach tollerance as well as strong religious beliefs to young minds. Thank you for posting- I wrote about it on SchooGo.
    You can find it here- wonderful discussion topic!