Guest Blog: Teaching About Religion

by Benjamin P. Marcus, Religious Literacy Specialist for the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute

For the past weeks, Shawn and Mary Ellen have addressed political polarization and classroom practice in a series of blog posts that examined what we can do as educators to bridge the seemingly cavernous fracture in the heart of our democracy. While political difference looms largely in current and controversial issue discussions, another point of polarization is religion. How can we promote classroom dialogue and understanding about some of our deepest differences in society? In this guest blog post, Benjamin Marcus highlights how the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum can support teachers with strategies that embrace the inquiry arc of the Illinois Social Studies standards.

Do you feel confident teaching about religion? Are you familiar with the concepts and tools used by religious studies scholars? What is the difference between teaching religion to encourage faith formation and teaching about religion from an academic perspective? Increasingly teachers are expected to teach about religion in the classroom—as evidenced in the new Religious Studies Companion Document to the C3 Framework published by the National Council for the Social Studies—but many teachers haven’t had the chance to study religion, nor have they been offered the opportunity to master religious studies pedagogies.

In our free online professional development modules, Constitution 2 Classroom, teachers will receive training to examine the theories, methodologies, and issues involved in the academic and constitutional study, research, and teaching of religion. We’ve designed our resources according to broad civic consensus—grounded in the First Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court decision Abington v Schempp—about what it means to study religion academically and constitutionally.

Why does this matter for civics? A new report by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the American religious landscape is changing dramatically. White Christians now make up less than fifty percent of the population, and the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated and non-Christian religious groups is growing. Unfortunately, this changing religious landscape has been accompanied by a rise in religion-related hate crimes. If we are to prepare our students to live constructively amidst this increasing diversity, then we need to provide them with the content knowledge and skills to navigate their communities, nation, and world. They’ll need to develop religious literacy to understand the role religion plays in civic life, legal literacy to contribute meaningfully to conversations about the protections afforded by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the skills of civil dialogue to engage meaningfully in public conversations about the most polarizing conversations currently rocking civil society.

Designed with teachers and administrators’ busy schedules in mind, our professional development is one hundred percent online (accessible anytime, anywhere), self-paced, interactive, and focused on the practical application of religious literacy, legal literacy, and civil dialogue in the classroom. You can even decide how much or how little time you want to spend learning. Each one-hour module includes (1) readings; (2) videos and/or podcasts; (3) interactive games, surveys, learning resources, etc.; (4) online discussion forums; and (5) a professional development badge. Users are invited to take as many or as few modules as they want.

Teachers are invited to learn the disciplinary concepts and skills of teaching about religion, and content related to specific religious traditions. Administrators are invited to examine the legal frameworks that govern religion in public schools. With our expertly designed courses, you’ll become more confident in responding to questions or concerns from students, families, and community members in matters regarding religion and school. And parents are invited to learn about their own rights and the rights of their children when it comes to the study of religion in public schools.

We warmly welcome questions. Contact us at

Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part IV: Responding to Contemporary Challenges

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In the first three posts of this four part series, Shawn profiled the political typologies of educators, examined the promise of controversial issues discussions in classrooms to mitigate political polarization’s long-term, deleterious effects, and explored polarization itself, determining the extent to which it is a mass or elite-driven phenomenon. Mary Ellen followed with applicable classroom resources, and we conclude today with a collaborative piece responding to contemporary challenges of classroom practice.

Last month, our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors gathered for their midyear touchpoint in Champaign and political polarization was in the air. Specifically, what can teachers themselves do to mitigate it? Three questions that surfaced are listed below, followed by our preliminary responses.

1. I teach in a politically polarized community and fear that one misstep on my part will draw the ire of parents. How do I protect myself, yet still bring political issues into my classroom?

First, Illinois social studies teachers have the benefit of supportive state policies. Our high school civics course requirement embeds discussions of current and controversial issues, and our revised K-12 social studies standards contain a deliberative strand.

Second, understand the pedagogical value of teaching with controversy and be prepared to advocate for it with key stakeholders like administrators, school board members, and parents.

Third, utilize high-quality materials like Mary Ellen highlighted in this earlier post, and emphasize issues that are open for political debate and perhaps less prominent, yet still compelling. Abortion? No. A progressive versus flat state income tax? Yes!

Fourth, be intentional about your decision about whether or not you will disclose your own political views with students. Either decision is defensible so long as students can comfortably disagree with you. But non-disclosure may be a safer option in a purple community or one where your personal views are outliers.

2. While the political views of most students are in a nascent form and often exhibit an ideologically heterogeneous pattern, a select few enter class with deeply ingrained and highly polarized beliefs. What can be done to temper them or at least teach these students the value of dialogue across difference?

First, success should not be defined as changing the mind of someone who is "set in their ways." Do they better understand the perspectives of others? Can they listen, consider, and respond civilly to others?

Second, can the students better defend their deeply ingrained positions? Can they use a variety of methods (logos, ethos, pathos) to articulate their views appropriately to others? Do they have a deeper understanding of the issue?

Third, can they find any common ground with those who hold alternative views? What can they agree on? Can they concur on the problem, but part ways on the solution? Can they find some "bridge" through shared values or principles?

Finally, search for nuances in controversial issues to deliberate. For example, Mary Ellen created a lesson plan on executive orders using DACA as a case study. The debate is not about DACA (where students are likely to have more inflexible opinions), but instead, should the president use executive orders to create public policy?

3. Social media usage among students is ubiquitous, and online networks are politically homogeneous, resulting in ideological echo chambers. How can classroom practice prevent or reverse these amplifying forces of polarization?

We have made the case for integrating news literacy into civics classrooms and highlighted related resources in previous posts, and given that students’ media consumption increasingly occurs online, we must help them navigate difficult, yet bountiful terrain.

Consider crowdsourcing your classes’ news diets and discussing the credibility and ideological positioning of selected news sources. What sources are worth Facebook follows and which reporters write compelling tweets? Perhaps have them sign-up for objective compilations of local, state, and national news stories from a variety of sources such as Politico’s Illinois Playbook or the Chicago Tribune’s Morning Spin.

Finally, on a more basic level, discuss the value of transpartisan friendships and dialogue online, mirroring the safe, ideologically diverse, and substantively rich deliberations you facilitate in the classroom.

Classroom Resources to Address Political Polarization in the Classroom

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

For the past few weeks, Shawn has shared his insights on political polarization and classroom practice, addressing the political typologies of educators, how to mitigate polarization’s harmful effects and fissures among elites and the masses. Throughout this series of blog posts, Shawn has documented how the use of current and controversial issues discussions in the classroom can “bridge this seemingly cavernous fracture at in the heart of our democracy.”

The use of controversy in the classroom can be daunting for many educators. In an article for the November 2014 edition of Educational Leadership titled, “Debates and Conversations: From the Ground Up,” Dr. Diana Hess and Dr. Paula McAvoy from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, state that many teachers avoid student to student exchanges because, “Some teachers worry that students don’t know how to talk to one another productively about issues. Others believe that students don’t know enough content to deliberate well.”

How can educators help students build the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for productive dialogue that can promote understanding and bridge the divide? There are several resources teachers can use to “get the conversation started” in their classroom.

  • The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Hess and McAvoy share what best practice looks like in a “political classroom“ where students deliberate the essential question, “How should we live together?”
  • Facing History and Ourselves has several protocols to establish norms of civil discourse. One my favorites is classroom contracting.
  • #sschat has several archived discussions where teachers and social studies organizations have shared resources and best practice related to current and controversial issues discussions.
  • Project Implicit by Harvard University has an on line assessment that students and educators can take to understand their own social attitudes and biases that lead to polarization and misunderstanding.
  • The Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum has free on-line professional development to, “help educators apply First Amendment principles to the real-life challenges that teachers and administrators face each day in religiously diverse classrooms”.
  • The National Institute for Civil Discourse has the “Text, Talk, Vote” program to leverage texting to engage students in discussions about the importance of voting and civic engagement.
  • Mismatch powered by AllSides connects students across the country in live video conversations to promote understanding across differences.
  • Generation Global connects students from across the world in dialogue through facilitated videoconferences and team blogging. Conversations are supported with engaging curriculum anchored in essential questions.

Do you have resources you can recommend to support teachers in using current and controversial issue discussions in the classroom? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part III: Fissures Among Elites and the Masses

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In the first two posts of this four part series, I profiled the political typologies of educators and examined the promise of controversial issues discussions in classrooms to mitigate political polarization’s long-term, deleterious effects. Today, we’ll examine polarization itself and discuss the extent to which it is a mass or elite-driven phenomenon.

Conventional wisdom suggests that polarization is a mass phenomenon, but there is significant scholarly debate about the extent to which it is merely a byproduct of political elites. The latter is the long-standing claim on political scientist Morris Fiorina, updated in his recent book titled Unstable Majorities.

The parties are certainly more polarized than any time since the turn of the 20th Century, resulting in bi-polar choices for an electorate that isn’t as energized on the ideological margins. Fiorina claims that a long line of Democratic (Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Clinton) and Republican candidates for President (Bush I and II, McCain, and Romney) were reliably center-left and center-right, respectively, and electorate divided itself relatively evenly and predictably as a result. It was far right or left candidates like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern that led to landslide losses to mainstream candidates of the other party.

Trump himself tested traditional ideological alignments, adopting populist positions that were economically right and socially left. This scrambled the Electoral College math and resulted in his improbable victory. As President, Trump has mostly governed as a movement conservative, thus his continued popularity with the large segment of the Republican base.

Beyond presidential elections, the parties have sorted themselves ideologically over the last generation. Rockefeller Republicans and Boll Weevil Democrats have gone the way of the dodo bird. And this sorting overlays geography, with Democrats holding serve in large urban areas, rural America trending Republican by similar, landslide margins, and the formerly rock-ribbed Republican suburbs emerging as purple battlegrounds.

The Pew Research Center has tracked ideological shifts among both political elites and the masses from 1994 through 2017. I encourage you to click through both to see the polarization that has gripped both as those with mixed views shrink and the median member of each party moves to the left or right, respectively. The images below show trends among the electorate as a whole.

Pew uses a series of ten questions to determine ideological positioning, and trend lines demonstrate the polarization of views across a range of issues. This encompasses Americans’ views of government as a force for good; race, immigration, and sexual orientation; the military; and the environment. Even on issues where both parties have become more progressive, the gap between their respective views have widened (see immigration and same-sex marriage).

These are the ideological fissures that the issues we select for classroom instruction, and the students themselves, embody. Polarization is fueled by the political class, but the masses have clearly come along for the ride. These divisions tear the very fabric of our democracy, and educators hold pedagogical tools for repairing and rebuilding our body politic. We’ll conclude this series next week with some preliminary thoughts on how to thread this elusive needle.