“What is culture?” third grade teachers Erin Longo and Priscilla Jih ask their students at the beginning of the school year.
The study of culture is deeply embedded in their curriculum. Erin and Priscilla launch this curriculum by asking their students a set of questions that they as a class will investigate over the course of the year:
- How do people use beliefs to explain their world?
- How do people’s beliefs affect their daily lives?
- How does geography affect culture?
As part of this exploration, third graders learn about two distinct civilizations: the Mali Empire and ancient Egypt. It was through these two studies that Erin and Priscilla initially recognized the need to include a study of religion to help students better understand their cultures.
“To understand the Mali Empire, you really need to have a foundation of understanding of Islam,” Erin said. “When we first introduced Islam to our students four years ago, we wanted to make sure we were providing a good overview of the religion—the five pillars, the hajj. After that first day, we received an email from a family who shared that their child was so excited the class was learning about Islam and that he had never before shared his Muslim identity at school. Hearing how this made the student feel seen and safe at school made us want to continue with our study of religion.”
In the years that have followed since that first year, the religious studies unit has blossomed into an exploration of the foundations of the five major world religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The class begins with a big brainstorm about what religion is.
“Students noted how religion can be a part of culture, that it is a set of beliefs, that there are stories and history within religion, that different religions believe in different gods (even multiple gods), and there are often foods and clothing associated with different religions,” Erin and Priscillia wrote in one of their class blogs. “We also examined the spread of religion, wondering about why and how religion is spread.”
The unit has been woven into class book groups, in which students are also building their non-fiction reading skills—how to leverage text boxes, glossaries, table of contents, and other elements when gathering information. Using a series of non-fiction books called Let’s Find Out Religion—which, Erin said, “provide a clear, age-appropriate foundation for each religion”—students answer key questions that allow them to then compare and contrast the religions: how many followers the religion has, the names of any deities, who the founder was, the name of the holy sacred book, and core beliefs.
“I've learned about a lot of the uniqueness of the religions, and I’ve also seen a lot of similarities between them,” said student Evan J.
Grace J. echoed Evan, “This is the first time we’re really learning about religion, and it’s really cool to see how similar they are.”
“Having a foundational understanding of religion helps students build compassion and empathy,” Erin said. “Religion is a piece of knowledge of how history impacts the present.”
“Learning about religion means you can interact with and understand others’ people's cultures, which is vital if you want to interact with them,” said student Helena G.
“I think this unit is important because religion impacts how you believe, how you spend your daily life, what mindset you have, and what you do,” Grace said. “It’s important to think about why someone is thinking the way they are. It often defines someone's life.”