CHICAGO, Ill. — Chicago Pagan Pride coordinator Twila York and Rev. Angie Buchanan, founder of Earth Traditions and Gaia’s Womb, were recently invited into a local public high school classroom to share a bit about their religious practice and beliefs.* The teacher contacted York through the Greater Chicago Pagan Pride website, and after a brief email conversation, she was asked to present to a world religions class. York enlisted Buchanan’s assistance, and together they offered two forty-minute sessions on Paganism.Buchanan told The Wild Hunt, “It was explained that these students for the most part had no knowledge of Paganism at all, which was reinforced by the question we asked when we first arrived in the class. ‘How many of you are familiar with Paganism or know someone who identifies as that or Wiccan or Druid?’ Only two hands in the first class and none in the second one.”
Because Buchanan had more experience with presenting to teens, she began each class and York followed. Each of the sessions included an an explanation of the Wheel of the Year, seasonal cycles and “how we all are part of the earth because we breathe in life and when we breathe out we die.” They brought various altar tools, including “a Tarot deck, wooden candle holders, Pentacle plaque, song bowl, crystals, Sage bundle and a pestle and mortar.”
York recalled, “The students and the teachers were open and very curious about what we had to say. They wanted to ask questions and felt comfortable doing so […] What was wonderful about their questions is that they were thought out and were not the usual “are you devil worshipers […] Some of the questions they asked were: ‘Do we have a religious text like a Bible?’ ‘What activities do Pagans do on Samhain?’ ‘What do Pagans think about other religions?’ ‘What are thoughts about the extinction of the dinosaurs?’ We even had a student ask about shamanism.”
Several days after the sessions were over, Buchanan and York received letters from the students thanking them for taking the time to share their religious beliefs. Both women reported that they have not received any backlash personally; nor have they heard of any backlash or complaints aimed at the teacher or the school. York said, “[The teacher] has asked Angie and I if we would be interested in coming to speak to her classes about Paganism every semester. We are so excited that this opportunity was offered and that we have another invitation to go back.”
While this particular teaching moment went well, that is not always the case. Teaching religious literacy in public schools can be a very sticky issue. It is dependent on the school’s location, the city’s religious climate, the support of the administration and the teacher’s own ability to navigate a difficult subject in a public forum with minors. That is not easily done.
In 2013, another Illinois high school teacher, Greg Hoener, invited a local Wiccan, Lydia Gittings, to present Paganism to his classes. It didn’t go over as well as York and Buchanan’s experience. At the time, Gittings told The Wild Hunt: “There were a couple of students who were visibly uncomfortable in each class […] but I remained positive and kept going back to science. I wasn’t there to convert.”
But the problems continued weeks beyond the class itself. Eventually the principal and the school board began to receive parental complaints. In a letter to the editor of a local paper, one angry mother wrote, “Since parents were not notified in advance, I had no opportunity to express my deep concerns in this matter and to prevent my son and his classmates from being exposed to potentially dangerous information about the occult.”
But problems do not only arise when Paganism and other lesser known minority religions enter the classroom. In a recent story out of Virginia, a high school geography teacher asked “students to try their hand at writing the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy.” As reported in the Washington Post, the Augusta County Public School System was immediately inundated with complaints, which eventually began streaming in from all over the country. These complaints turned violent, forcing the administration to close the school down for several days. In a statement, administrators said, “We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution.”
The geography teacher was accused of indoctrinating students. While some supported the teacher’s assignment, others, with tempered reactions, simply felt it was inappropriate. However, in this case, the more extreme reactions were attributed to Islamaphobia.
Virginia educational standards do allow for religious literacy education, as do many state systems. Other recent reports from schools around the country describe teachers asking students to recite the Muslim statement of faith aloud, to write their name in Sanskrit or in Hebrew, to try on head scarves, to read the Ten Commandments and the Five Pillars of Islam. One high school reports taking a yearly trip to a local mosque. Not all of these cases caused an uprising, but some did. Teaching religious literacy is a very slippery slope, and there is a fine line between the teaching about world religions, and the teaching of religion.Matthew Staruch, a public high school teacher in Georgia, said, “We stick to the curriculum prescribed to us by the state and/or College Board in regards to religion. That way we are much less likely to ‘cross a line.’ ” Staruch has been teaching AP Human Geography for ten years.* He added, “Most years the students ask about my religious beliefs and I keep that strictly off-limits so I cannot be accused of favoring one group over another. I also try to present the beliefs we do study with as much objectivity as possible and I always try to present their arguments from the perspective of the religious group.”
AP Human Geography is a college-level high school class that focuses on learning geography through human culture and society. Staruch said, “We study the geography of religions specifically so we are most concerned with where each major faith originated, where it has spread to, and the explanation of how it got there. Furthermore, we look at the different ways in which each religion impacts the landscape where they live (e.g. what structures do they build, what do they do with the deceased, do they make pilgrimages to specific holy sites). Finally, we deal with the potential problems that occur and/or have occurred in territories where multiple religious groups occupy the same space (e.g. Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims in Serbia).”
Looking at the curriculum, the classes can also cover, to some degree, the world’s minority religions within that geographical framework, including Paganism.
Echoing what York and Buchanan saw in their recent teaching experience, Staruch said, “The students are great with the material. They are usually pretty interested and ask great questions. The beautiful part about teaching [at this school] is that most of the religions we study are represented in the hallways.The kids want to know about their peers’ beliefs and they want to know more about why certain groups behave the way they do.” And he believes that this education is vital to the children’s growth and to their futures.
He said, “Religion is something in which many people believe very strongly and devote significant amounts of time to practicing. Unfortunately, people spend very little time trying to understand other people’s religious beliefs. […] It is essential for those of us in education to deal with these misconceptions and misunderstandings fully and in a way that promotes tolerance for minority points of view and a more nuanced, enlightened perspective on the differences that exist but that don’t necessarily need to divide us.”
This belief was echoed by Reverand Hansen Wendlandt of the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church (NCPC), who began a religious literacy learning program in his local Colorado community. Like Staruch, he believes that religious literacy is vital to a child’s future and noted that “There are fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to learn about different religions – to become religiously literate.” He wants to fill that gap with is private program. As we reported, Rev. Wendlandt welcomed two local Wiccan priestesses in October. The women offered an overview of Paganism including a hands-on project, and it was well received. Since that point, the program has attracted the attention of many local residents as well as a public world religions high school teacher, all of whom have been supportive and encouraging.
However, there are differences in teaching religion in public schools and in a private setting, church or otherwise. Public schools are government-run and bound by the same laws as any other government space or agency. Therefore, public school teachers must be extremely careful in their negotiating of religion education. Did the assignment to copy Arabic writing cross a line because the students were asked to write a religious text? Or is the teaching of the writing itself a problem? Is the trying on of a head scarf or looking at Witchcraft tools cultural education or a form of indoctrination? What about the field trip to a church or mosque? And, how do you share theology? Does simply hearing the words of a religious prayer pose a problem?
The answers to these questions will vary from person to person; from family to family; from community to community. That is where it becomes sticky.
When asked if there were any specific teaching rules and regulations that might help instructors avoid pitfalls or help administrators guard against problematic employees, Staruch said no, adding, “My teachers know to stick to information that is a part of the curriculum in order to prevent the line-crossing issue.”
He said in all ten years of teaching, he has experienced only two problems. In one case, the children were asked to use an online “which religion are you” calculator. When it didn’t predict one girl’s religion, she got upset, and the parent complained. Staruch said, “I apologized, explained the purpose of the assignment, and it didn’t go any further than that.” More recently, a Muslim parent was concerned that the summer reading book, They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky, “painted Muslims in a negative light.” In an email response, Staruch explained how the book is used to teach about religious belief and religious extremism in that region of the world. He added, “She appreciated my email and I never heard another word from the parent the rest of the year.”
Staruch is passionate about his work and the subject matter, and he has managed to walk the line carefully in his field. He also teaches in a area that is religiously diverse and, because of that, his experiences are mostly positive, as was the case for York and Buchanan. Other areas of the country are not as open, as is evident by numerous news report and stories.
Regardless of the situation, navigating the teaching of religious literacy in public schools can be a figurative minefield. Rev. Angie Buchanan offered this advice for anyone asked to be guest in a classroom: “I would agree to a presentation for informational purposes only. I would not agree to a ritual. Keep your explanations very general. Advise the group that you are sharing your personal beliefs and practices, and not speaking about the particular practices of others; that this is a very diverse group of people; that we do not speak for all Pagans. Be prepared to ask leading questions when you see that there is hesitancy on the part of the students to ask. Animal sacrifice came up, as did questions about witchcraft. However, both had to be prompted. […] I would advise maintaining a basic sense of boundaries and ethics with regard to disclosure of identity when dealing with minors and school systems.”
* Names were omitted to protect the identity of the students and other teachers involved.