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Summer Institute

Institute Curriculum and Significance



The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York and Union Theological Seminary, and we're very excited about it!

We hope you'll join us from July 8 to 26, 2019, to explore the religious diversity of New York -- the "promised city" for vibrant and growing immigrant communities from throughout the world.

This page describes the innovative curriculum of the Religious Worlds institute, which includes both a classroom engagement with leading scholars of religion and a community-based, ethnographic engagement with the religious life of New York.  Before we get to the curricular details, however, we will explain why we think it is so important for K-12 teachers to introduce their students to the everyday life of American religious diversity.


Pedagogic and Civic Significance

The religious diversity of the United States has grown dramatically since the immigration reform act of 1965 welcomed new waves of Americans from every corner of the earth and every faith tradition.  There have been Muslims in the Americas since the dawn of the Atlantic slave trade, and growing numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs since the mid-nineteenth century, but in 1960 the sociologist of religion Will Herberg still titled his influential analysis of American religious diversity Protestant-Catholic-Jew.  Over the past forty years, however, the myth of a “Judeo-Christian country” has been swept away – one hopes! – by the arrival of Muslims from South Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, and else­where; Hindus from India and the Caribbean; Buddhists from throughout East Asia; devotees of African diaspora spirit traditions like Vodou and Santeria; as well as members of countless other commun­ities – including, of course, new and diverse waves of Christians and Jews.  If American sec­ondary school students are to become truly educated, engaged citizens of our multicultur­al democracy, they need to learn about these vibrant and growing communities.  They need to understand their neighbors’ religious beliefs, and understand how these be­liefs have shaped the social world we all share.

Our public, private, and parochial schools can play a vital role in fostering such under­standing.  But unfortun­ately, the academic study of religion has not fared well in American schools.  Too many Americans mistakenly believe it is unconstitu­tional for our public schools to teach about religious diversity.  Too many teachers feel unprepared to address religion, or to draw the sometimes subtle distinction between con­stitutional and uncon­stitutional religious stud­ies pedagogies.  Too many textbooks ignore the role of religion in contemporary societies, relegating it to ancient history if they address it at all.  As a result, too many of our students receive little more than a superficial introduction to a handful of major religious traditions – learning the answers to straightforward factual questions about, say, the life of Muhammad, the Four Noble Truths, or the texts of the Gospels.  This “dates and doctrines” approach may be tailor-made for stand­ardized testing (eg, “Which of the follow­ing is not the name of a Biblical Patriarch?”) but it does not convey the depth, complexity, or significance of contem­porary religious life.  It does not prepare our students to participate in the civic life of a pluralistic society.

Our middle- and high school students certainly do need to learn the essential doctrines of major “world religions,” and the Religious Worlds institute will therefore offer NEH summer scholars an advanced introduction to six such traditions.  But much more than that, our students need to learn about the lives and beliefs of their diverse neighbors.  They need a rigorous, academically ground­ed, engagement with the social realities of contemporary religious commun­ities.  They need to know how their own experiences of Amer­ican society may be radically different – and not so different at all – from the exper­iences of their peers living in different religious worlds.  The Religious Worlds institute will therefore offer summer scholars the pedagogic tools they need to teach their students about “lived relig­ion” – to teach about the everyday lives of diverse religious comm­un­ities, rather than simply their doctrines and texts.  The institute will thus help transform the study of religion in American sec­ond­ary schools, and empower a new gen­eration of Amer­icans to bridge the divides be­tween their religious worlds.


Institute Curriculum

NEH summer scholars in the Religious Worlds institute will receive a classroom- and community-based introduction to American religious diversity.  They will work with leading scholars of religion, and engage with a wide range of local religious leaders.  They will visit a number of houses of worship, and learn how to incorporate such visits into their own teaching.  They will work with experienced teachers to develop their own brief curric­ulum projects, and work in small groups to conduct field research in a religiously diverse New York neighborhood.  In each component of the institute, we will model activ­ities that summer scholars can replicate in their own classrooms, teaching them how to teach the everyday life of Amer­ican relig­ious diversity.


The institute curriculum will consist of three major units.  We will describe each unit briefly here, and we encourage you to consult the institute's daily schedule for more details, including the readings for each of our seminar discussions.

The Introduction to the Institute will consist of three interrelated sets of seminars, which will engage our summer scholars in the themes and issues at the heart of the program.

On Monday, July 8th, Dr. Charles Haynes will lead a discussion of religious liberty in the United States, and a discuss­ion of the pedagogic and constitutional issues surrounding religious studies curricula in American public schools.  These discussions will be framed by brief scholarly readings that ad­vocate for more substantial teaching about religious diversity in public schools.  The focus of the seminars, however, will be a careful discussion of primary texts that helped establish the ideal of religious liberty in the United States, and then apply this ideal to public edu­cation.  Following discussions of these texts, Dr. Haynes will also explore concrete examples of re­ligious studies pedagogy, helping summer scholars distinguish between academic and devotional – which is to say, constitutional and unconstitutional – approach­es to teaching about religion in public schools.

On Tuesday, July 9th, institute director Dr. Henry Goldschmidt will lead a set of seminar discussions and a site visit to introduce the idea of lived religion.  He will begin by exploring the basic premises of the critical, academic study of religion, and then turn to the study of lived re­ligion – first asking why K-12 students should study religion at all, and then asking why they should study everyday religious life.  These discuss­ions will be framed by scholarly readings that intro­duce the field of religious stud­ies, and advocate for the study of lived religion.  As with Dr. Haynes’ seminar, however, the central focus of discussion will be on primary sources – in this case a site visit to the “Bronx Lourdes” grotto.  Dr. Goldschmidt will help summer scholars explore the grotto, then lead a discussion of their findings and reflections.  This site visit will help establish the terms for the institute’s experiential investigation of lived religion.

And on Wednesday, July 10th, Dr. Goldschmidt will work with the institute’s curriculum development mentors, Eva Abbamonte, Christina Grasso, Jacqueline Richard, and Kathy Wildman Zinger, to lead a series of seminars exploring classroom strat­egies for teach­ing about religion.  These sessions will help summer scholars wrestle with some of the difficult issues surrounding the study of religion in secondary schools.  How, for example, can teachers offer their students even-handed introduc­tions to contentious issues in religious life?  How do they create learning communities, and facilitate class discussions, that welcome students of diverse religious and secular backgrounds?  How should they respond to students’ faith-based perspectives on social issues, and incorporate consideration of these perspectives into a secular, academic curriculum?  Our discussion of these issues will be framed by readings of two teachers’ guides to the study of religion in US public schools, but above all, these seminars will offer summer scholars an opportunity to share and reflect on their own classroom teaching strate­gies, successes, and challenges.

The second and longest unit, World Religions and Religious Worlds, will run from Thursday, July 11th, through Monday, July 22nd.  This unit will offer our summer scholars advanced introductions to six religious traditions that are part of the fabric of American life: Jud­aism, Christ­ianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and African diaspora religions like Santeria and Vodou.  As they learn about these major world religions, summer scholars will also explore classroom- and community-based pedagogies for teaching about everyday life in diverse religious worlds.

Six of the eight working days in this unit will begin with a scholarly lecture and dis­cussion, providing an introduction to a major religious trad­ition.  These introductions will be offered by: Dr. Hasia Diner on Judaism, Dr. Morris Davis on Christianity, Dr. Ali Asani on Islam, Dr. John Stratton Hawley on Hinduism, Dr. Jonathan Gold on Buddhism, and Dr. Elizabeth McAlister on African diaspora religions.  (Please see our faculty biographies page for more information about these remarkable scholars.)  Each session will be framed by brief read­ings on the tradition in question, and/or its place in American life.  For some summer scholars these sessions will be a refresher course on familiar mat­erial, and for others they will offer an invaluable -- though inevitably partial -- intro­duc­tion to American religious diversity.

These scholarly lectures and seminar discussions will be complemented by panel discussions with local, New York religious leaders.  Each panel will include three clergy members, lay comm­unity leaders, or faith-based social activists, chosen to represent -- as well as possible -- the diversity within their religious tradition.  Each panelist will give a brief presentation describing the role of their tradition in their work and community life, but the focus of these sessions will be an open dialogue between the panelists and our summer scholars – a chance for summer scholars to engage directly with faith leaders from a wide range of communities.

The panel discussions will be followed (usually on the same day) by visits to local houses of worship.  We will visit a wide range of institutions -- from the city’s old­est and largest Hindu temple, in Flushing, Queens, to a Zen Buddhist temple in a con­verted row­house on the Upper West Side; from a historic Black Baptist church in Harlem to a mosque in a renovated tenement building.  In some cases we will attend a worship service, and in others we will be given a tour by a comm­unity leader.  These site visits will offer summer scholars first-hand, ethnographic experiences, however brief, of religious life in the diverse communities we are studying.  Inst­itute director Henry Goldschmidt will lead each site visit, and facil­itate conversations after­ward for summer scholars to reflect together on their experiences.

In addition to offering an experiential introduction to American religious diversity, the institute’s panel discussions and site visits will serve as models for acti­v­ities that summer scholars can replicate, in some cases, with their own students.  Many teachers are understandably reluctant to invite religious leaders to speak with their stu­dents, or bring students to visit local houses of worship.  This is especially true in pub­lic schools, where an ill-conceived program can raise very serious First Amendment concerns.  We will therefore use our panel discussions and site visits to train summer scholars in the issues they’ll need to con­sid­er to develop pedagog­ically and constitution­ally sound community-based religious diversity education programs.  How, for example, do you prepare religious leaders to speak with secondary school students, or prepare students to visit a house of worship?  What kinds of religious sites and experiences are appropriate – or inappropriate – for students at different grade levels?  How, in short, can teachers give their students an experiential understanding of American religious diversity, while maintaining a secular, academic curriculum?  We will explore these issues throughout the in­st­itute, and they will be the focus of an in-depth dis­cussion on Thursday afternoon, July 26th.  The inst­it­ute will thus offer summer scholars both content knowledge of American religious diversity and the pedago­gic training they need to teach effectively about lived religion.

While the institute will focus, above all, on community-based, experiential peda-gogies for the study of religion, it will also intro­duce a number of classroom-based strategies for teach­ing about lived religion, including the use of literature, film, and case-study docu­ments.  On Monday morning, July 15th, following our visit to a Bap­tist church in Harlem, Dr. Josef Sorett and Henry Goldschmidt will lead a discussion of James Baldwin’s classic novel Go Tell it on the Moun­tain, which explores family and community life at a Pentecostal church in mid-twentieth century Harlem.  On Thursday morning, July 18th, Alexis Salomone from Harvard University's Pluralism Pro­ject will lead a hands-on work­shop ex­ploring the Pluralism Pro­ject’s distinctive case-study meth­od for the study of American religious diversity.  And on Thursday afternoon, July 18th, we will screen and discuss the dramatic film adaptation of Chaim Potok classic novel The Chosen, which explores the complex ties between Hasidic and modern orthodox Jews in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn.  In these three converations, we will ask what students can learn about the everyday lives of diverse religious communities without leaving the relative comfort of the classroom.

The third unit of the institute, Sacred Gotham: Locating “Religion” in the Life of the City, will extend our community-based, experiential pedagogy to a consid­eration of the concept of religion itself.  While our site visits to houses of worship will focus on clearly defined religious traditions, in the last week of the institute our summer scholars will broaden their focus to trace the presence of “religion” -- however this complex term might be defined -- in social and rit­ual spaces on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  The unit will be framed by readings that examine the history of the concept of religion, and the contested boundaries be­tween religious and secular.  Following a brief discussion of these texts on Tuesday morning, July 23rd, summer scholars will conduct field research, in small groups, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine -- the world’s largest gothic cathedral, located just blocks from UTS in Morningside Heights.  They will be introduced to the Cathedral by educator Marnie Weir, then explore its many social spaces, visual symbols, ritual objects, and art inst­allations.  In their fieldwork, they will be asked to distinguish between religious and sec­ular dimensions of the sprawling site.  Each research group will present its findings that after­noon, and discuss the working definition of “religion” that emerged in its research.

Then on Wednesday, July 24th, summer scholars will conduct similar fieldwork projects on the streets of the Upper West Side.  Each research group will be assigned a small area of the neigh­bor­hood, and asked to document local religious life.  They will be encouraged to look for “religion” in unexpected places -- in houses of wor­ship and faith-based organ-izations, but also in parks and monuments, mur­als and graffiti, bookstores and other bus­inesses, street life, and so on.  They will trace the presence of religion, and debate the meanings of the term, by taking photo­graphs, writing field-notes, collecting mater­ial culture, and potentially talking to neighbor­hood resid­ents.  At the end of the day, each research group will prepare an informal report on its findings, which they will present and dis­cuss on Thursday morning, July 25th.

As with our discussion of the Catherdal of Saint John the Divine, this conversation will use our summer scholars’ field research to raise funda­mental questions about the nature of religion and its role in social life.  These concluding seminars will comple­ment our earlier discussions of specific religious traditions -- deepening summer scholars’ engagement with the academic study of religion, and modeling an inquiry-based field research project they may be able to replicate with their own students.

Finally, over the course of the institute our summer scholars will work independently on very modest, focused curriculum development projects.  They will be asked to incorporate the study of lived religion into an existing religious studies curriculum, by adding a site vis­it or guest speaker(s), discussion of a novel or film, or any other appropriate learning activity.  They will need to articulate the pedagogic goals of the activity they design, describe its relationship to the broader curriculum, and think through the practical details of its execution.  Summer scholars will be supported in these projects by a team of four experienced middle- and high school teachers, from public, private, and parochial schools.  These curriculum development mentors will lead small group discuss­ions of the curriculum development process, and work with individual summer scholars on their projects.  Summer scholars will present and discuss their projects on the last day of the institute, Friday, July 26th, and we will make these projects available to down­load from the Religious Worlds institute website.  (Click here to check out some of our past summer scholars’ curriculum development projects).

These curriculum development projects will help our summer scholars incorporate the lessons of the Religious Worlds institute into their own classroom teaching -- and thus engage K-12 students thoughout the United States in the relig­ious diversity of their own communities.  We hope you will join us in New York in July 2019, as we work with teachers from throughout the country to realize this vision of community-based religious diversity education.



Photo credits, from top to bottom: Chinese baby welcoming, used by permission of Stephanie Keith; hijabi Muslim teens, used by permission of Stephanie Keith; Torah study, used by permission of Jenny Jozwiak, Diversity of Devotion; Korean church, used by permission of Stephanie Keith; Vodou ritual, used by permission of Stephanie Keith; nun at a flea market by Bonnie Natko, Creative Commons; monks on vacation by Dan Nguyen, Creative Commons.