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Principles of Good Practice for the Study of Religion in Episcopal Schools

National Association of Episcopal Schools
» Back to Library Search Results Last Updated: April 12, 2012 Date Posted: March 15, 2012

Introduction

As an outgrowth of the strong commitment to intellectual development that so characterizes Episcopal schools, the study of religion within the curricular offering is a crucial dimension of the identity of a school as well as an anchor in a strong and balanced academic program. In other editions of the Principles of Good Practice, NAES makes frequent mention of the importance of keeping the Episcopal identity of a school strong and viable in all aspects of the life of that institution. That is certainly the case for the academic program as well, and the study of religion remains an essential component of that identity.

Be it called religion, religious studies, religious education, Christian education, or sacred studies, the growth and development of this area of academic study goes hand in hand with the establishment and enhancement of an excellent academic program. It is also a reflection of a balanced expression of Episcopal identity.

In keeping with the need to highlight the role that Episcopal identity plays in all aspects of school life, NAES has developed this set of Principles of Good Practice for the Study of Religion in Episcopal Schools. These Principles are intended to:

  • support the efforts of all schools to come to a clearer understanding of what can be a difficult task of placing and valuing the academic study of religion within the broader perspective of the total curriculum;
  • help departments of religion, chaplains, rectors, deans of faculty, and directors of studies to assess the quality of instruction, determine areas of improvement within this academic discipline, and help measure the scope and sequence of offerings against a larger perspective;
  • assist schools when searching for new chaplains or teachers of religion as they consider candidates and determine what they want from those persons who will join their colleagues on the faculty in this capacity; and
  • serve to highlight the distinctions to be found between Episcopal parishes and Episcopal schools, recognizing that the two serve different functions yet also maintain important and common bonds.
Nowhere in the expression of Episcopal identity in our diverse school membership is there more variety in the style, content, and structure than in the study of religion. For some schools it consists of formal academic instruction modeled along the lines of other academic departments; in other institutions it is offered as a special addition to the curriculum, where a chaplain or religion teacher visits a classroom at regular intervals and offers instruction on an ungraded basis.

These Principles of Good Practice for the Study of Religion in Episcopal Schools are not meant to be prescriptions for exactly how religion should be a part of a school’s curriculum. The structure of that offering will vary greatly. As with all of those sets of Principles produced in this series, we do not offer a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Rather, these Principles are offered to highlight the crucial components of a comprehensive, serious, and age appropriate approach to religious study in a school, as well as to emphasize just how important it is to the Episcopal identity of the school and the development of our students into global citizens.

We take, as our starting points, the important perspectives on the teaching of religion to be found under the subtitle, “Academic Life,” in the earlier pamphlet, Principles of Good Practice for Furthering Episcopal Identity in Episcopal Schools, published by NAES in 2005. The three important principles contained therein provide us with a core of important areas of exploration as well as the groundwork for the expanded work we have done in this pamphlet.

The Relationship of the Study of Religion to Chapel Programs or Programs of Religious Instruction

The experience of worship and the classroom study of religion find much in common; there are also important differences to acknowledge and maintain.

Learning is at the heart of so much of what we do in our school chapels. At the same time, it is vital to understand the ways in which the academic study of religion and the content of chapel programs are both different and complementary.

While it can be a natural outgrowth of the content of chapel services, the study of religion is meant to be classroom oriented and scholarly in scope. School chapel provides a unique opportunity for worship, reflection, spiritual growth, and the corporate gathering of the school community. The learning that goes on in chapel is a blend of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual understanding; it is here that a school community learns and understands together. The study of religion in the classroom, on the other hand, provides the context for more direct analysis and learning on such topics as the Bible, the great religions of the world, and ethics. The classroom study of religion introduces a critical component into religious and spiritual reflection, opening up a student’s mind to a more careful scrutiny of the content of religious life. It does this through exploration, analysis, reading, and discussion of academic subject matter along with interaction with a caring and qualified instructor.

Likewise, the study of religion also differs from what might be called religious instruction within a particular tradition, or what in some cases is known as catechesis. Designed to deepen one’s understanding of a personal involvement in a particular tradition or denomination, as well as to prepare one for further initiation into those traditions or denominations, religious instruction of this sort occupies an important place in the life of many of our schools. The classroom study of religion, however, normally goes beyond the immersion into a particular form of religious expression, and is designed to be an objective and comparative approach to the subject matter. Varieties of traditions and interpretations are offered, giving a student a different mode of appreciation for his or her own tradition, not only through in-depth study of that tradition but through the encounter of different traditions, whereby one better understands the uniqueness and richness of the tradition from which he or she comes.

The Place of the Study of Religion in a School’s Curriculum

The study of religion in Episcopal schools is a serious and intentional endeavor, and its place within the total curricular offerings is both secure and central.

Episcopal schools are places of wonderful academic challenge, and provide a unique opportunity for students to enter into a broad and substantive range of study. Consequently, academic programs in our schools are very full, and there is often very little room for additional courses or expansion of already existing offerings. We believe it is in the best interests of an Episcopal school, indeed an optimal outgrowth of the school’s Episcopal identity, that the study of religion finds a visible and valued place in the academic program. This may be at a particular level within a division of the school, or it may be in tandem with another academic subject (for example, within a department or set of core offerings in the humanities), but the study of religion must be included in a school’s overall understanding of what it means to be an educated, culturally literate person in the world today. Responsible global citizenship, a worthy goal found in the mission statements of so many of our schools, involves an understanding of the differences to be found in the many modes of religious expression prevalent and active in the world today, not to mention an appreciation of the many ways religion has an impact—positively or negatively—in the shaping of world events and self-understandings of peoples. Our schools have a duty to do what they can to combat a growing and alarming religious illiteracy in our world today, and to be considering on a regular basis the shape and content of courses in religion within the curriculum.

The fact that the study of religion is such a natural outgrowth of the mission of the school makes the academic mandate all the more important. Because the subject matter is indeed more tied to the mission statement of the school, it also is cause for much sensitivity and care in the placing of academic offerings and the relationship this offering has to other academic subjects.

Age Appropriateness in the Study of Religion

We urge that all curricular offerings be crafted with a careful eye to the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development of students at different ages and divisions in the school, and to consider how best to introduce the study of religion at these different levels.

As with any branch of academic endeavor, the study of religion is pursued and developed with attentiveness to what is appropriate and meaningful to our students at their particular intellectual and moral stage of development. A sophisticated program of religious study casts a careful eye to what about the dynamics of religious life can best be studied at what level. For example: what areas of study and approaches to that study are best for younger students? What can best engage students at the middle school level? What intellectual opportunities emerge with the growing capacity to think abstractly, found in later adolescence? In turn, as with all academic departments, attention needs to be paid to the optimal sequence of study, i.e., at what level are students best prepared to discuss ethical issues, or, should biblical studies or a general introduction to the phenomena of religion precede the study of world religious traditions? Some schools decide that knowledge of both Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian scriptures (New Testament) are the necessary foundations for subsequent study, while others opt for an overview of all world religious traditions or begin with a thematic approach to the phenomenon of religious life in the world today. Such attention, given the fact that the religious life of an Episcopal school is embedded in the mission statement of the school, should take into consideration not only what makes sense sequentially, given the developmental needs of students being taught, but also what is the optimal expression of the mission of the school.

Biblical Study at the Heart of a School’s Study of Religion

We recommend a prominent place in the school’s curriculum be given over to the study of the Bible.

As a school that reflects the Christian heritage, an Episcopal school needs to give the academic study of the Bible a primary place. Moreover, we believe that a well- educated person must possess knowledge of biblical subjects and the powerful roots they provide for art, music, and history. Equally important is the degree to which the Bible speaks to contemporary issues and conflicts. Accordingly, the study of the Bible should be one of the first subjects to be offered in a religion curriculum; alternatively, a more sophisticated study of the Bible might be offered in high schools as one of the capstones of religion offerings, at a level where more advanced and intensive work on source documentation and textual study might take place. Both options reflect a strong understanding of the importance of the study of the Bible at an Episcopal school.

Study of the Bible includes, at any level, a familiarity of biblical stories and personalities and the meaning to be found behind them, as well as the deep, interconnected nature of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) with Christian scriptures (New Testament).

The Importance of the Study of World Religions

The major religious traditions of the world are an important component of a strong religion curriculum.

Our Episcopal schools find themselves in an increasingly diverse environment; included in that diversity is the visible and interconnected mosaic of world religions to be found throughout the North American continent. From the perspective of global citizenship and interdependence, a sophisticated understanding of the traditions of the world’s great religions needs to be a part of the academic curriculum of all Episcopal schools. From a Christian perspective, it is an extension of the Christian mandate of hospitality, welcoming and learning from all peoples, as well as an outgrowth of the degree to which Christians today cannot exist in isolation from other religious traditions. From the perspective of the non-Christians in our schools, the commitment of a school to an understanding of the world’s religious traditions also reflects one of the most fundamental tenets of being an Episcopal school: because we are an Episcopal school, we work hard to cultivate a diverse population within our schools, and we actively seek to understand that diversity better. Accordingly, schools are encouraged to introduce the study of the religions of the world at all academic levels.

The Place of Ethics in the Study of Religion

Episcopal schools are places of deliberate focus on the moral and ethical growth of our students. The study of ethics is a key element in a full curriculum as well as an important outgrowth of the mission of the school.

For the past few decades, schools of all types have been called upon to provide more opportunities for students to engage in moral and ethical reflection at age appropriate levels. This is not just a reflection of the changing nature of our culture, but an outgrowth of the fact that education is, in and of itself, a moral enterprise, that the basic things we do in the process of teaching and learning are inherently moral in their substance and ethical in their ramifications. We would maintain that a serious study of religion also includes a place for academic discussion of ethics, including an opportunity to examine particular and practical situations and think through them with attention to all of their moral and ethical implications. A moral and ethical sensibility is a prerequisite for the type of students we seek to develop, as outlined in almost every Episcopal school’s mission statement. At every level of a student’s development, there are valuable curricular aids that will help foster an atmosphere of ethical reflection in the classroom.

Should There Be a Standard Curriculum for the Study of Religion?

The desire of our religion teachers to provide a comprehensive, sequential, and unified course of study leads many to seek a set curriculum; the creativity that our teachers possess and the uniqueness of their school environments also lead them to develop their own syllabi.

NAES is frequently asked, particularly by individuals new to the teaching of religion in our schools, whether or not a standard curriculum should be in place, or if one should be developed. At the same time, it has been our experience that the best religion teachers in our schools develop their own resources and syllabi, as well as find themselves continually re-evaluating and revising the content of their courses. We believe it is far more important for teachers first to understand the current role of the study of religion in their schools and its potential for growth and development in the future, than to find a generic curriculum. There are fine examples of comprehensive programs for study at all age levels (we particularly recommend the curriculum most recently produced by the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools), developed both by the Episcopal Church as well as individuals and groups that have devoted time to mapping out such a curriculum, and we encourage as well as stand prepared to help teachers to explore those offerings. At the same time, we encourage initiative, creativity, consultation with other religion teachers in other Episcopal schools, and a commitment to reviewing and restructuring the curriculum at regular intervals.

As with any academic discipline, those teaching religion in Episcopal schools should give serious thought to the question of what students should be learning at what age. While the following is hardly a comprehensive or prescriptive outline of the goals of the study of religion in any school, it may be helpful to use these as a base for developing a more thorough response to the question of what students should be learning at what age:

  • Early Childhood Programs: an understanding of God’s presence and God’s love in our lives
  • Lower School: an introduction to and appreciation for biblical stories
  • Middle School: an entry into discussion of ethical issues and the study of world religions
  • Upper School: more theoretical and focused examinations of subjects within the study of religion

Who Should Be Teaching Religion in Our Schools?

We encourage all teachers of religion to possess the proper academic credentials and pursue opportunities for professional development in their areas of teaching.

Every teacher in our schools knows well the experience of teaching subject matter that may lie beyond his or her area of expertise. Indeed, there is no better way to learn a subject matter than to teach it! We do, however, recommend that teachers of religion be people who have good training in this academic subject matter and can represent their subject matter as adequately and appropriately as those teaching in other academic disciplines. Commitment to following a particular religious tradition cannot, on its own, stand as a compelling qualification to be teaching the subject matter in our schools. Indeed, some of the finest teachers of religion in our schools are those who both embrace the particular mission of the school but may also come from a wide variety of religious affiliations (or no affiliation at all). The teacher of religion should also be someone who possesses an experienced sensibility to the variety of students being taught, be they from a host of different religious traditions, the increasing number of “mixed heritage” students (i.e., having parents of differing religious traditions) or those students who come from no religious tradition at all. The astute teacher of religion possesses the capacity to balance the subject matter being taught with the honoring of those present in his or her classroom.

We commend to all religion teachers in Episcopal schools many of the fine opportunities for professional development, be they through independent school associations such as the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE), programs offered by the American Academy of Religion, the Doctor of Ministry Program in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, or annual ChapToR gatherings (for chaplains and teachers of religion) held jointly by NAES and CSEE.

The Role of Rectors and Chaplains in the Teaching of Religion in Parish Day Schools

Given their training in the subject matter, rectors and chaplains are natural, desirable sources of advice and counsel on matters related to teaching religion in a parish day school.

In many of our parish day schools, rectors of the parish connected to the school are actively involved in either the teaching of religion or oversight of the curriculum. Given that, for so many of our parishes, the school is an extension of the ministry of the parish, the rector of that parish has a particular interest in the structure and content of religious study in the school. We recommend that the rector play an important part in the development and ongoing consultation over the academic study of religion in the parish day school. At the same time, a parish rector should be respectful of the fact that the head of school is the primary overseer of the total curriculum of the school, and part of that oversight is the autonomy that all of our Episcopal schools cherish. Both parishes and schools serve different functions. Accordingly, attention should be paid by the head of school and the rector to how best the rector can be of help to the religion curriculum, and what responsibility and style most appropriately honors both the academic freedom and by-laws of the parish day school. For further understanding of some of the issues between rectors and heads, we recommend our Principles of Good Practice for Governance in Episcopal Parish Day Schools.

Similarly, so many of our school chaplains experience some of their most exciting and satisfying moments of ministry in the classroom. Some schools make a point of principle to have the chaplain chairing the religion department; others are strongly in favor of the head of the department being someone other than the chaplain, so to emphasize the difference between academic and pastoral oversight. Regardless of the academic leadership question, we recommend that the chaplain be highly involved in the academic teaching of religion. Some of the chaplain’s best in-depth contact with students comes through the classroom experience.

Admittedly, many theological seminaries do not give much attention to the training of future clergy for classroom teaching. This means that an incoming chaplain should be aware of any potential conflict he or she may feel between the chaplain’s pastoral role in the school and the chaplain’s responsibilities for classroom management and assessment. Efforts should also be made to help a new chaplain—who may not have previous teaching experience—receive important guidance in understanding how to use curricular materials, finding helpful resources and valued colleagues in school ministry, appreciating developmental differences of young people as they learn, and learning helpful techniques in classroom management.

Assessing Religion Courses

Given the substantial amount of core content in religion courses, student assessment in religion courses is both perfectly appropriate and desirable.

Some students, parents, and academic colleagues frequently ask a religion teacher, “How can you grade a religion course? Isn’t that tantamount to grading a person’s beliefs?” We again draw a distinction between the study of religion on an academic level and a personal exploration of one’s beliefs. In most religion courses, there is a basic body of knowledge that needs to be mastered, just as in any other academic course. Assessing the quality of a student’s work is both natural and a reflection of the important place religion holds in the total school curriculum. This is not to say that students’ spiritual growth cannot be fostered through the study of religion, nor that the teacher should not offer opportunities for personal exploration of one’s beliefs (i.e., to write one’s own statement of belief). That exploration, however, is an important outgrowth of the encounter with and ability to understand the core subject matter of the course. Regarding the academic aspect, however, the course assessment in the study of religion should reflect the same practices in the study of any other discipline.

The Relationship of a Religion Department to Other Disciplines in an Episcopal School

While we strongly urge understanding of the distinctiveness of religion as an academic discipline, we also urge departments of religion to be in conversation and collaboration with other academic departments.

A good religion teacher knows that the study of religion overlaps subject matter to be found in other academic disciplines, such as history, music, art, and literature. It is therefore vitally important that religion teachers and entire departments see their obligation to other academic disciplines, be it in the most accurate presentation of subject matter that spans a variety of disciplines, the understanding of the limits of knowledge in subject matter other than one’s own, and in the commitment to be in constant dialogue with other departments on how best to provide opportunities for interdisciplinary study and the fostering of a climate of mutual respect for each respective subject matter within the total curriculum.

Conclusion

In summary, the essential guideposts of these Principles can be summed up in the following words:

  • A seriousness surrounding the understanding of the place of academic study of religion in an Episcopal school.
  • A commitment to the important and rightful place of religion in the curriculum, as well as to the standards of excellent teaching and assessment of student performance.
  • An understanding of the complex role religion can play in the curriculum, the difficulty of teaching the subject matter in a manner that reflects a teacher’s passion for the discipline as well as for objectivity in its presentation.
  • An appreciation for the variety of roles that key people (chaplains, rectors, and heads of school) play in oversight of curriculum, and for the differences in teaching approaches and subject matter depending on the age of the students being taught.
  • An attentiveness to the interaction between the study of religion and other academic disciplines.
  • A welcoming of the hard work that comes with teaching in our Episcopal schools, including the constant evaluating and revising of the courses being taught, their scope and sequence within the curriculum, and the resources to be used in these courses.
The National Association of Episcopal Schools stands ready to be of help to schools as they review the role of the study of religion as a key component of the total curriculum and mission of the school, as well as to be of help to teachers of religion in finding the most helpful resources for teaching and professional development.


Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided should not be construed as legal advice nor should it be used as a substitute for consulting with legal counsel.


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