My name is John Camardella, and I have taught at Prospect since 2003. Though I have enjoyed teaching a variety of history courses throughout my career, the past fourteen years of writing and developing this World Religion curriculum has been the greatest joy of my professional life. It all started for me on the island of Bali in May of 2006 as I attended a conference co-hosted by the Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu. This gathering brought together leaders from around the world to increase cooperation and improve religious and cultural literacy in education. I was one of a few hundred people from over forty countries to participate in the event and the youngest attendee from the United States.
As I returned home, I decided to commit myself to lay the groundwork for a religion and culture course to be offered at Prospect. Immediately that summer, I started emailing religious scholars, interviewing faith leaders, and purchasing textbooks to begin writing a curriculum that was both academically challenging and constitutionally sound. That fall, I enrolled in a Master's program through St. Xavier University here in Chicago and focused my research on the need for students to have access to a high school World Religion course.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to teach about religion in public schools since Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963, yet as I began, there was no approved curriculum or set of national standards to help guide educators like myself. In the end, it was a long and arduous journey, but after three years, two graduate degrees, and multiple curriculum submissions, our course here at Prospect was finally approved in 2009.
A Shift in Trajectory
Throughout the last decade, I have been contacted by a handful of educators interested in learning more about our program. Little did I know that an email received during the summer of 2015 would shift the entire trajectory of my career. The note came from Benjamin Marcus, a Presidental Scholar from Harvard Divinity School and Religious Literacy Specialist at the Religious Freedom Center in Washington D.C. Ben shared he was a Wheeling graduate and wondered if I would be interested in collaborating in developing some lesson plans. Within a month, I purchased a flight and found myself in new territory. Thanks to Ben's efforts, we were awarded a small grant to fund curriculum development and cover some future trips to Washington. The speed at which this all went down initially overwhelmed me as I had never participated in such high-level meetings or worked to produce lesson plans worthy of review by experts in the field.
The following summer, Ben assembled a small team to draft a set of guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools. The end goal was to produce a "Religious Studies" appendix to the C3 Framework published by the National Council for the Social Studies. The C3 is a comprehensive guide for states to strengthen their social studies standards and assist local school districts, teachers, and curriculum writers in enhancing their social studies programs. The disciplines of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology all had their guidelines, and our work focused on making sure religion would be taught in ways that are constitutionally sound and consistent with high academic standards.
I was one of two high school teachers assigned to the project, and our team met in Washington on a September weekend to author our document. It was an incredible process, and thankfully, our Religious Studies Companion Document was fully endorsed by the Board of Trustees at the American Academy of Religion and published by NCSS in June of 2017. This achievement marked the first time a national education body endorsed guidelines for teaching about religion from an academic standpoint.
Our Religious Studies Companion Document writing team:
Perfecting the Pedagogy
Most contemporary educators have come to realize it is no longer sufficient simply to deliver content knowledge to students without challenging them to think about information in sophisticated and nuanced ways. Just knowing specific dates, dogmas, or religious rituals does not improve one's understanding of the world, nor will that rudimentary knowledge make students more inclined to engage with it.
Here in the United States, the handful of stand-alone religion courses in public schools use a textbook as a foundation, and when I started in 2009, I was no different. Educators are often wary of talking about religion in the classroom. The textbook, they perceive, is the safe path - a way to protect themselves from conflicts and deliver basic religion content to students. For years, my pedagogy emphasized names, dates, and doctrines from different religious traditions, and student success was tied directly to their performance on multiple-choice exams. While teaching this way for nearly a decade, our world religions course became a popular elective at Prospect. I had five full sections each semester and a waiting list of students trying to get in. Simply put, I thought I had achieved the goal of increasing religious literacy in my community and was about to sit back and enjoy the second half of my teaching career. That is until I met Dr. Diane L. Moore.
During our collaboration on the C3 Project, Dr. Moore helped me come to terms with the civic consequences of religious illiteracy in ways that forced me to reconsider my firmest convictions as an educator. In previous years, I had worked diligently to master the content needed to teach an effective World Religion course. Still, I soon realized I was not doing enough to help students understand different religions in their complex and culturally embedded realities. So when I received an invitation to join Dr. Moore and her team in Cambridge in the summer of 2017, I jumped at the chance.
The week spent at Harvard was both refreshing and sobering. As I dove more into Dr. Moore's scholarly work and thought critically about what our Prospect seniors needed most upon graduation, I decided to commit to rewriting all 40 weeks of our curriculum to follow the Cultural Studies approach to studying religion. I took a hard look at previous lesson plans to measure how much I addressed three of the core premises of the Cultural Studies Method: that religions are internally diverse, culturally embedded, and change over time. As I began to apply this new lens, it became clear my lessons were doing the opposite and frequently reinforcing the assumption that religions were monolithic, universal, and static. Bottom line, I needed to change.
Student Choice in Assessment
Thanks to the guidance and support of Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project (now Religion and Public Life) team, specifically Dr. Lauren Kerby, Anna Mudd, Kristopher Rhude, and Sarabinh Levy-Brightman, I adapted my lesson plans and now use the RLP Case Studies as a final assessment for each unit. What makes this so useful is that student agency now plays a significant role in assessment. At the end of a unit, students no longer cram for a lengthy exam but instead choose one of five topics that interest them the most: gender, life as a minority, technology, climate change or violence & peace. They will spend an entire class period reading and analyzing the relevant case study, and engaging deeply with both primary and secondary sources. The following day, students will select a prompt from the handful provided and author an essay response for their final assessment. Students now have a say in what they research, a choice in how they are assessed, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Before shifting to the Cultural Studies approach, students expected me to lecture and simply tell them what they needed to learn. Now with this new method of critical inquiry and assessment, students are no longer merely memorizing information. They are mastering conceptual vocabulary and interpretive skills that they use to engage and analyze authentic expressions of the religions we study. In doing so, they demonstrate not only their knowledge of these traditions but their understanding that expressions of religion are culturally embedded, internally diverse, and change over time in complex and fascinating ways. As educators, we want our students to take control of their lives and make a difference in our society an thanks to the support of my administration here at Prospect and the RLP Team in Cambridge, our time in the classroom now prepares them to do just that.
Religious Studies in Action
A typical unit in World Religion lasts roughly four weeks and begins with three to four days of lessons that help students historically situate each religion. I work to impart critical information, such as people, doctrines, rituals, and geographical locations to provide a frame of reference for our exploration of the tradition. Following, I offer both primary and secondary resources for students to explore and then use to analyze the ways each religion is internally diverse, embedded in culture, and changes over time. Over the years, I have adapted certain lessons based on shifting cultural norms or a significant event that requires our attention in the classroom.
As an example, here is an overview of our most recent unit on Judaism. During the first two weeks, students will study excerpts from Torah detailing the Law's revelation, the prophets, and how Israel became the homeland for the Jewish people. Students will explore writings of key figures, such as Maimonides, and then learn from scholars how their impact affects specific contemporary Jewish communities. Further into the unit, we select a couple of aspects that vary in importance to Jews and allow students to explore different perspectives. We first focused on debates about whether one can use fire or electricity on Shabbat. At the same time, a subsequent lesson illuminated the opinion of Rabbi Abraham Heschel on what Shabbat has come to mean to him during the latter half of the 20th century. This scaffolding encourages students to use proper vocabulary and rely on their critical thinking skills - both of which will allow them to analyze authentic expressions of Judaism without accidentally conflating any one of them with the religion as a whole.
During each unit, we take students on a couple of deep dives regarding a significant aspect of the tradition. In Judaism, we recently focused on Kaddish and Yom Kippur. Concerning the Kaddish lesson plan, we offered voices from historical, religious, and secular viewpoints, in an attempt to disrupt assumptions regarding the practice of Kaddish and explore how different situated perspectives manifest themselves. These lessons are followed by a DBQ style assignment that makes students practice all of the previously modeled research and writing skills. As the final assessment for a unit, students select one of the Harvard RPL Case Study options, which include accompanying primary and secondary sources. After selecting and reading through the Case Study, related sources, and a set of questions, students select one of the prompts and author an essay response. Students will complete six Case Study assignments during a school year to prepare for the year's final project: authoring their own Case Study.
This final assessment is completed in steps over six weeks and is the culmination of an entire school year spent studying religion and culture. Students begin their research by completing brainstorming activities as they think about possible topics for their final case study project. During this process, students collect a variety of primary and secondary sources and then workshop their research with classmates. This exercise helps students take ownership and demonstrate to peers how their topic displays internal diversity, change over time, and cultural embeddedness.
Students will discuss the reliability of each source, and explore both the prominent voices and those left silent. When this workshop is complete, each student submits a formal case study proposal, complete with an annotated bibliography that must be approved before composition. Over the next month, we dedicate one day of class each week to complete this project and grant enough time for students to produce multiple drafts and meet one on one for editing and revisions. On the day it is due, each student will submit a printed and digital copy, and prepare a 90-second presentation to the class that is live-streamed to report on their findings.