REA 2013 conference: formation for justice and advocacy

After taking a hour-long walk in Prospect Hill Park behind the hotel, I got back in time to attend the afternoon breakout sessions of the Religious Education Association 2013 annual conference. I chose to go to Carmichael Crutchfield’s workshop “Formation for Justice and Advocacy.” Although he’s currently teaching at Memphis Seminary, Crutchfield said he started out as a pastor in a local congregation. Thus his interest is primarily in congregationally-based religious education. He is particularly concerned with making Christian education “relevant in and beyond the present era” by helping us deal with our current realities, and helping us envision how we can move forward in “liberating and hopeful ways.”

Using the work of Paolo Friere and others, he rejects the banking theory of education, and advocates replacing it with what he calls “problem-posing education”; part of this consists in addressing real-world problems as a part of religious education. He aims to engage people’s critical consciousness, and to move people towards liberation through reflection and action.

After giving a short presentation, true to his pedagogical model he engaged the workshop participants in conversation. We discussed how we might engage in problem-posing education. This seemed fairly straightforward when doing education with teens and adults, but more problematic when working with children; developmentally, children are not at formal operations thinking, and so may not be able to engage adequately in cognitive reflection. However, one participant told a story about a moment when his daughter was eight years old, and stood up to injustice; she may not have been fully aware of what she was doing at that point, but her parents supported her, and the memory of that act stayed with her for years. Other participants commented on the important role parents must play in this type of education for pre-teen children; indeed, parent education may be a key ingredient.

I mentioned that I struggled to get children in my congregation engaged in this kind of liberative problem-solving education. I was grateful to Delores Carpenter of Howard University (I hope I have gotten her name right) for pointing out that children in minority groups are going to tend to be more advanced in this area; children in non-white families are going to be exposed to injustice, and the concurrent need for liberation, at a much earlier age.

all in all, an extremely useful workshop for anyone doing religious educaiton in a local congregation.

REA 2013 conference: new curriculum, critical consumption, lunch conversations

I skipped the morning breakout sessions, and instead had a meeting and spent some time at the poster sessions.

First I met with Beth Katz, the executive director of Project Interfaith. I had attended a presentation Katz had given yesterday, and had become very interested in the curriculum guides she is developing. These curriculum guides are designed for use in middle school, high school, and college classrooms, but I wanted to talk with her about adapting and using these curriculum guides in congregationally-based education.

We had a good, fruitful conversation. After hearing what we’re doing in my congregation with our middle school group, she showed me the new middle school curriculum guide that Project Interfaith is going to release next fall. She was kind enough to agree to let me purchase a pre-release copy so that I could try it out in our congregation. This should be an exciting addition to our current middle school program in which we visit other faith communities at worship.


After meeting with Beth, I went to the poster sessions. I particularly wanted to talk with Christopher Welch about his presentation titled “A Pedagogy of Critical Consumption as a Task for Religious Educators.” Welch is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College, and his poster presented the research he’s doing for his dissertation. He has a model for using religious values to challenge the values of the wider consumer culture.

Welch teaches at a Catholic high school, so his doctoral work is grounded in his practical teaching experience with actual teenagers. I loved his model, but unfortunately now I can remember little of what was on his poster. This is the problem I have with poster sessions — I have a lousy memory to begin with, and then I spend more time talking with the presenter than actually working through the material on the poster. So I’m going to have to email Welch and ask him to send me a summary.


Following the poster sessions, I attended the community luncheon. I wound up sitting with John Falcone, another Ph.D. candidate; Yolanda Smith of Yale Divinity School (and president of the REA); Mark King, who teaches high school at a Catholic school in the Bronx; and Beverly Johnson-Miller of Asbury Theological Seminary. We had a wide-ranging lunchtime conversation that covered both personal and professional matters. What really stuck with me, though, was talking about how we all want to change the world, to make the world a better place; and how hard it is to remember that the work we do as religious educators — whether in theological schools, high schools, or congregations — is indeed world-changing. And I argued that while of course we should do whatever social justice work we can manage, on top of our professional and personal responsibilities, the work we do as religious educators may be enough. We religious educators change the world through education.

REA 2013 conference: Walter Feinberg

Walter Feinberg spoke at the third plenary session of the 2013 Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. Feinberg is interested in education for democratic citizenship, and has recently done research on the teaching of religion in public schools with Richard Layton. Feinberg and Layton have a new book out, For the Civic Good: The Liberal Case for Teaching Religion in the Public Schools, and Feinberg’s talk was based in part on this book.

Feinberg began by pointing out that it is constitutional to teach about religion in U.S. public schools. He cited Abington v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court ruling which declared devotional reading from the Bible to be unconstitutional; but in its ruling the Court also stated: “One’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

Feinberg said that he advocates teaching about religion in the public schools because it is “preparation for the development of a civic public.” A “civic public” is “a group of strangers in communication with one another about a shared destiny.” Another way of putting this is that learning about religion, including other people’s religious traditions, is good preparation for citizenship. This is the only reason Feinberg accepts, and he rejected other reasons for teaching religion in the public schools, e.g., he rejected Stephen Prothero’s religious literacy argument, asking what makes religious literacy more special than musical illiteracy or economic illiteracy.

Emphasizing the need for excellent teachers if you’re going to teach about religion in the public schools, Feinberg added: “You have to watch out for charismatic, really bad teachers, they’re the worst kind.” Good teachers respect the individual beliefs of the students; and they are inclusive (i.e., they would never refer to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament,” which is a Christian label that Jews don’t accept). A third minimum pedagogic requirement is that teachers “should not discourage reasonable student inquiry,” and ideally would encourage it.

He mentioned two specific kinds of courses he likes to see in the public schools. He likes courses that teach the Bible as literature, where the Bible is read as “one of our canonical texts.” He also likes courses about world religions, courses which can “make the strange familiar, and by so doing, make the familiar strange.”

And a good goal for public school courses about religion is to help students “learn to hold more than one interpretation in their head at a time, be aware of other interpretations.” Feinberg does not want to change students’ beliefs, but he does want them to learn to acknowledge their perspective may be different from other people’s perspectives. He gave the example of a Christian fundamentalist student who would learn that they should not say, “If you don’t believe in Christ, you’ll go to hell,” and instead learn to be able to say, “Based on my faith, the way you get in to heaven is to accept Christ.”