REA 2013 conference: a mentor, practitioners, and list of resources

Some of the best parts of attending a conference like the Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference are the informal conversations.

During one of yesterday’s plenary sessions, I realized I was sitting a couple of rows behind Bob Pazmino, perhaps my most important religious education mentor, especially given his focus on the practice of teaching. I looked for Bob during one of the breaks, and even though I hadn’t been his student since 1999, he still remembered me. We had a good long talk, and I got to hear about his grandchildren, and his research, and so on. And, like a good mentor, he drew me out on some of the challenges I’m facing in my praxis as a religious educator, and helped me to see how when educating for social justice in a predominantly white, predominantly middle class community, one has to be aware of the possible shame that such education can generate among people who are relatively well-off. And awareness of the possibility of shame should, of course, affects one’s pedagogical strategies.

During the annual meeting, someone brought up the point that this conference was heavily tilted towards the interests of scholars, rather than practitioners. (I wrote down his name, but unfortunately lost that slip of paper.) I grabbed him after the meeting, and speaking as a practitioner myself, thanked him for raising that point. Chuck Chesnavage came up and said much the same thing. We floated the idea of some kind of practitioner’s meeting at the next conference.

Finally, in several informal conversations I got lots of recommendations for books and resources and ideas I should follow up on. Here are some of them:
— Book: Practicing Discernment with Youth, by Dan White
— Resource: Association for Practical Theology
— Books: in relation to practical theology, Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s work
— Idea: Elizabeth Caldwell had children retell and illustrate Bible stories, which she then published in book form using online self-publishing tools
— Book: Practical Theology and Qualitative Research by John Swinton and Harriet Mowat

REA 2013 conference: Tom Groome and a pedagogy for teaching religion

For the Sunday morning breakout session at the Religious Education Association conference, I attended Tom Groome’s workshop titled (somewhat mysteriously) “Teaching to ‘Learn From’ Religious Traditions.”

Groome began by asking the question: How do you go about teaching religion in the schools? What is an appropriate pedagogy? He said he wanted a pedagogy that could work in either a public school or a private school, with diverse student populations, a pedagogy in which one could teach any given religious tradition without proselytizing.

More specifically, he wanted to teach religion such that students would become better people within their own tradition (or within their lack of religious tradition). He told a story about a Muslim student named Mohammed who had been in his class on Catholicism at Boston College. Groome told Mohammed that he wanted him to become a better Muslim through learning about Catholicism from his Catholic professor. Some years later Mohammed told Groom that indeed he had become a better Muslim because of that class. This is Groome’s ideal for teaching religion in the schools.

Groome said that they Enlightenment gave us two option: we could learn about religion, or we could learn to become part of a given religion. These two options come, in part, from Katn’s distinction between pure and practical reason. However, Groome takes seriously the feminist eopistemologists who pointed out the objective viewpoint of Kant’s pure reason does not really exist — “there is no view from nowhere.” Thus Groome proposes a third option on which to base an appropriate pedagogy: to learn from religions for your own life.

In other words, Groome called for a pedagogy that would teach religions as “great spiritual wisdoms for life,” rather than presenting them as data or history. “They’re not just a cognitive exercise,” he said, but rather a way for students to learn from other traditions in order to enrich their own traditions.

As an example, he spoke about how one might teach about the Muslim practice of Zakat; this is the practice of giving away 2-1/2% of one’s capital each year to persons in need. This spiritual practice not only promotes charity, it also promotes non-attachment to material goods, and it teaches about the ultimate power of God (i.e., it is God who really owns whatever material possessions one has). Groome said if he were teaching Zakat, he might begin be having the students name what they know about people who are in need, and then teach them Zakat as one religious response to poverty and need. “The learning outcome,” he said, “is that you’re going to encourage their own discernment about poverty.”

The workshop participants engaged in lively discussion with Groome.

There was some discussion about Groome’s theoretical underpinnings for his pedagogy, and one participant (I didn’t get his name) could not agree with Groome’s tendency towards universalism, i.e., that there is a common thread running through all religions. However, after some discussion it seemed clear that even people like me who tend to follow Mark Heim and Stephen Prothero in asserting that religions do not have a universal end or goal could still effectively use Groome’s pedagogical approach.

I asked about assessing learning outcomes, and Groome acknowledged that you can’t test or assess for the student’s own feeling — i.e., you can’t assess whether they have become, or will become, more humane — but you can test them for the data. However, pedagogy need not be driven completely by assessment.

Catherine Owens of Episcopal Divinity School pointed out that so many young adults today are unaffiliated, and having no grounding in any religious tradition, they are “appropriating bits and pieces from religions” (I would be blunt, and say they are often misappopriating) to build their own spiritual life. Therefore, part of what we need to do is to, as it were, expose them to the real thing.

I was sitting next to Kevin Sandberg, and in the time for small group discussion he suggested a “pedagogy of friendship” to supplement Groome’s pedagogy. I liked this formulation, and am thinking about how one might teach using a “pedagogy of friendship.”

REA 2013 conference: remembering Grace Mitchell

The location of this year’s Religious Education Association conference has a peculiar significance to me. From the window of my hotel room, I can just see Winter Street where it crosses Route 128 and heads into Waltham. Back in the summer of 1973, I used to commute along that road on the way to my first paid job in education, working as a very junior counselor at day camp of Green Acres Day School in Waltham. Technically, I was unpaid staff — after all, I was only thirteen years old — but at the end of the summer the camp gave the junior counselors an honorarium of, I think, fifty dollars.

The founder and executive director of the camp was Grace Mitchell, a progressive educator; she is probably best to known to other educators for her long-time column in Early Childhood magazine. Looking back, I realize that I absorbed quite a bit from her approach to education, especially her sense that the timing of education should not be set by the ringing of bells, but rather by the engagement of the children themselves.

So being here in this part of Waltham brought back a lot of memories of that first job in education (including many uncomfortable memories of my early failures as an educator). Green Acres Day School was sold many years ago, and the land has been built up with condos. But there are quite a few of us who worked there, who continue to work in education, and who carry Grace mitchell’s legacy of progressive education forward.