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.

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.”

REA 2013 conference: video on religious diversity

Hannah Markus, a doctoral candidate based at the Protestant Theological Univeristy in Amsterdam, and the Driestar Educatief in Gouda, Netherlands, was moderator for the showing of a four-part Dutch documentary that touches on the topics of pluralism and religion. Markus showed us the first two in the series, and I was particularly interested in the second one:

Living in the cultural and economic behemoth that is the United States, it can be difficult to find non-U.S. perspectives. For that reason, I found it very useful to see a Dutch perspective on globalization and diversity; it gives me some new insight into these trans-national issues.

REA 2013 conference: Dianne Moore

Dianne L. Moore, Senior Lecturer on Religious Studies and Education at Harvard Divinity School, was the speaker for the second plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) 2013 conference. She spoke on the topic “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach.” Moore chaired the Task Force on Religion in the Schools for the American Academy of Religion, which looked at teaching religion to grades K-12 in the public schools in the U.S. She is the author of Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Moore told us that in large part she was going to present the material that is in her book.

It quickly became clear to me that she was interested in teaching religious literacy in the schoolroom and in academia, not in the congregation. Her approach draws from religious studies, which tends to bracket the truth claims or other claims that religions make. As she puts it, she wants to distinguish between her approach and a devotional approach. However, in my own work as a religious educator working in a congregation, I can’t do that; e.g., my tradition has integrated feminist theology to a very large degree, and when I am teaching about another religious tradition that I feel denigrates women, I am going to say something critical about the sexism of that other religious tradition.

Nevertheless, in my own work, I do draw on the insights of religious studies and cultural studies, and I found Moore’s talk to be enlightening and useful. She reminded us that religious studies makes it clear that theological voices do not represent the tradition itself (i.e., James Luther Adams does not represent Unitarian Universalism any more than Charles Hartshorne does). Further, religions are internally diverse (thus Transylvanian Unitarians are very different from North American Unitarian Universalists), and indeed local religious communities can be internally diverse (e.g., my congregation contains both theists and atheists). Another key insight from religious studies is that religions change and evolve.

As an example of how not to teach religious literacy, Moore pointed to the common practice of teaching about Buddhism by referring to the Four Noble Truths — which practice ignores how Buddhism has evolved and is evolving, and how Buddhists may have internal differences.

Moore also gave some great examples of how religious illiteracy manifests itself. The following are examples of religious illiteracy:
— representing religions as static and unchanging rather than as diverse and evolving
— representing religious traditions as either wholly positive or wholly negative
— assuming that individual practitioners of a religious tradition are experts in their traditions (“Oh, let’s bring in an imam to tell us what Muslims believe”)
— assuming that religion is a private matter that can be kept out of the public sphere

I found this last point to be extremely important. Moore said that the notion that religion is solely a private matter, and that it can be kept out of public life, is “a legacy of the Enlightenment” that has become “very problematic.” By contrast, Moore asserts that religions do not reside in some separate sphere; they are “embedded in all dimensions of human experience.”

Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: Dianne Moore”

REA 2013 conference: Project Interfaith & RavelUnravel

During this afternoon’s breakout sessions, I went to a workshop led by Beth Katz, founder and executive director of Project Interfaith, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the growth of understanding and respect between people of different religious traditions.

In the workshop, Beth Katz introduced us to RavelUnravel, Project Interfaith’s online video project. This project has people of many different faiths responding to three basic questions: (1) What is your religious or spiritual identity? (2) What is a stereotype that impacts you based on your religious or spiritual identity? (3) How welcoming do you find our community [i.e., the place in which you live] to be? There are close to a thousand videos on their Web site, and Katz showed us this video as an example:

Project Interfaith has developed curriculum guides to go with the online videos, and during the workshop Katz asked us to review sections of the curriculum guide for college students.

It’s an impressive and well-designed curriculum, and some of the other workshop participants who work in academia were able to give some intelligent feedback. The most I was able to say was that I don’t think the curriculum would work particularly well in my setting, that is, in a local congregation. Nevertheless, I am excited by Project Interfaith’s online video resources, and am thinking these videos could be a resource for our congregation’s “Neighboring Faiths” curriculum.

REA 2013 conference: Marshall Ganz

Marshall Ganz was the main speaker at the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association annual conference. Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Ganz dropped out of college in 1964 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Mississippi Summer project; following his time with SNCC he worked with Cesar Chavez for 18 years.

In order to talk about leadership and organizing, Ganz began by quoting Rabbi Hillel, from the Pirkei Avot: “Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14)

Ganz pointed out that the first of these questions is not about being selfish, but about caring for oneself. Hillel’s second question forces us to realize that we are inevitably wrapped up with others. And the third question prompts us to find a middle way between “jumping off a cliff” on the one hand, and getting ensnared by endless preparation on the other hand. Ganz said that these are questions, not answers — so Hillel was not urging us to assert control in order to avoid uncertainty, but rather to find purpose through “embracing uncertainty.”

Thus leadership is a set of practices in which the leader accepts responsibility, and enables others to achieve a purpose under conditions of uncertainty; leadership is also a form of social interaction. So leadership is less about a person or a position of authority than it is about purpose and real-world work that needs to be done. Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: Marshall Ganz”

REA 2013 conference: pre-conference trip to DSNI

The pre-conference session for this year’s Religious Education Association was a trip to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury (Roxbury is a section of Boston). DSNI is a non-profit devoted to community-based planning and organization.

During our trip to DSNI, we learned that the Dudley area is poor — average annual income is about $12,300 — and its residents are primarily people of color, with about a third of the population 19 or younger. It’s also just two miles from the heart of downtown Boston, which says to me that it’s an area that’s ripe for gentrification (just as West Oakland is now being gentrified by young white people moving away from the high rents of San Francisco, forcing long time minority residents to move out).

Starting in the 1980s, the Dudley area was hit by a rash of arson, which resulted in large tracts of land left vacant. DSNI managed to get power of eminent domain within the limits of its neighborhood, and over the years they have acquired 32 acres of land which has been place in a community land trust. They then engaged in a community planning process, and built the kind of housing the community members really wanted. The houses are purchased by the residents, but the land continues to be owned by DSNI, in order to keep the housing affordable and to prevent gentrification that would force out long-time residents.

But what’s really remarkable about DSNI, and the real reason we made a trip to see what they’re doing, is that they reserve four seats on their 35-member Board of Directors for youth aged 15-17. They also have a Youth Council which engages youth in community organizing, and they give substantial power to the youth to plan projects, manage budgets, etc. Youth are mentored into leadership by adult community members, and the whole organization supports them as they mature skills as leaders. Significantly, these youth stay with DSNI as adults, either as volunteers or paid staff, and a couple of their former youth have moved into wider city or state politics as a result of their DSNI experience.

(Parenthetical note: As I was hearing about the way DSNI does youth empowerment, I couldn’t help thinking about what is called youth empowerment in Unitarian Universalist circles. DSNI youth are empowered to work in the wider community, working towards sustainable economic development, working for things like better housing and food security; the youth have an outward focus, tackling real-world problems. Unitarian Universalist youth ministry “empowers” youth to run weekend-long events for themselves; the youth wind up having an inward focus, where they support each other. Of course, the same thing happens in many adult Unitarian Universalist communities and congregations: we also maintain an inward focus, training our adult leaders mostly to run programs for ourselves.)

It was a good trip — hearing DSNI staffer May Louie speak about what they do and how they do it, seeing their accomplishments, getting the faith-based perspective of Father Walter Waldron, pastor of nearby Saint Patrick’s Parish in Roxbury. I just wish I had been able to learn more about how they mentor and empower youth to do real-world community organizing and project management.


After spending six hours learning about and visiting DSNI, six of us went out to dinner in downtown Waltham. We all know some of the best conversations at conferences take place in the informal interactions you have with other conferees; and tonight’s dinner conversations were both inspiring and helpful. Charles Chesnavage, who teaches at a Catholic high school in New York City, told us about his interfaith work in Yonkers, including regular meetings with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim interfaith partners. We asked the Catholics at the table what they thought of the new pope. Someone whose name I didn’t catch (the restaurant was noisy) heard I was a Unitarian and said Sophia Lyon Fahs was one of her inspirations, and we talked about the need for some kind of lab school for religious education, along the lines of what Fahs did at Union Theological School in the 1920s.

Perhaps most interesting moment from my point of view was listening to Leslie A. Long of Oklahoma City University talking about her work training lay youth workers for small congregations. She emphasized the need to train and retain older adults who will stay with youth work for the long haul, helping teens build intergenerational connections. (I couldn’t help but notice similarities between her approach and the approach of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.) I was also struck by her comment that research shows what youth are looking for is intergenerational connection and mentoring, while the usual model of youth ministry that looks like fun and games and parties is failing both youth and congregations.

That’s just the pre-conference session; the real conference starts tomorrow — and already I have learned enough to justify taking this time away from my local congregation.

How to be a peace activist

The fall, 2013, issue of Geez magazine is all about being a peace activist, and there’s a short eight-paragraph piece by James Wilt on the Peace Experiments program we did in Sunday school in our church (“Playing with peace,” p. 68). There’s even a nice picture of the peace quilt that the kids made under the direction of quilter Kathy Swartz. (Unfortunately, this short piece didn’t make it up on the Geez Web site so I can’t link to it from here.)

I don’t think we’re going to put this article up on the church bulletin board where kids can read it, only because I’m quoted saying: “Dan Harper, a long-time peace activist in California, calls the idea of of getting more conservative with age ‘bullshit.'” It’s a true statement, I’m not ashamed of saying it, but eight year olds don’t need to know I said it.

But it is true; I find myself getting more radical with age. The older I get, the more I realize how foolish and unproductive and morally bankrupt war is; the more I feel we have to protect our kids from war and violence. And increasingly I think most radical thing we can do is turn our kids into peaceniks. As James Wilt puts it in the article: “Now, however, instead of going to peace rallies, [Harper] hangs out with children. ‘I really think it’s the way to change the world,’ he told Geez….”

So — you want to be a peace activist? Go teach Sunday school.

Peace Quilt

A summary of the curriculum we used for Peace Experiments in online here. If you want to run Peace Experiments in your congregation, feel free to contact me for ideas.