I finally finished writing a short essay titled “Reimagining Sunday school” for my curriculum website. This essay has been in the works for a while, both as a response to the “death of Sunday school” movement, and as a response to the de-funding of religious education programs that we’ve been seeing denomination-wide. I’m copying the entire essay in below the fold, or you can read it on my curriculum website.Continue reading “Reimagining Sunday school”
In the Black Issues in Philosophy series on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Josue Ricardo Lopez, assistant professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, writes about creolizing schooling:
“The project of creolizing schooling underscores political education as the central project of schooling. It is based on what Jane Anna Gordon in Creolizing Political Theory [Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014)] argues are at least three principles of creolization: building from the commonalities across our differences, respecting the most salient of our differences, and recognizing that the political is always open to contestation and negotiation.”
I hear echoes of Paolo Friere, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene in what Lopez is saying. Lopez goes beyond Dewey’s concept of educating for democracy, by framing the issue in terms of decolonizing, by considering who American democracy was designed for. As for Friere, he addressed a specific kind of adult education, whereas Lopez is specifically looking at schooling for children and teens.
Also of importance: creolizing is different from multiculturalism. In multiculturalism, cultures exist side by side; creolizing means that cultures change through their interaction with one another. Multiculturalism in education can have the tendency to make non Euro-American cultures invisible; by contrast, creolization
I do have a minor quibble with Lopez’s essay. Lopez rightly points out that “distinct projects will call for different knowledges.” However, the vision of what different knowledges might offer is too narrow. As someone trained in the visual arts, I rolled my eyes when the best Lopez could come up with for the visual arts was “artistic knowledge becomes important for turning brick walls into a canvas for murals that reflects the beauty of the community.” Yet the essay incorporates two infographics that I’ve seen too many times and that actually distract from the main arguments of the essay; if Lopez had cooperated with someone with visual training, there could have been graphics that amplified, rather than distracted from, the essay. Of course, Lopez reflects the bias of the academy: the written word is always considered superior, and the arts are poorly understood and relegated to a minor supporting role. In today’s political struggles, we need digital photographs, videos, animations, infographics, memes, video game design, user interfaces — site-specific murals and other site-specific artworks can be important for local communities, but online media is where young people can make a much bigger impact. (Parenthetical note: when it comes to the arts and education, Maxine Greene’s legacy is worth remembering: she engaged seriously with hip hop and other musicians, artists, etc., and through this engagement acknowledged that music and the arts have something unique to offer in education.)
In spite of this minor quibble, Lopez’s essay is well worth reading. This passage really struck me:
“I worked in Connecticut with Caribbean and Latin American high school students who recently arrived in the United States. There were multiple cultures, languages, religions, and perspectives students brought with them. However, their unique insights, needs, and interests were considered secondary if at all by the school….”
How can the unique insights, needs, and interests become matters of primary importance? How can the school use those unique insights and interests to address real world political issues? John Dewey said, “I believe that education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” And Lopez is expanding that notion for a globalized and multicultural society to include the project of decolonizing.
Now I’m waiting for the book on creolizing schooling….
How can we teach young people about “white supremacy” within the constraints of a typical Sunday school? What are some of the theoretical considerations, and what are some practical considerations?
One of my professional organizations, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) has called on Unitarian Universalist religious educators to participate in a “white supremacy teach-in” in the coming weeks, to follow up on the denominational brouhaha which led to the resignation of Peter Morales from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
This is a great call to action, but where do we come up with pedagogical strategies to teach children and teens about white supremacy? I’ll get to practical suggestions after a brief review of theoretical resources; although if you’re a hands-on educator you may want to go straight to practical suggestions, skipping over theoretical considerations which may seem pretty remote from actual children and teens.
Let’s start with the obvious: with bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress, and with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both these books provide useful theoretical perspectives. However, in my experience these books are not very useful for children and young people since they focus on persons age 18 and up.
Lev Vygotsky is another obvious source of pedagogical insight. Vygotsky’s theories provide us with such well-known concepts of “scaffold-and-fade,” and the zone of proximal development. For a helpful summary of zone of proximal development, I like Seth Chaiklin, “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction,” in Kozulin et al., Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003]). Chaiklin makes a number of points that might prove helpful. Chaiklin points out “the zone for a given age period is normative, in that it reflects the institutionalized demands and expectations that developed historically in a particular societal tradition of practice,” thus implying a strong connection between institutional demands and children’s development. Chaiklin also carefully defines the technical meaning of “imitation” in Vygotsky, and then points out that “the main focus for collaborative interventions is to find evidence for maturing psychological functions, with the assumption that the child could only take advantage of these interventions because the maturing function supports an ability to understand the significance of the support being offered”; thus, there are definite psychological and developmental limitations to the amount of learning that can take place within the child.
And in a Unitarian Universalist context, I believe it’s helpful to connect Vygotsky’s collectivist understanding of learning and development with James Luther Adam’s theological conception of the congregation as a voluntary association in mass democracy. Adams’s conception of congregations as voluntary associations helps us understand that face-to-face and personal encounters within a congregation help prevent the atomization of the individual, which in turn can prevent mass democracies from hurtling towards totalitarianism. So Vygotsky teaches us that “a person is able to perform a certain number of tasks alone, while in collaboration, it is possible to perform a greater number of tasks”; and Adams’s work suggests not only that the congregation is a place where we can collaborate together to support a liberative and liberal democracy, but also that the congregation as a whole can support the developmental growth of children and teens towards healthy maturity.
Another useful theological resources is William R. Jones’s essay Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows. In this essay, Jones makes a very helpful connection between theism and the “left wing” of theism: both are humanocentric worldviews, in which it is up to humans to effect positive change. Jones help us see that we can’t wait around for some Daddy God to bail us out — for that matter, nor can we wait around for Big Daddy Science to bail us out — a humanocentric point of view acknowledges that it’s up to us humans to effect change. (Jones makes the same point in his book Is God a White Racist?)
For theoretical resources specific to religious education, I’d turn to my other professional organization, the interfaith and international Religious Education Association (REA), which includes both scholars and practitioners. Over the years, the REA has published or presented interesting scholarship on how to teach liberation and social justice; the most notable recent instance is REA’s 2012 conference “Let Freedom Ring”: Religious Education at the Intersection of Social Justice, Liberation, and Civil/Human Rights. So REA conference proceedings and the REA journal Religious Education have plenty of theoretical material that would help in teaching about white supremacy. The problem with the REA publications is that you have to read through a great deal of material to find relevant articles, and even then you often have to do some translation from another cultural contexts (e.g., figuring out how an article outlining teaching peace to Israeli and Palestinian youth might translate to a U.S. context).
Beyond REA publications, there are plenty of progressive religious educators who have written books that offer resources for this kind of endeavor. A couple of books that come immediately to mind are John Westerhof’s book Learning through Liturgy, and Robert Pazmino’s Foundational Issues in Christian Education; Westerhof’s book helps usnderstand how learning takes place in and through worship services; and I have found Bob’s book extremely helpful in confronting my own internal inclinations and biases. A few Unitarian Universalists with anti-Christian biases and prejudices might be repelled by these books; but I’d suggest that the exercise of tamping down anti-Christian biases long enough to find the good in those books could be a useful preparatory exercise for those who have a serious desire to teach against racial bias and prejudice.
As an educator, I have been greatly inspired by Marcia Chatelaine’s workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson,” given at Ferry Beach Conference Center in July, 2015. Chatelaine, a professor of history at Georgetown University, helped me understand how intersectionality could be a useful pedagogical strategy. Her workshop also helped me to understand how to get past the strong emotions elicited by Ferguson; she suggested addressing Ferguson from within one’s own area of disciplinary expertise. Thus, as a historian, she could talk about the history of Ferguson as a white-flight suburb, using her are of disciplinary expertise to generate insight.
Finally, I would also turn to the works of educational philosopher Maxine Greene. In particular, I have found her short essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings” to be foundational for the kind of liberative religious education I hold us as an ideal. I’ll give one brief excerpt from this essay that might serve as an inspiration for a suitable pedagogic practice for teaching about white supremacy:
“[T]here has been a prevalent conception of the self (grand or humble, master or slave) as predefined, fixed, separate. Today we are far more likely, in the mode of John Dewey and existentialist thinkers, to think of selves as always in the making. We perceive them creating meanings, becoming in an intersubjective world by means of dialogue and narrative. We perceive them telling their stories, shaping their stories, discovering purposes and possibilities for themselves, reaching out to pursue them. We are moved to provoke such beings to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move towards others, as they try to see through other’s eyes. Thinking of beings like that, may of those writing today and painting and dancing and composing no longer have single-focused, one-dimensional creatures in mind as models or as audiences. Rather, they think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose.”
I wanted to end with that passage from Maxine Greene because it points the way to the kind of flexible, learner-focused teaching that I want to do.
When I translate these (and other) theoretical resources into practical pedagogy for young people in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school setting, here are some of the things I think about:
1. My teaching will be centered on activities that allow learners to be “selves in the making.” And, given my own strengths as a teacher, this means I’m going to use the arts; and knowing my limitations as a teacher, I’m going to do best with telling stories (I could see other people using dance, drama, etc., but those are not in my skill set). [This point inspired by Maxine Greene.]
2. My learners are going to be at various points in their development. I would love to be able to do some kind of formal pre-assessment, but that’s not realixtic in the context of an hour-long Sunday school session. Therefore, I’ll have to be a flexible teacher, willing to adjust my lesson plan to accommodate those who turn out to know very little, as well as those those who already know a lot. [See Bob Pazmino’s chapters on “Sociological Foundations” and “Curricular Foundations.”]
3. The educational goal of teaching about white supremacy is a BIG task. Since I have to be realistic about what can be taught (and learned) in a given limited time, I’m going to set realistic — and probably modest modest — educational objectives for one teach-in session. But for the long term, I will also continue the liberative educational praxis I’m already using and committed to. [See bell hooks about the realities of teaching.]
4. Anybody who has taught knows that teachers have to regulate the emotional temperature of a class. The phrase “white supremacy” will obviously generate strong emotions in many people; in fact, that’s the whole point of using that phrase. But I don’t want to limit my educational objective to merely eliciting emotions of shame, anger, guilt, and/or hatred, because from experience I know that too much of those emotions can stop the learning process temporarily (e.g., white people can shut down due to shame, non-white people can shut down due to anger, etc.). So I’ll need to balance how these emotions are elicited in the short-term, against a long-term goal of liberative educational praxis.
5. Oversimplification is always a temptation in teaching, and I think it’s a particularly strong temptation when teaching about white supremacy. To avoid oversimplification, I’m going to take inspiration from Marcia Chatelaine’s advice on teaching about Ferguson: use intersectionality. Intersectionality asks: how are different oppressions linked? (I suspect this will be an especially useful approach for adult Unitarian Universalists, because so many of them are already doing significant work and learning in sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, etc.; thus intersectionality can connect what they’ve already accomplished and learned about to the topic of white supremacy.) [This point inspired by Marcia Chatelaine.]
6. Chatelaine also suggests: focus on an intellectual discipline or subject area you know well, and delve into that. The intellectual disciplines where I have some level of professional knowledge and expertise — philosophy, liberal theology, religious education — aren’t particularly well suited to teaching children and teens about white supremacy. So I tried to think of a subject area where, although I don’t have professional expertise, I have enough knowledge that I could teach something to children — and I thought of environmental justice, a topic I have already taught to children and teens, and a topic that lies at the center of social justice concern in our congregation.
The above are some preliminary considerations and practical ideas for implementing a one-shot “teach-in” on white supremacy. Note that what I am proposing does not necessarily conform to the teach-in called for by Black Lives of UUU. I’m specifically addressing the educational considerations of teaching young people in a Sunday school setting; Black Lives of UU has issued a broader call to include this topic in worship services, Sunday morning Forum, etc.
Furthermore, my practical ideas grow out my own congregation, here in the very specific cultural context of the Bay Area — a region where Cesar Chavez started his career, a region where Chinese immigrants at times lived in virtual slavery, a region where Japanese Americans were illegally (and immorally) interned during the Second World War, a region where one police force (Oakland P.D.) was under federal control because of racial prejudice. I could also mention Oscar Grant. I could also mention to overt sexism and racism of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., and of start-up culture, and of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. In terms of environmental justice, I might consider why it is that East Palo Alto, a historically black city, doesn’t have enough water supply to support the kind of development that could bring more jobs (and could also bring more gentrification that might drive out people of color). Bay Area racial history is complex, and your area will differ.
The text of the formal presentation portion of my workshop:
Let me begin by telling you about the context in which I do religious education. I’m minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, a mainline congregation founded in 1947. Like so many mainline congregations founded in the post-World War II era, today we struggle to adapt to new and different demographic, economic, and theological realities. In particular, we’re trying to figure out what the end of Christendom means to us as a post-Christian congregation, and we’re adapting to an intensely competitive nonprofit landscape.
Four years ago, I suggested to our lay leaders that we might do a six-week spring curriculum unit in peacemaking for K-5 Sunday school classes. That program, which I based on an old 1980s curriculum called “Peace Experiments,” was described by Geez magazine — a magazine subtitle “Holy mischief in an age of fast faith” — like this:
Educator and philosopher Maxine Greene died on May 29. Associated with Teachers College, she was a towering figure in the philosophy of education. I would place her firmly within the educational tradition of John Dewey: someone who cared deeply about democracy, someone who cared deeply about children. She pushed back against dehumanizing models of education — she was critical of factory models of education; she did not approve of mindless standardized testing; she did not believe education could be reduced to information theory.
Greene was an ardent feminist. She thought women and girls were just as good as men and boys; of course we all pay lip service to that, these days. But Greene went further than that, and engaged in sophisticated critical analysis to show the ways in which our thinking remains dominated by perceptions that men are somehow better than women, and the ways that social structures reinforce those perceptions. She was also a staunch defender of multiculturalism in education; she took on such prominent writers as Allan Bloom, and exposed the intellectual weakness of their attacks on multiculturalism.
In the area of religion, Greene was an existentialist and a humanist, and she was one of the original signers of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. She also spoke out strongly against religious intolerance, especially anti-Semitism.
As a religious educator, I have found myself drawn to Maxine Green’s writing in the past couple of years — not because she is a humanist (I don’t consider myself a humanist), but because she is an existentialist. I have come to think that Greene offers an existentialist philosophy of education that provides a needed corrective to the educational philosophies used in contemporary Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education.
UU religious education today is dominated by essentialist philosophies of education:— there are essential things we want children to know, and that is what we will teach them. The Tapestry of Faith curriculum series produced by the UUA is typical example of UU curriculum permeated by an essentialist philosophy: we want children to learn certain moral values, we want them to learn certain facts about religion. This essentialist philosophy goes beyond the printed curriculum guides; for one obvious example, we consider doing social justice projects to be an essential item on our educational checklist, and so we ensure that children do social justice projects as part of their religious education.
I have long been quite comfortable with essentialist philosophies of education. But Maxine Greene has helped me see that perhaps an essentialist philosophy of education is not the best match with UU religious education. Greene emphasizes the importance of the arts and imagination in education; these are things that cannot be reduced to essential educational components that get checked off a list. In my teaching praxis with UU kids over the past few years, imagination and the arts have come to seem more and more central to what we do in UU religious education.
And so Green’s existentialist educational philosophy has come to seem more and more relevant to my work in UU religious education. Not that her thinking is going to solve all of UU religious education’s problems — but her existentialist thinking can serve as a useful corrective to some of the essentialist excesses we face today. I can only hope that her death will prompt some of us to delve more deeply into her thought.
The Maxine Greene Center for Aesthetic Education and Social Imagination, with links to some of Greene’s articles
“Diversity and Inclusion: Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings,” an essay by Greene with applications for UU religious education