REA: Last day of the 2014 conference

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(em>Above: Yes, there were arts and crafts at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. In keeping with the more interactive approach at the 2014 conference, there were several opportunities for conferees to participate in interactive projects around the topic of unmaking violence. Here, conferees decorate a “peace pole.”

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Above: REA president-elect Mai-an Tranh, professor at Eden Theological Seminary, speaking at the final plenary session: wrapping up this year’s conference, and tying this year’s conference topic to next year’s topic. Tranh used Henry A Giroux’s “disimagination machine” as a central theme in her talk.

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Above: In the final plenary, Evelyn L. Parker of Perkins School of Theology led conferees in an interactive theatre exercise. She invited ten conferees to imagine with their bodies what the “disimagination machine” might look and feel like. Then she invited the rest of us “spec-actors” to disassemble the machine. In the photo above, a conferee is gently removing a piece of the machine.

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Above: The close of the conference, just before the business meeting.

Academics and practitioners

A few days ago on the “Key Resources” blog, a blog about faith formation from Virginia Theological Seminary blog, Kyle Oliver asked: “What has the academy to do with congregational faith formation (and vice versa)?”

What prompted this question? Kyle had been at the recent annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), which is supposed to be an organization of scholars and practitioners. But he had not been convinced that the REA offers much to practitioners: “I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of the conference for a non-academically-aspiring faith formation minister in a congregation.”

Speaking as a minister of religious education, I agree with Kyle that the academics, not the practitioners, dominate the conference. Two examples of what I mean when I say the academics dominate: (1) At the 2011 conference, I went to an excellent workshop given by Ryan Gardner on teacher reflection for volunteer teachers; it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet only two other people showed up, one of whom admitted she was in the wrong workshop (she stayed anyway, bless her heart). (2) At this year’s conference, I went to a good workshop given by Tom Groome on practical approaches to pedagogy for the local congregation; again, it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet the conversation got taken over at a couple of points by academics who wanted to argue rather obscure theoretical points. At the same time, all the academics whom I met were sympathetic to practitioners; some of them appeared to be pleased when they found out I actually worked in a congregation with real, live children and youth. I don’t think the academics want to dominate the REA conference.

Some of the problem may lie in the realities that we religious education practitioners face these days. When I started working as a religious educator in the Boston area, back in 1994, it was commonplace for some of the older religious educators to talk about how they studied with Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Tom Groome, and other scholars. Back then it was also commonplace for lay Directors of Religious Education to have a full-time, well-compensated job; there were many more Ministers of Religious Education; congregations expected us to take time to study and keep up with the field. That’s no longer true. As staff costs for congregations outpace inflation, as organized religion declines in an era of civic disengagement, as society changes rapidly around us, as congregations need more from us and are able to offer less to us — as all this goes on, many of us who work in local congregations feel overwhelmed as we try to do more and more with less and less, as we try to keep kids engaged, as we try to hold on to our jobs and our pay.

As a result, when we practitioners go to any kind of conference, we’re usually looking for relentlessly useful ideas that we can use right now. We’re desperate. John Roberto of Faith Formation 2020 gets this; he gives us practitioners what we need in easily digestible bites. At the recent REA conference, I think Beth Katz of Project Interfaith intuited some of this; she showed us excellent and innovative curricula that were both immediately useful and grounded in interesting theoretical perspectives. Mind you, Katz and Roberto are not exactly academics, though they are academically informed. One academic who gets this is Bob Pazmino: I talked with Bob informally at the recent REA conference, and he not only asked me about what was going on in my congregation, and listened carefully and respectfully, but he was able to present me with some interesting possibilities for new directions based on his academic work.

In short, I think Kyle Oliver is correct when he says that he’s not “entirely convinced of the value of the REA conference” for most of us practitioners. I think the academics might want to pay more attention to Kyle’s critique, and think about how they might better unite their theory with our practical realities.

I would also say that we practitioners have to remember that our praxis should be informed with theory. Perhaps it’s time to get a little more assertive, as Kyle is doing, and help the academics pay better attention to what’s going on in our local congregations.

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.

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.

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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.

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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”