Durham teacher gives kids a little faith – Jesse James DeConto

Jesse James DeConto
Jesse James DeConto

As a journalist who often writes about religion, I was encouraged when I heard that my daughter’s sixth-grade class was learning about five major global faiths as part of their curriculum at Central Park School for Children.

This in itself is not unusual. In fact, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction directs sixth-grade teachers to explain how Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism influenced the societies where they developed.

But Central Park social-studies teacher Annie Harrison took it further, building lessons based on the kids’ own experiences and their questions about each of these religions. (Except Confucianism, she said, because the school doesn’t have any families who practice it.)

“I focused on the five that involved students at the school, so that the kids could better ask questions and learn about their peers,” she said. “The kids handle their discussions with a careful grace that is heartwarming to witness. They are so thoughtful of each other, and so deliberate in their attempt to avoid hurting one another.”

Harrison has been organizing these lessons “so that the kids could better understand what their peers participate in, and how it’s the same and different from its inception as well as from other religions in their communities.”

Beyond the classroom, Harrison took the students to visit Beth El Synagogue and First Presbyterian Church, both within walking distance. They also bused down to Jamaat Ibad Ar Ramaat, a Sunni mosque in southeast Durham. Further, Harrison worked to recruit a Hindu scholar and a yoga teacher to talk about Eastern mindfulness and meditation as a way to cope with stress before the statewide end-of-grade tests.

“We’ve built this test culture where everybody is freaking out about the EOGs,” she said. “They can teach us about these practices for calming down.”

Harrison thought it was important to assure us parents that the kids would “not be listening to a service or sermon at any location, and at no point (would) the kids be given any materials about ‘becoming a member of the religion.’” She also offered to exempt any student whose family felt uncomfortable, and a few chose not to go into buildings belonging to another faith or to listen to a particular prayer.

“I got absolutely no pushback from anything other than reasons of belief,” Harrison said. “Religion is one of the most deeply personal choices a human can make, and your beliefs should be yours alone.”

The social-studies teacher said examining the origins of world religions and their impact on global societies is simply complying with state standards and preparing the kids for high school, but exploring the students’ own experiences in their faith communities has taken on heightened significance in recent months.

“I think that religious tolerance is one of the most important things I get to teach this year, and I’m proud and excited about the way the students are handling it so far,” she said. “Given the current political/social climate, I thought a really deep dive into this particular [curriculum standard] seemed timely – and given that this is a charter and we can flex a little, I feel like it’s almost my responsibility to expose our kids to as many topical and broadening modern subjects as we can squeeze in.”

Recent news from across North Carolina suggests she’s right.

In Kernersville, the FBI is investigating anti-Muslim activists who held a meeting this winter where they discussed doing violence against those practicing Islam. One week in February, the Lerner Jewish Community Day School in Durham was one of 11 Jewish community centers across the nation to receive bomb threats in a wave of anti-Semitism. Just two years ago in Chapel Hill, a local man killed his three Muslim neighbors in what many have called a hate crime. In parts of the U.S. and North Carolina, fear reigns and religious hate-crimes have spiked.

It’s not only teachers like Annie Harrison who are trying to do something about it. Groups like the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia (MERI-NC) and N.C. United for Refugees and Immigrants have been holding educational and advocacy events across North Carolina.

To learn more about these opportunities, visit https://www.facebook.com/ncunitedforasylees/.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him at jesse@jessejamesdeconto.com.