When I began teaching comparative religion to high schoolers I was lucky enough to inherit a semester (mid-term or final) project from my colleague, Fr. Nate Bostian, that I has been useful since the first time I used it and that I’ve kept mostly intact. It’s withstood the test of time. The project is centered around research-and-presentation. In gist, student have to take what they know about studying and comparing religions and then do it themselves for a lesser-known (to them) religion like Jainism, Scientology, Sikhism, or Zoroastrianism.
The small changes I’ve made have had to do with the emphasis on the categories of ‘Belief’, ‘Behavior’, and ‘Belonging’ promoted by scholars like Benjamin Marcus and adopted by the AAR’s ‘Guidelines to Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. As I continue to reform my curriculum it’s my goal to organize my units and assessments around these subunits. (I don’t teach comparative religion again until fall 2020, so I have time.) For the most part, the ‘3 B’s’ is clean, simple, and easy-to-understand, so it’s the skeletal structure around which I ask my students to build their presentation.
This year our school’s administration wanted us to explain our projects before releasing them to our students. So many teachers have embraced a form of project-based learning that there’s been a risk of overdoing it so that students have nothing but projects for the final few weeks of the semester. When I had to explain the assessing value of this project, it was easy. I’m not teaching Religious Studies so that my students can memorize data. Sure, there’s data to know: What does Easter celebrate? Why do many Muslims organize their spirituality around the ‘Five Pillars’? Why have Indian thinkers understood time as cyclical rather than linear and what does that have to do with Samsara? You get the idea. But data memorization isn’t the point. Critical thinking skills about religion is the point.
By having my students research and present on a ‘less-known’ (I used to say ‘minor’ but that’s not quite accurate) religion, they’re forced to ask what qualifies as ‘belief’, ‘behavior’ and ‘belonging’ when analyzing a religion about which they don’t know much. They get to show me that they know how to research, interpret, classify, and present the gist of a religion to another. In my opinion, this is a much better use of the last week of school than having them memorize key words and ideas to regurgitate to me in a multi-choice exam!
For those who’d like to see the exam’s content, you can download it here: