For Educators

Religion in Public Schools – Procedures For Teachers

PrepPreparing for the lesson
StepsConducting the lesson
ExtensionAdditional Activities


Prep:

Media Components

Computer Resources:

  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above. Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0 or higher. Download the free Adobe Acrobat reader here: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html.

Bookmarked sites:

TIP: Prior to teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a word processing document listing all of the links. Preview all sites and videos before presenting them to the class.

  • NOW with Bill Moyers: Quiz — Freedom of Religion.
    http://www.pbs.org/now/quiz/quiz2.html
    This online quiz allows students to test their knowledge of freedom of religion and the separation of religion from public institutions. After students complete the quiz, they should read the correct answers and explanations.
  • The First Amendment, The Freedom Forum
    http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=3924
    Provides the text of the First Amendment, with further explanation of each principle of the amendment (i.e. religion, press, speech).
  • Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s letter to principals, December 17, 1999.
    http://www.ed.gov/inits/religionandschools/secletter.html
    Riley’s letter addresses the myth that no religion is tolerated in public schools, and outlines what is and what is not acceptable behavior on the part of individual students and public schools when it comes to religion.
  • “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” U.S. Department of Education guidelines for schools. August 1995.
    http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html
    Scroll halfway down the page to the end of the Secretary’s letter. The relevant section is entitled “Religious Expression in Public Schools”; it addresses various activities and observances and whether they are acceptable or not in the eye of the law.
  • “Public Schools and Christmas: the season wrapped in red tape,” by Associated Press, December 21, 2001.
    http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=15549
    This article addresses the controversy surrounding the holiday season, particularly in regards to the display of holiday symbols and/or the celebration of holiday traditions (like singing carols, exchanging gifts, etc.).
  • Online Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Transcript of 12-22-95 show: “December Dilemma”
    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/religion/religion_12-22.html
    An account of one Jewish student’s efforts to address the overly Christian emphasis during December assemblies and graduation ceremonies at her high school in Nevada. Inform students that this is an older transcript, as illustrated by references to President Clinton.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: News Feature — Religion in the Public Schools, June 15, 2001
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week442/newsfeature.html
    Presents two different reactions to the Supreme Court decision that an upstate New York public school must allow religious as well as non-religious clubs to meet on its premises after school.
  • Online Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Transcript of June 6, 1998 show, “Religious Freedom?”
    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/congress/jan-june98/rfa_6-3.html
    A debate between a Rabbi and a Reverend over a proposed constitutional amendment in 1998 that would bring back voluntary student-initiated prayer in public schools.
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: Constitutional Amendments 1-10 — The Bill of Rights
    http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/charters_of_freedom/
    bill_of_rights/amendments_1-10.html

    The text of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Materials:

Teachers will need the following supplies:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the Web-based video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

Students will need the following supplies:

  • computers with the capacities indicated above
  • notebook or journal
  • pens/pencils
  • dictionaries


Steps:

Introductory Activity:

1. Put the following text on the board:

“Monroe Middle School holds a holiday assembly in December that celebrates Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa with songs, skits, and symbols such as a Christmas trees and menorahs.”

2. Then post chart paper with the following questions written out:

  1. Is it OK for the school to do this?
  2. Who in the school community might feel comfortable in this assembly?
  3. Who in the school community might feel uncomfortable in this assembly?
  4. What is left out of this assembly?
  5. Is the assembly a “learning opportunity” or an “endorsement” of one or more particular religions?
  6. What’s your position on the place of religion in the public schools? Why do you hold this position?

3. Call on volunteers to answer questions 1-5, and track students’ answers on chart paper. Allow time for students to discuss each question and for students to add to, or challenge, one another’s answers. Challenges should be done respectfully, and after the challenger summarizes the position he or she is countering.

4. Ask students to respond to question number 6 in their notebooks or journals. Inform them that over the next few days they will be exploring both sides of the issue more thoroughly, and that towards the end of the unit they will be asked to consider whether their position has changed at all.

5. Introduce the following activity as a way for students to “test” their existing knowledge about freedom of religion and the separation of religion from public institutions before moving forward with the rest of the lesson. Have students individually complete the following online quiz:
NOW with Bill Moyers: Quiz — Freedom of Religion.
http://www.pbs.org/now/quiz/quiz2.html
After students take the quiz, they should read the correct answers and explanations.


Learning Activities:

Activity One: Introduction to the First Amendment

1. Post the following question on the board:

  • What does the First Amendment say and what document is it a part of?

2. Call on volunteers to answer this question. Track their answers on the board. You may need to provide some background, depending on students’ prior knowledge of the topic. You should mention that:

  • The First Amendment is one of 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that were ratified in 1791. These amendments are referred to as the Bill of Rights.
  • The First Amendment has been used by many individuals and groups to fight for or defend their rights and freedoms.

3. Have students read:
The First Amendment and the breakdown of the five principles of the amendment on the Freedom Forum Web site: http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=3924 Students should write down any new terms they come across and any questions they have as they read the document.

4. Students then pair up to complete the following tasks, which the teacher posts on the board. Tell students that they should complete these tasks on loose-leaf paper, and that each student should hand his/her work in at the end of class.

  • Define any of the new terms they identified in the readings. Students should draw on one another’s knowledge and use dictionaries to define new terms. (You might mention a few of the “big” ones from the readings so students can add them to their lists if they do not have them already. These include: abridging, peaceably, petition (verb), redress, grievances).
  • Ask students to explain (verbally) the meaning of each of the five principles (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to assemble, right to petition government) in their own words. The two students can take turns, one explaining freedom of religion, one explaining freedom of speech etc. Students should write down the explanations they offer their partner — the two or three they explain during their turns.
  • Ask students to think about and discuss how each of these freedoms might be related to the Monroe Middle School scenario discussed at the beginning of the lesson. For example, how might the issue of freedom of speech come up in relation to a holiday assembly? How might freedom of press be relevant if Monroe Middle School published a holiday edition of the school newspaper?
  • The pairs should now come up with real-life examples for each of the five principles of the First Amendment, and each student should list these examples on his or her paper. For instance, the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s could serve as an example of the right to peaceably assemble.
  • Lastly, each pair will share one of their examples with the rest of the class — identifying which principle in the First Amendment it illustrates and some context for the example.

Activity Two: Investigating the issue of religion in the public schools

1. Explain to students that an evaluation of their work will be based on their performance in a number of main areas:

  • Participation in class discussion
  • Reading of materials, and thorough responses to questions
  • Quality of participation in group work
  • Quality of written responses due at the end of Learning Activity One
  • Completion of Exploring Controversial Issues organizer
  • Serious preparation for, and conducting of, interviews with members of the community. See the Tips for Interviewing handout. A draft of interview questions should be due before students conduct the interviews.
  • Individual and group performance on the culminating activity: a presentation by the Fact-Finding Commission (groups of four students) to the Monroe Middle School administration with facts, findings, and recommendations to guide the school in its policies regarding religious expression and observance at Monroe Middle School. The recommendation will also address the issue of whether the school should continue, discontinue, or alter its holiday assembly.

2. Divide the class into groups of 4. Students will remain in these groups for the remainder of the unit, and group members will prepare and present their final projects together. Inform students that they will serve as a Fact-Finding Commission for the Monroe Middle School administration, and that their report will provide the school with the information it needs to determine whether or not to continue its holiday assembly tradition.

3. Have students read (silently to themselves) the following two resources. Preface their reading by explaining that Richard Riley was the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education during the Bill Clinton presidency:

  • Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s letter to principals, December 17, 1999. http://www.ed.gov/inits/religionandschools/secletter.html
  • “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” U.S. Department of Education guidelines for schools. August 1995.
    http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html
    Scroll halfway down the page to the end of the Secretary’s letter. The relevant section is entitled “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” and it addresses various activities/observances and whether they are acceptable in the eye of the law.

4. Allow 30 minutes of reading time, and have students keep a list of any new terms they come across.

5. Post the following questions on the board:

Based on Riley’s letter to principals:

  • What was the 1962 Supreme Court decision regarding religion and the public schools?
  • What did former President Clinton believe the First Amendment did for our people?
  • In your own words, explain what Riley says about the two root principles of the First Amendment in regards to religious expression.
  • What’s the difference between teaching about religion and providing religious instruction?

Based on the Religious Expression guidelines:

  • List 5 religious activities that are permissible in public schools and 5 religious activities that are not.

6. Students return to their groups and define any of the new terms they identified in the readings. Students may draw on one another’s knowledge and use dictionaries to define new terms. (You might mention a few of the “big” ones from the readings so students can add them to their lists if they do not have them already. These include: conscience, state-sponsored).

7. Then, explain that you want each small group to do the following:

  • Take 5 minutes to individually write short responses — not necessarily full sentences — to each of the questions (have students time themselves).
  • Each group member presents to the group his/her answer to one of the four questions on the letter to principals, AND his or her list of permissible and impermissible activities.
  • The group members discuss their answers.

HOMEWORK: Prepare 10 questions for interviews with community members about their viewpoints on the role of religion in the schools. Refer students to the Tips for Interviewing handout and Interview Planning Sheet organizer (make sure to hand these out in advance of the homework assignment). Interviews can be conducted with family members, religious figures, neighbors, teachers, or friends — but be sure to have some variety among your respondents.


Activity Three: Exploring the controversy surrounding religion and public schools

1. Students hand in homework (10 interview questions) — to be returned by the teacher the following day.

2. Ask for volunteers to describe one or two new things they learned about the role of religion in the public schools, based on the previous learning activity.

3. Students now return to their groups.

  • Randomly assign two students in each group the following position: religious groups and activities should be allowed in public schools
  • Assign the other two students the following position: religious groups and activities should not be allowed in public schools.Remind the class that the assignment of these views is only for further exploration of what proponents and opponents argue, and assignment does not necessarily reflect students’ own opinions. Also make sure that students understand that the subject of religion can be a very emotional and personal one, and that they should be respectful and considerate of different views.

4. Have students read:

5. Allow 20-30 minutes of reading time, and have students take notes on those aspects of the readings that support their particular positions.

6. The two students in each group of four who explored the same position should now compare notes and solidify their position (you might recommend they highlight their strongest arguments by putting a star next to them or underlining them). Reiterate to the students that, for many, this might be role-playing, and the view they have to represent might not be their own.

7. Each pair in the group will now present what they have learned about the position they explored. The other pair should listen and takes notes. Urge students to ask one another any clarifying questions, and allow an extra 5 minutes for open discussion following the presentations.

8. Individually, students will now complete Exploring Controversial Issues, which they will hand in. Students should fill out both columns, labeling Position One: “Religious groups and activities should be allowed in public schools,” and Position Two: “Religious groups and activities should not be allowed in public schools.” Students will draw on the notes they took on the readings, and on the notes they took on their group members’ presentations. They should also include information they learned during Learning Activity Two.

Homework:

  • Schedule interviews with all your interviewees for the next 2 -3 days.
  • Conduct additional research by reading: Online Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Transcript of June 6, 1998 show, “Religious Freedom?” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/congress/jan-june98/rfa_6-3.htmlComplete the following tasks, to be handed in: 1) In your own words, summarize the Reverend’s argument, 2) In your own words, summarize the Rabbi’s argument, 3) How do you think this amendment would have affected students in public schools?, 4) Would you have voted in favor of this amendment? Why?

    Activity Four: Work on interview skills and conduct mock interviews

    1. Hand back interview questions with comments/suggestions.

    2. Reflection:

    • Remind students that at the beginning of the unit they were asked the following questions: What’s your position on the place of religion in the public schools? Why do you hold this position?
    • Ask them if their views have changed at all during the course of the unit. If so, how? If not, what new information have you learned that supports your view on the issue?
    • Ask for volunteers to respond to these questions.

    3. Explain that the class will now work on developing their interview skills. Discuss interview techniques and guidelines, reviewing the Tips for Interviewing handout students received.

    • Have volunteers read each bulleted point from the handout. Allow students to give examples of each one to illustrate their understanding.

    2. Model an interview for the class by selecting a student as your subject, and ask a set of questions (modeling the appropriate body language as well — active listening, etc.). The following is an example of how you might choose to model an interview:

    1. What is your full name, your age and occupation?
    2. What are your feelings about the state mandating that students have to take a gym class?
    3. What are some ways the school administration might compromise with students on this issue?

    4. Have students partner up and conduct mock interviews with one another, using the interview questions that were returned at the beginning of class. Instruct the interviewing students to keep notes on their interviewee’s responses. These responses can be included in the students’ interview analysis and summary.

    Homework (if possible, for two nights): Conduct interviews (can include phone interviews, and even some e-mail interviews). Instruct students to take organized, legible notes, and to make sure they record the name, age, and other relevant information for each respondent. Reiterate to students that they must have some diversity among their interviewees (age, relationship to the student, race, occupation etc.). Students should not only interview family and friends.

    NOTE: While conducting the interviews, students may identify various sub-topics or related issues for further exploration. Encourage students to continue their research for homework and to investigate new ideas and topics as they arise. You may also choose to add another day for students to conduct post-interview research during class time.


    Culminating Activity/Assessment: Fact-Finding Commission’s Presentation to Monroe Middle School

    1. Explain the nature of the final presentation to students. Each group, or Fact-Finding Commission, will present the following to the principal of Monroe Middle School:

      1. An explanation of what the First Amendment says about religion, in students’ own words.
      2. A summary of their findings regarding the role of religion in public schools
        • as defined by the law
        • as expressed in the articles covered in Learning Activity Three, and
        • as expressed by people in interviews.

        Students must illustrate their findings with facts, quotes, and examples.

      3. A recommendation from the group regarding religious expression and observance at Monroe Middle School. The recommendation should also address the issue of whether the school should continue, discontinue, or alter its holiday assembly. The recommendation can include anything else the school should do to safeguard the rights of individual students.
        • A strong recommendation should include an initial statement followed by a series of considerations, facts, and perspectives that the commission took into account while composing this recommendation.

        For example, a recommendation to a school board concerning high school students leaving school property at lunchtime might include this initial statement:

        “The commission strongly urges the school board to commit to enforcing an already existing rule: that high school students stay on school property throughout the school day, including lunchtime.” The commission might then cite various facts and perspectives to support its recommendation, such as: there are far too many fights and behavior problems outside the school building during lunch; teachers are complaining that after lunch, students returning to classes are often late and unruly, etc.

      4. Include visuals if at all possible.

    2. Have students suggest how their performance on this project might be assessed. Track their responses on chart paper. Then share the Rubric for Culminating Project, and explain that these are the elements that you will be evaluating students on. Ask the class if any of those that they identified are missing from your rubric. If they are, you might agree to incorporate all or some of their suggestions.

    3. Allow class preparation time. Urge students to assign tasks to each member of the group, so that each person has an opportunity to prepare and present. Students should also use this time to compare their interview notes, prepare summary statements, and determine how the interview responses influence the Commission’s findings.

    Homework: Students work on their presentations, including the preparation of visuals.

    4. Student presentations

    • Remind students that they will be assessed for both their individual and group efforts in these presentations.
    • As each group presents, the rest of the class should take notes and record any questions they have for the presenters.
    • Allow some time after each presentation for students to ask questions of one another.


    Extensions

  • Have students examine the controversy over reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public places such as schools. On June 27, 2002 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California voted 2-1 that the Pledge of Allegiance, specifically the words “under God” violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. Students could study the way in which the Pledge of Allegiance has evolved over time using the following resource:NOW with Bill Moyers: “Faith in America: The Legal Dilemma.” June 29, 2002.
    http://www.pbs.org/now/society/religionstats2.html
  • The First Amendment has been used by many individuals and groups to fight for or defend their rights and freedoms. Students could investigate the struggles of various minority groups and/or political groups in the United States, paying particular attention to how leaders in those movements utilized the First Amendment and other constitutional provisions to win greater rights or freedoms. (Examples of such movements/groups: the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragist Movement, the National Rifle Association, the Ku Klux Klan).
  • Have students study countries or regions of the world that expect or demand religious compliance in schools (e.g. Israel, Palestine, Iraq). Students could explore the following issues: How does the experience of compulsory religion in public schools affect the people in those places? How are their rights impacted? What is the experience of religious minorities? What are the similarities between disallowing religion in public schools and making it compulsory?