When the 6th graders began their investigations of world religions last week, Mr. Spencer did not tell them what they would be learning. Instead, he challenged the students to generate their own research assignment by thinking about the concept of religion in a broad sense, and then identifying categories of information that would expand their knowledge about the topic. The list of questions that emerged from the students’ response to this challenge is remarkable for its insightfulness, sensitivity, detail, and breadth.
In the days following their introductory conversation, the students worked in small groups, each team focusing on the specifics of one of the major religions of the world. They delved into metaphysical questions such as ideas about life after death, the value of tradition and ritual in life-cycle celebrations, the nature of people’s relationships with deities, and the meaning of sacred texts. They investigated the lives of individuals who had shaped or popularized religious practices, considered the influence of arts and decorative objects, and looked for common themes that transcended a single faith.
As they gathered their data, students found that they were balancing abstract concepts alongside seemingly basic aspects of daily life such as dietary practices, clothing, and the responsibilities of people within families. These more practical elements were viewed in the context of gender roles, definitions of sin and virtue, and the place of religious belief in a secular world. Larger questions also loomed--one category of questions involves points of contact between and among the religions of the world: “how has this tradition interacted with others? Have there been wars or persecution? Has there been cooperation?”
Students pored over descriptions and looked carefully at illustrations. Everyone found information that was new, even in religions that were widely practiced within the class. One student commented that she had not really understood the significance of some holidays of her own religion, but that they made more sense to her now that she had read about them carefully. Another student eagerly described how the placement of Buddha’s limbs in statues and drawings can have different meanings, and explained that the lotus flower, which blooms for such a short period, represents the idea that all good things must come to an end.
Inherent in each discussion was a deep sense of respect, and an understanding that religion is a central aspect of many of the world’s cultures. Through their research and their ongoing discussions, our 6th graders are well-poised to consider a question not on their original list: How have people’s beliefs shaped history?