Fall 2007 Issue of Teaching Tolerance: World Religions Course Helps Reduce Intolerance Among Students

Against a backdrop of religious tensions across the globe, a California school district has discovered that teaching students the basics of the world's major religions is helping reduce intolerance among students without undermining their own beliefs, according to the Fall 2007 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine.

Seven years ago, Modesto, Calif., became the only school district in the country to require a world religions course for graduation. Teaching Tolerance, which is sent to 400,000 educators nationwide, examines the lessons learned in this groundbreaking class in "One Nation, Many Gods" and offers a 10-point plan to help other schools replicate the program.

"Our hope is that school districts across the country will be inspired by the success of the Modesto program to create their own world religions courses. By teaching students about the origins and beliefs of different faiths, these differences become less mysterious and less divisive," said Jennifer Holladay, director of the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Researchers from the First Amendment Center found that students who took the course were more willing to protect the rights of people of other faiths and were empowered to fight back against faith-based bullying.

"When you don't know about something, you fear it – and when you fear something, you become more likely to strike out against it," Modesto teacher Yvonne Taylor told Teaching Tolerance. "We wanted students to understand that even if we disagree with a group of people, they still have the right to be here."

The semester-long class, which is required for every 9th-grader, has become a forum where students speak openly about their experiences without fear of derision. Non-Christian students, in particular, have said they feel it has given them a voice and validated their experiences.

"By the end [of the semester], we were all much more accepting toward one another," senior Kristin Busby said. "You realize that we're all not that different after all."

As with all Teaching Tolerance feature stories, the article provides classroom-oriented tools to successfully create such a course. Issues faced by Modesto educators, including teacher training, legal issues and community involvement, are explored, as are problems or shortcomings discovered through the course's early application.

Teaching Tolerance magazine, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is the nation's leading journal serving educators on diversity issues. In 2007, the magazine was named Periodical of the Year by the Association of Educational Publishers for the second consecutive year.

The new issue of Teaching Tolerance also includes articles about other tolerance and diversity issues in the classroom.

  • In "We Must Persevere," NAACP Chair Julian Bond issues a powerful indictment of the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court denying the use of racial factors to achieve public school integration. The ruling, says Bond, also a member of the SPLC's board of directors, "is likely to be remembered as Brown's final epitaph."
  • In "The School Year That Changed a Nation," Minnijean Brown Trickey, a member of the "Little Rock Nine," recounts her experience as one of the first black students to integrate the all-white Central High School in Arkansas 50 years ago.
  • "Not True! Gender Doesn't Limit You!" is a look at what works in combating gender-based bullying in the early grades, complete with information on how to get Teaching Tolerance's free web-based curriculum.
  • "Does This Child Have a Friend?" tells how innovative social inclusion programs are turning the tide for students with disabilities who often find themselves socially isolated from their classmates.
  • In "Why Do They Always Do Outside Work?," parenting columnist Dana Williams looks for ways for parents to talk to their children about immigrant stereotypes.
  • The holiday season can bring school-sponsored charity events that reinforce stereotypes about people living in poverty. "Beyond the Canned Food Drive" tells how some educators are turning to service-learning, a model that provides assistance without perpetuating stereotypes.

The "Teaching Tools" section reviews the best multicultural books, films, posters and CDs available, and the "Activity Exchange" provides classroom ideas for early, middle and upper grades.