For social studies teacher Walker Richmond, one of the most important things about working with his middle school students is showing them how school is relevant to their lives. Recently, he had an opportunity to do just that through his World Religions course, thanks to a unique collaboration with students from the University of Virginia (UVA).
Richmond developed the World Religions course at St. Anne’s-Belfield a few years ago, with the goal of introducing six graders to various religious traditions. Last fall, he puzzled over how to evolve the class to pose the question, “How does religion motivate people to make the world a better place?” That’s when he heard that Kevin Gaines, a professor with UVA’s Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, wanted a group of younger students to serve as an audience while his own students shared their research about religion and social justice. Richmond jumped at the opportunity, knowing these presentations (done over Zoom) and the discussions that followed would hammer home some of the concepts his class covers during the semester.
“One of the themes of the World Religions course is the idea that for some people, religion is a very central part of their identity,” Richmond says. “It’s what motivates them to do certain things.” The presentations brought that concept to life for his students, providing concrete examples of people, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and Malcom X, who were deeply motivated by religious beliefs to try and change the world for the better.
The presentations also made students draw connections to their own lives and the world’s current challenges.
“Why aren’t other political leaders today doing more to confront injustice?” one student asked after a presentation on John Lewis. Another student, who had never heard of Malcom X, asked why they learned about some leaders but not others. Who decides who we learn about in class? A virtual student had a unique opportunity to learn some family history while listening to the Zoom presentations with her grandmother, who told her that her great uncle had participated in one of the Civil Rights sit-ins the presentation discussed.
While talking about religion with six graders can sometimes be tricky, the collaboration proved to Richmond how important religious literacy is to our civic dialogue and therefore well worth the effort.
“These presentations were magical in terms of showing connections between the subject matter and our current lives and problems that society is facing right now,” Richmond says. “They see that these are issues that are very much alive and very much relevant to us all, and they think, ‘What can we do? How can we address these challenges?’”