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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Putting a Face to Faith

A free education program helps students talk about religious diversity.

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The United States is now the most religiously diverse society on earth, and, among developed countries, one of the most religious (Eck, 2001). For that reason alone, American education must take religion seriously. The future of our lively experiment in building one nation out of many peoples and faiths depends in no small measure on understanding one another across differences that are often abiding and deep.
Moreover, religious convictions—for better and for worse—play a central role in shaping events and public policy at home and abroad. If the past decade has taught us nothing else, we now know that religion matters in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, many U.S. educators—especially in public schools—still largely ignore religion. Despite some progress in recent years toward more teaching about religions in history and literature, students have few meaningful opportunities to engage with issues concerning religion and belief (Nord, 2010). In many classrooms, religious diversity is the ignored diversity.
Ignorance is a root cause of intolerance, contributing to religious prejudice and discrimination, including persistent anti-Semitism and growing Islamophobia. Taking religion and religious diversity seriously in schools, therefore, would not only increase religious literacy, but also help build understanding and respect among students of all belief systems (Lester & Roberts, 2006).

Yes, But How?

Taking religious diversity seriously begins with academic study about religions and beliefs. During the past two decades, public schools have taken modest steps to improve religious literacy with the inclusion of religion in the national and state social studies standards and modest expansion of the treatment of religion in some history textbooks (Douglass, 2000; Nord, 2010). But the conventional wisdom in public education continues to be that students don't need to know anything about religion beyond what they learn in brief discussions in history and literature classes (Nord, 2010).
If our education goals include dispelling stereotypes and building relationships (as they should), then we need to go beyond modest increases in teaching about religious traditions. Educators must also find creative ways for students to learn directly with, from, and about one another. Properly done, student-to-student dialogue about religion and beliefs can transform hearts and minds.
Just ask the students in Jodi Ide's world religions class at Brighton High School in Canyons School District, Utah. In the past year, they went well beyond textbook descriptions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism to engage directly with students in India and other countries who actually practice some of the faith traditions covered in the textbook.
Brighton is one of some 30 inaugural schools in the United States—public and private—that are implementing Face to Faith, an innovative approach to cross-cultural and cross-religious understanding created by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Through videoconferencing and online community, students ages 12–18 communicate directly with their peers around the world.
"Face to Faith has opened my eyes to the fact that although we come from different places and cultures, we are all more alike than different," says Brighton student Zach Tonge. "The opportunity to participate in this program has blown all the misconceptions that I held out of the water and caused me to try harder to understand people from all places and circumstances."
Sometimes misconceptions are dispelled in unexpected ways. At the close of a videoconference last year between a Utah public school and a private school in California, one student asked to say a few words. He explained that he was gay and that he used to think everyone in Utah disliked gay people (because of the state's large Mormon population and that church's involvement in Proposition 8, a proposal to ban gay marriage in California). The videoconference helped him see that just because people have different views about faith and values, it doesn't mean that everyone in Utah, including members of the Mormon faith, dislikes gay people.

Building Respect Across Differences

Launched in the United States in 2009 and currently active in nearly 250 schools in 16 countries (Egypt, India, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, Jordan, Israel, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States), Face to Faith is not a "religion program"; it is an educational program designed to enhance civic learning through civil dialogue about global issues of common concern throughout the world, such as the environment, poverty, health, and religious freedom. Most often integrated into the social studies curriculum, Face to Faith encourages students to speak directly with one another about their beliefs, values, attitudes, and faiths.
Before meeting with one another by videoconference, students learn the skills needed for respectful dialogue. How students discuss global issues is as important as what they discuss. In this sense, Face to Faith builds civic character by teaching empathy, building trust, and promoting respect for people of all faiths and beliefs. The introduction module taught by all teachers who use Face to Faith focuses on dialogical skills and cooperative learning. Students learn what good dialogue looks like and then practice it themselves. A variety of activities helps students learn to speak sensitively, identifying and using rights-respecting language. Students also learn strategies for reflecting on their own individual performance and that of their classmates.
Through direct encounters with cultural and religious diversity abroad, students become more aware of the diversity in their own classrooms and neighborhoods. As worthy as it is to increase cultural and religious literacy, a larger aim of Face to Faith is to break down barriers that prevent young people from negotiating their differences, including religious differences, with civility and respect.
Face to Faith "constantly challenges us to discuss differences within our own community," says Cory Davis, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington:Early in the curriculum, for example, students rank global concerns (poverty, warfare, hunger, lack of water) and consider why they rank them in the order they do. Students examine their backgrounds and think about how they became the people they are today, which helps them to see and respect differences in values and beliefs.
A student at Regis High School, a Roman Catholic school run by the Jesuits, explains how participating in videoconferences with students abroad is likely to change her interactions with people she encounters at home:Now when I am confronted with a situation involving people of a different faith or nationality, I will certainly be sure to engage in a discussion with these individuals before passing any judgment or forming any beliefs on the matter.

First Amendment Red Flags

As U.S. educators know too well, introducing an educational initiative with the word faith in the title into public schools will almost inevitably raise First Amendment red flags. That's why the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center is working with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to implement Face to Faith in U.S. public schools in ways that are consistent with First Amendment principles.
Most educators are aware that under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, public school officials, as representatives of government, must remain neutral among religions and between religion and nonreligion. Following this guidance, Face to Faith classroom activities and discussions in public schools are conducted in an environment free of advocacy on the part of the teacher.
Public school students, however, may express their religious or nonreligious beliefs in a class discussion or in written assignments as long as such expression is relevant to the subject under discussion or fulfills the requirements of the assignment (Haynes & Thomas, 2007). This does not mean that students have the right to compel a captive audience to participate in a religious practice or listen to a proselytizing sermon. Teachers should permit students to express their religious views, but they must draw the line at inviting others to participate in religious practices (Haynes & Thomas, 2007).
By modeling how the First Amendment should be applied in public school classrooms, Face to Faith not only is consistent with the First Amendment, but also advances First Amendment principles by encouraging student voice; promoting religious liberty; and educating for understanding among students of different faiths, beliefs, cultures, and nationalities.

How It Works

At the heart of Face to Faith are facilitated videoconferences between classes of young people from around the world that give students opportunities to speak to one another about issues of common concern. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation provides teacher training (and post-training support); access to a secure and moderated online community; and opportunities for community engagement. The entire program, including the installation of videoconferencing software, is offered free to schools. Teachers report that students respond enthusiastically to this approach to learning about other cultures and faiths.
After the introductory lessons on civil dialogue, students participate in lessons and videoconferences organized into modules focused on charity, poverty, and wealth; the environment; and artistic expression. Before a videoconference, students prepare by exploring how people in various cultures and faiths approach a global issue such as poverty or the environment. Then during the videoconference, students discuss the issue, sharing their beliefs and values through open and respectful dialogue.
Students follow up on these encounters by participating in the Face to Faith online community, a moderated website featuring discussion forums on global issues and e-mail access to participating students. Recent exchanges in the online community featured student-generated discussions about the environmental impact of cutting down trees and discussion threads about how to address various forms of discrimination.
"Last year, my students were very active in the online community," reports Regis teacher Mary Katherine Sheena. "They created profiles and were able to e-mail and chat with students from around the world."
The modules also guide students to consider some sort of social action that they might engage in individually or with their partner school. For example, students in Kami Kessler's social studies class at Hillcrest High School (in the Canyons School District in Utah) became interested in the fight against malaria in Africa.
Regis High School has conducted videoconferences with students in Australia, the Palestinian Territories, and the United Kingdom. "Face to Faith not only serves to inform people about other religions, but it humanizes them," writes a Regis student. "It puts faces on the billions of followers of religions around the world. It has fundamentally changed the way that I view religion and interreligious dialogue for the better."
Regis students recently participated in a videoconference with Christian and Muslim students in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Teacher Mary Katherine Sheena describes some of what her students took away from the discussion:I think my students were most moved by the kids in Ramallah explaining the struggles of their everyday life, from traveling through checkpoints to sharing that they often feel unsafe where they live. One Palestinian girl remarked that even though their lives are hard because of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, her faith teaches that she must forgive those who oppress her. As soon as she said this, another girl in the class snapped back, "We shouldn't forgive them." To which she responded, "We must forgive!" This emotional exchange left the most significant impression on my students because it revealed the complexities of this conflict and how kids their age struggle in different ways to live through and make sense of it.
"I had never before thought much about the conflict and how it is a challenge to the people there," said one Regis student. "This videoconference brought those issues to life for me and helped me put a face to the people affected by the fighting."
By giving students a safe space to engage one another, Face to Faith promotes honest exchanges about differences even as students learn how alike they are. Following a videoconference between students at Lewis and Clark High School and students in the Palestinian Territories, Lewis and Clark principal Shawn Jordan observed that "the dialogue that surfaced with the students in Palestine regarding misunderstandings about people of the Muslim faith—breaking down misperceptions—is at the heart of what this learning experience is all about."

Getting Involved

Schools use Face to Faith in a variety of ways. Most of the early adopters in the United States are social studies teachers who use the program to supplement their history or civics courses. But Face to Faith can also be implemented as an elective course or an extracurricular club.
Given the long history of debate about the role of religion in public life (and schools) in the United States, educators need a safe-harbor approach to discussions about faith and belief in the classroom. Face to Faith provides a constitutionally and educationally sound way to tackle issues that schools often ignore.
At a time when religious differences are at the heart of major challenges at home and abroad, it is imperative that schools equip students to live in a world of diverse religions and beliefs. A senior at Regis High School says it best:As I graduate and enter the real world, I feel that Face to Faith could not have come at a better time. Although my school is diverse socioeconomically and racially, I have not been exposed to much religious diversity. I can now enter a college classroom or a new job and know the difference between different faiths and respect these differences. After all, in the words of Tony Blair, globalization is "a force driven by people." I have come to realize that I am one of those people.

Douglass, S. L. (2000). Teaching about religion in national and state standards. Nashville, TN: Council on Islamic Education and the First Amendment Center.

Eck, E. L. (2001). A new religious America: How a "Christian country" has become the world's most religiously diverse nation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Haynes, C., & Thomas, O. (2007). Finding common ground: A First Amendment guide to religion and public schools. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.

Lester, E., & Roberts, P. (2006). Learning about world religions in public schools: The impact on student attitudes and community acceptance in Modesto, Calif. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.

Nord, W. A. (2010). Does God make a difference? Taking religion seriously in our schools and universities. New York: Oxford University Press.

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