American Civic Life

Five Ways Schools Can Embrace Religious Diversity in Their Classrooms

Teacher and students working in classroom. (Maskot/Getty)

Teacher and students working in classroom. (Maskot/Getty)

As a mathematics teacher, my primary focus is on teaching math. However, I often contemplate how I can integrate my passion for religious diversity and pluralism into my classroom.

As educators, it is essential to remember that students are not merely receptacles of information, but are complex individuals with diverse experiences, emotions, and identities that they bring into the learning environment. 

I wholeheartedly believe that students learn math more effectively in environments where they feel supported and included, where both their teachers and peers respect their values, culture, and religious beliefs. I also believe that everyone benefits when students can bring their unique perspectives to class discussions, projects, and assignments. While teachers may not be able to directly correlate interfaith dialogue with student test scores, creating a sense of community and belonging in the classroom can inspire greater engagement and motivation among students, which brings me joy. 

This academic year, I had the privilege of participating in the Interfaith Education Cohort, a part of the Emerging Leaders network committed to exploring ways to foster interfaith awareness and literacy within our school communities. We also discussed how to integrate an interfaith perspective into various aspects of education. 

Student thinking while solving math equation on white board and counting on fingers.
Student thinking while solving math equation on white board and counting on fingers. (LumiNola/Getty)

Through our work together in the Interfaith Education Cohort, we identified five crucial domains for schools to embrace religious diversity and promote interfaith collaboration: 

  1. Develop a school-wide policy on religious and cultural diversity: This policy should outline the school’s commitment to promoting respect, tolerance, and understanding among students and staff from different religious and cultural backgrounds. It should also address issues such as discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on religion or culture.  
  2. Incorporate diverse perspectives into the curriculum: Ensure that the curriculum reflects the diversity of the student body, including different religions, cultures, and worldviews. This can include teaching students about different religious traditions, celebrating cultural holidays, and exploring diverse perspectives on important social issues. 
  3. Create a welcoming environment: The physical environment of the school can impact how students feel about their place in the school community. Ensure that the school is welcoming to all students by displaying posters and art that represent different religions and cultures, and by creating designated spaces for prayer or meditation. 
  4. Encourage dialogue and understanding: Provide opportunities for students to engage in dialogue with one another and to learn from each other’s perspectives. This can include classroom discussions, multicultural clubs, and events that celebrate diversity. 
  5. Provide resources and support: Ensure that students from different religious and cultural backgrounds have access to resources and support that meet their unique needs. This can include access to religious leaders or mentors, counseling services, and cultural events or festivals.   

One example of a cohort member’s interfaith initiative was the promotion of interfaith awareness through the creation of an interfaith library in their school. A small step, such as utilizing children’s books that promote religious diversity and inclusion, can create a big impact on the interfaith literacy among the young minds of our communities. We welcome educators who share our passion for interfaith literacy to join our virtual community, where we are developing various resources, toolkits, lesson plans, and templates to advance our mission. 

But interfaith collaboration does not have to be limited to schools and classrooms alone. 

Afterschool programs, extracurricular activities, and nonprofit organizations can also contribute to the goal of building an interfaith America. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close their doors, which made me recognize the pressing need for mathematics educational support for parents. It was during this time that Interfaith America invited me to apply for an Interfaith Innovation Fellowship. This fellowship served as a catalyst for me to launch the non-profit organization called the Math Girl Movement

The fellowship inspired and encouraged me to explore innovative ways of combining my passion for fostering girls’ mathematical confidence with my commitment to promoting religious diversity. This invaluable experience not only enabled me to identify avenues for integrating math education and interfaith collaboration in my recruitment and programmatic approach, but also influenced my entire perspective. 

I was intentional about reaching out to students representing diverse religious backgrounds, and I extended the same effort when selecting people for the nonprofit’s board. Within the program activities and curriculum, I prioritized creating a welcoming environment for nontraditional questions that prompt students to reflect on the intersection of their religion and problem-solving. I introduced thought-provoking questions like:   

  1. How does your religious or cultural background influence your approach to problem-solving or mathematical thinking?  
  2. Are there any mathematical concepts or patterns that you see reflected in your religious beliefs or rituals?  
  3. In what ways do you think mathematics and your religious beliefs intersect or complement each other?  
  4. Can you think of any historical mathematicians or scientists who whose religious beliefs influenced their life and work? How do you believe their beliefs impacted their work?  

By posing these questions, I aimed to stimulate critical thinking and initiate meaningful discussions that challenged traditional perspectives on what conversions can take place in the math classroom.  

The Interfaith Education Cohort comprises educators of different faiths who unite in a common mission of making all students feel included in the school community, regardless of their religious identity. As a Christian and an educator, it is essential for me to acknowledge how my religion intersects with power and privilege. Christianity has historically been associated with dominant cultural and political structures, particularly in Western societies, which have also influenced our schools. In this reality, it’s important to work towards dismantling structures of privilege to create more equitable societies that respect the dignity and worth of all individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs. Jesus’ teachings emphasize love, justice, and compassion for all people, regardless of their identity. For me, actively working to dismantle systems of religious oppression and privilege demonstrates my commitment to these values and creates communities that embody the inclusive and compassionate spirit of Christ’s teachings.   

Melanie Young co-leads the primary and secondary Interfaith Education Cohort with Matthew Segil. Melanie, a Philadelphia-based educator, founded Infinite Mind Tutors and Math Girl Movement. Before launching Infinite Mind Tutors, Melanie was a teacher and tutor in Philadelphia’s public schools for over nine years. During this time, she coached two NBA Math Hoops National Championship participants. She was awarded the Sixers Youth Foundation Game Changer Award in 2018 and the University of Pennsylvania Woman of Color Award in 2014.