It’s one thing to read about religious and cultural debates in the news and quite another when the culture wars show up right in your classroom. What do you do when a student brings up religion in your conversations about evolution or family planning? How do you handle a student who openly confronts you on a topic in your curriculum, based on his or her religious beliefs?
This topic recently led to a lively debate on our Teacher Helpline Facebook group, with teachers from all over the U.S. sharing their advice. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Briefly acknowledge, then move on. “I teach ESL K-12. I have many newcomer Muslim students in a strongly Christian community. Many other students are Catholic or Pentecostal. I say things like, “Thanks for sharing your beliefs, but let’s learn the science language we need to use to talk about it in school.” – Adriane G.
2. Leave religion at home, science at school. “I teach 8th grade and do not acknowledge it. I encourage them to speak to their parents about that stuff and that we teach according to scientific proof. I wouldn’t touch that conversation with a ten foot pole.” – Kate P.
3. Teach the scientific definition of theory. “Evolution is one of the pinnacles of science and shouldn’t be discarded because adults don’t know definitions or understand the science.” – Amanda C.
4. Consider addressing your own beliefs, whether you agree with the student or not. Of course, this has to be handled sensitively, but letting students know how beliefs and science intersect can be very powerful, says teacher Dakini J. “I went to Catholic elementary school. We learned about evolution in Grade 6, and it was handled so well that I ended up with a great love for science. In public high school, I had a Christian biology teacher who told us he did not believe in evolution, but he had to teach it. And he taught it so well that he became my model for doing one’s best in any circumstance.”
5. Consult the experts. “Read Bill Nye’s Undeniable for some ideas on how to approach teaching evolution in accessible ways.” – Tuesday D.
6. Turn it back on students. “Try saying, ‘I’m not sure. What do you think?'” – Jesse B.
What advice would you add?