Tackling religion and race in the classroom: Eighth grade history gets religious

Benjamin Wang, Staff Writer

“Out of all the history classes at HM, eighth grade history was my favorite because I was able to study different religions, not just the Abrahamic faiths, like Asian religions,” Brian Wu (11) said.

The history curriculum in eighth grade is broken down into four units, each of which explores the religious belief systems that characterize a particular geographical region. Students study Hinduism and Buddhism in the India unit, Confucianism and Taoism in the China unit, Abrahamic faiths in the Middle East unit, and Greek philosophy in the Greece unit.

Emily Yu (12) also enjoyed the class, she said. During eighth grade history, Yu felt that she was able to impart her own experiences in class, she said.

“I was able to speak a lot about Christianity because I grew up as a part of the Lutheran Church, and I could also speak about Buddhism and elements of Confucianism in Chinese religions,” she said.

Middle Division history teacher Isaac Brooks also incorporates his own experiences of living in China for a month into the curriculum. However, in the past, people were offended because they thought he was being dismissive or reductive of their culture, he said.

“But really what I’m talking about is my impression as a white man in China and how certain things were different, not necessarily worse or better, just different,” Brooks said.

Olivia Kester (12) believes that many teachers, including Brooks, handled these sensitive topics really well, she said. “I can’t remember any awkwardness.”

Co-chair of the MD History Department Eva Abbamonte believes that it is crucial to develop cultural competence in today’s world.

“We need to understand our place in a wider spectrum,” MD history teacher Eric Cadena said.

There isn’t a better way to see the legacy of different cultures than to experience them, Abbamonte said. For that there are the Living Color Projects.

The Living Color Projects give students opportunities to experience these religions and cultures firsthand. Eighth graders can choose to go to restaurants, watch movies, read books, attend religious services, or participate in something more active like kung fu or yoga. Then, they write a reflection on how their experience connects to what they have learned in the classroom.

The goal for Living Color is to have students go beyond texts and experience the belief systems firsthand, Brooks said. “Then, the students would report back on what they’ve learned in class and how it’s implemented in real life.”

Also, Living Color helps students see the relevance of the ancient world and how they still have an effect on modern society, Abbamonte said.

15 years ago, Abbamonte and 7th Grade Dean Dr. Della Brooks “attended a workshop that used New York City as a living laboratory to immerse in belief systems as they’re articulated in New York City for current inhabitants,” Isaac Brooks said. Living Color was added to the already existing study on culture and religions.

“Even in a city like New York, you can be stuck in your own bubble,” co-Chair of the MD History Department John McNally said. Living Color compels students to look outside their everyday world and some are really surprised by what they see, he said.

Many students and teachers alike had positive learning experiences through Living Color. McNally was first introduced to dim sum, a style of Chinese cuisine, through his wife’s family, but he never really understood it’s history and significance, McNally said.

“Living Color allowed me to see connections between real life and religions we learned about, even to the Eastern religions, ones that that I’m not as exposed to,” Jacob Silverstein (8) said.

Although many people see countless benefits of Living Color and the eighth grade history curriculum, there are students like Max Chung (11) who believe there are negatives to them as well.

“When I had spoken with colleagues who had different teachers, many would give me different interpretations that their classes had regarding not only the Ramayana, but also Indian/Hindu culture in general,” he said.

Despite his views on the school’s curriculum, Chung does believe that exposure to different cultures is necessary. “Unless we actually visit a culture and learn straight from there, attempting to learn deeply into a culture through literary works rather than a lifestyle that others participate in will simply lead to more misinterpretations,” he said.

After taking eighth grade history, Olivia Kester (12)  wanted to challenge herself  by continuing to study religion, she said.

She recalls learning more about herself in her eighth grade history class and believes that it was what piqued her interest in religions, Kester said. “I have always had a very complicated relationship with religion just because my family is Catholic but I’m gay,” she said.

Many students have chosen to continue their study of religion in the Upper Division through courses like history teacher David Berenson’s Religion in History elective.

Currently, Kester is furthering her knowledge about religions and belief systems by taking Religion in History. “I wanted to learn about religions, and I think Living Color and the whole [eighth grade] curriculum was the reason I decided to take Religion in History,” she said.