Professional Development

10 Tips for Starting a World Religions Curriculum

This list is to accompany Keep It Academic. Schools in Modesto, California offered a required course on world religions and religious liberty for ninth-graders- an assessment published by the First Amendment Center later showed students' respect for rights and liberties increased measurably after taking the course. Even so, students were no more likely to disbelieve the truth of their own religious traditions after taking the course. 


1. Involve the community.

Teachers in Modesto invited community members to review the curriculum, hosted a meeting with local faith leaders during the curriculum's development, and toured several local houses of worship. "It gave people a voice in the process, which helped create community buy-in," says one teacher.

2. Engage diverse voices.

Make sure every religion represented in your area has a place at the table. Be sure to make space for atheism, too.

3. Build trust.

"People can be suspicious of schools," says one Modesto teacher. "You need to build trust with different key constituencies before you attempt something like this."

4. Be sensitive.

Religion is a touchy subject. For many people, it's directly connected to culture, language and ethnicity. Recognize and respect the multiple layers of identity at play.

5. Get district buy-in.

"This cannot be done by one teacher at one school," says another Modesto teacher. Support from the district – in time, money and resources – is key.

6. Training, training, training.

Recognize that you can never have enough training. Provide it before the semester starts and throughout the year.

7. Opt-in for teachers.

Some teachers might not feel comfortable teaching about religion, and classes should by taught by teachers who volunteer to teach them.

8. Communicate with parents.

"At the open house every year, I give parents a briefing," says teacher Sherry Sheppard, at Modesto's Johansen High. "I assure them that my job is to teach and not preach. It has been such an easy thing."

9. Lay the groundwork for respect.

"I am adamant (in the beginning of the semester) that if students have a comment that may come across as hurtful, they think about it first," says another Johansen teacher. "I get a lot of 'wow, that's interesting.' What they might be thinking is, 'wow, that's weird,' but they don't dare say it."

10. Maintain neutrality.

"It made a big difference that teachers didn't take sides," says Edward Zeiden, now a senior at Johansen High. Added classmate Amy Boudsady: "It made me feel safe to share my own beliefs. I didn't feel like someone was judging me."