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NEH summer scholars in the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute receive a classroom- and community-based introduction to American religious diversity.  They work with leading scholars of religion, and meet with a wide range of local religious leaders.  They visit diverse houses of worship, and learn how to incorporate such site visits into their own teaching.  They work with experienced teachers to develop their own curric­ulum projects, and work in small groups to conduct field research in a religiously diverse New York neighborhood.  In each component of the institute, we model activ­ities that summer scholars can replicate with their own students, teaching them how to teach the everyday life of Amer­ican relig­ious diversity.

The institute curriculum consists of three major units, which are described briefly on this page.  We encourage you to consult the institute’s daily schedule for more details, including the readings for each of our seminar discussions.  And check out our faculty biographies for more information about our seminar teachers, workshop leaders, and curriculum mentors.


The Introduction to the Institute includes three sets of seminars, which engage our summer scholars in the themes and issues at the heart of the program.  On the first day of the institute, Dr. Charles Haynes will lead a discussion of religious liberty in the United States, and a discuss­ion of the pedagogic and constitutional issues surrounding religious studies curricula in American public schools.  These discussions will be framed by brief scholarly readings that ad­vocate for more substantial teaching about religious diversity in public schools.  The focus of the seminars, however, will be a discussion of primary texts that helped establish the ideal of religious liberty in the United States, and apply this ideal to public edu­cation.  Following discussions of these texts, Dr. Haynes will explore concrete examples of K-12 religious studies pedagogy, helping summer scholars distinguish between academic and devotional – which is to say, constitutional and unconstitutional – approach­es to teaching about religion in public schools.

On the second day, institute director Dr. Henry Goldschmidt will lead two seminar discussions and a site visit to introduce the idea of lived religion.  He will begin by exploring the basic premises of the critical, academic study of religion, and then turn to the study of lived re­ligion – first asking why K-12 students should study religion at all, and then asking why they should study everyday religious life.  These discuss­ions will be framed by scholarly readings that intro­duce the field of religious stud­ies, and advocate for the study of lived religion.  As with Dr. Haynes’ seminar, however, the central focus will be on primary sources – in this case a site visit to the “Bronx Lourdes” grotto.  Dr. Goldschmidt will help summer scholars explore the grotto, then lead a discussion of their experiences and reflections.  This site visit will help establish the terms for the institute’s experiential investigation of lived religion.

On the third day, the institute’s curriculum development mentors, Eva Abbamonte, Jody Madell, Jacqueline Richard, and Kathy Wildman Zinger, will lead a series of seminars exploring classroom strat­egies for teach­ing about religion.  These sessions will help summer scholars wrestle with some of the difficult issues surrounding the study of religion in K-12 schools.  How, for example, can teachers offer their students even-handed introduc­tions to contentious issues in religious life?  How do they create learning communities, and facilitate class discussions, that welcome students of diverse religious and secular backgrounds?  Our discussion of these issues will be framed by readings of two teachers’ guides to the study of religion in US public schools, but above all these seminars will offer summer scholars an opportunity to share and reflect on their own classroom teaching strate­gies, successes, and challenges.

The second and longest unit of the institute, World Religions and Religious Worlds, offers summer scholars advanced introductions to six faith traditions that are part of the fabric of American life: Jud­aism, Christ­ianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and African diaspora religions like Santeria, Vodou, and the Orisha tradition.  As they learn about these world religions, summer scholars also explore classroom- and community-based pedagogies for teaching about religious worlds.

Six of the eight working days in this unit begin with a scholarly lecture and dis­cussion, providing an introduction to a major religious trad­ition.  In our 2022 institute, these introductions will be offered by: Dr. Hasia Diner on Judaism, Dr. Julie Byrne on Christianity, Dr. Ali Asani on Islam, Dr. Rachel McDermott on Hinduism, Dr. Laura Harrington on Buddhism, and Dr. Elizabeth McAlister on African diaspora religions.  These sessions are framed by brief read­ings on each tradition and its place in American life.  For some summer scholars these sessions are a refresher course on familiar mat­erial, and for others they offer an invaluable (though inevitably partial) intro­duc­tion to American religious diversity.

These scholarly lectures and seminar discussions are complemented by panel discussions with New York religious leaders.  Each panel includes three or four clergy members, lay leaders, or faith-based activists, chosen to represent — as well as possible — the diversity within their religious tradition.  Panelists generally give brief presentations on their faith communities, their personal faith journeys, or their faith-based social justice work.  But the focus of these sessions is an open dialogue between panelists and summer scholars — a chance for our summer scholars to engage directly with religious leaders from a wide range of communities.

The panel discussions are followed (usually on the same day) by site visits to local houses of worship.  We visit a wide range of institutions in each institute — from the city’s old­est and largest Hindu temple, in Flushing, Queens, to a Zen Buddhist temple in a con­verted row­house on the Upper West Side; from a historic Black Baptist church in Harlem to a mosque in a renovated tenement building.  In some cases we attend a worship service, and in others we take a walking tour with a comm­unity leader.  These site visits offer summer scholars first-hand experiences, however brief, of religious life in the diverse communities we are studying.  Inst­itute director Henry Goldschmidt leads each site visit, and facil­itates conversations after­ward for summer scholars to reflect on their experiences.

In addition to offering an experiential introduction to American religious diversity, the institute’s panel discussions and site visits serve as models for acti­v­ities that summer scholars can replicate, in some cases, with their own students.  Many teachers are understandably reluctant to invite religious leaders to speak with their stu­dents, or bring students to visit local houses of worship.  This is especially true in pub­lic schools, where a community-based program gone awry can raise serious First Amendment concerns.  We therefore use our panel discussions and site visits to raise the that issues summer scholars need to con­sid­er in developing pedagogically and constitution­ally sound community-based religious diversity programs.  How, for example, do you prepare religious leaders to speak with K-12 students, or prepare students to visit a house of worship?  What kinds of religious sites and experiences are appropriate — or inappropriate — for students at different grade levels?  How, in short, can teachers give their students an experiential understanding of religious diversity, while maintaining a secular, academic curriculum?  We explore these issues throughout the program, and they are the focus of an in-depth, concluding dis­cussion on the second-to-last day of the institute.  The inst­it­ute thus offers summer scholars both the content knowledge and pedago­gic training they need to teach effectively about lived religion.

While the institute focuses, above all, on such community-based, experiential pedagogies, it also explores school-based, classroom strategies for teach­ing about lived religion, including the use of literature, case-study docu­ments, and virtual site visits.  At the start of the second week of the institute, soon after our visit to a Bap­tist church in Harlem, Dr. Clarence Hardy will lead a discussion of James Baldwin’s classic novel Go Tell it on the Moun­tain, which explores family and community life at a Pentecostal church in mid-twentieth century Harlem.  Later that week, Elinor Pierce, from Harvard University’s Pluralism Pro­ject, will lead a hands-on work­shop ex­ploring the Pluralism Pro­ject’s case-teaching meth­od for the study of American religious diversity.  And at the start of the third week, Henry Goldschmidt will lead a discussion of digital tools that allow for “virtual site visits” to houses of worship — an important set of tools given the public health concerns and practical constraints that sometimes limit community-based, experiential education.  In all three of these conversations, we will ask what students can learn about the everyday lives of diverse religious communities without leaving the classroom.

The third and final unit of the institute, Locating “Religion” in the Life of the City, extends our experiential pedagogy to a consid­eration of the concept of religion itself.  While our site visits to houses of worship focus on clearly defined religious traditions, in the last week of the institute our summer scholars broaden their focus to trace the presence of “religion” — however this complex term might be defined — in social and rit­ual spaces on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  The unit is framed by readings that examine the history of the concept of religion, and the contested boundaries be­tween “religious” and “secular.”  Following a discussion of these texts, summer scholars conduct field research, in small groups, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and on the streets of the Upper West Side.

In their fieldwork at Saint John’s (the world’s largest gothic cathedral, located just blocks from Union Theological Seminary) summer scholars explore the Cathedral’s many social spaces, visual symbols, ritual objects, and art inst­allations, trying to distinguish between religious and sec­ular dimensions of the sprawling site.  In their fieldwork on the streets, each research group is assigned a small area of the neighbor­hood and asked to document local religious life.  They are encouraged to look for “religion” in unexpected places — in parks and monuments, mur­als and graffiti, bookstores and restaurants, street life, and so on.  They trace the presence of religion, and debate the meanings of this term, by taking photo­graphs, collecting mater­ial culture, and potentially talking with neighbor­hood resid­ents.  The following day, each research group prepares and presents a brief, informal report on its research findings.  Our discussion of these presentations uses summer scholars’ field research to raise funda­mental questions about the definition of “religion” and its role in social life.  These concluding seminars thus comple­ment our earlier discussions of specific faith traditions — deepening summer scholars’ engagement with the academic study of religion, and modeling an inquiry-based field research project they may be able to replicate with their own students.

Finally, over the course of the institute our summer scholars also work independently on modest, focused curriculum development projects.  They are asked to incorporate the study of lived religion into an existing curriculum, by adding a site vis­it or guest speaker(s), discussion of a novel or film, or any other appropriate learning activity.  Summer scholars are supported in these projects by a team of four experienced middle- and high school teachers, from public, private, and parochial schools.  These curriculum development mentors lead small group discuss­ions of the curriculum projects, and work with individual summer scholars.  Summer scholars present and discuss their projects on the last day of the institute, and we make these projects available to down­load on the institute website.

The curriculum development projects help our summer scholars incorporate the lessons of the Religious Worlds institute into their own teaching — and thus help students throughout the United States engage with the relig­ious diversity of their own local communities.  We hope you will join us in New York in July 2024, as we work with teachers from throughout the country to realize this vision of community-based religious diversity education.

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