Teaching Religious Literacy in Grades K-5

Posted On 13 Nov 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D. Founder and Lead Consultant

In previous blogs, I have detailed some of the reasons for religious literacy in the classroom. These have included philosophical arguments like the civic, constitutional, liberal education, and global competence arguments. But there are also some practical reasons, as Kimberly Keiserman from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding notes:

  1. Classrooms are becoming more diverse
  2. Religion continuously plays a role in current events
  3. Religion can be the basis for prejudice, hate crimes, and bullying. [1]

Thus, it becomes increasingly more critical to teach religious literacy earlier in a student’s school career. But how should an educator approach religion in the K-5 classroom?

First, a teacher should be familiar with some guidelines. From The First Amendment Center text, A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools, these include:

  • Teachers should be academic, not devotional, in their treatment of all religions. Objectivity is the key to this perspective.
  • Teachers should only teach for awareness of religions, not an acceptance of religion. There should be no evangelizing in the classroom regardless of personal religious perspective, which is private.
  • Teachers should only teach about religion, not practice religion. Students should not be participating in religious ceremonies.
  • Teachers should educate students on the diversity of religious views and not impose a particular viewpoint.
  • Teachers should not promote OR denigrate religions. Adverse events associated with a particular faith tradition do not characterize the entirety of the religious group. (e.g., the perpetrators of the horrors of 9/11 do not represent the 1.8 billion other Muslims.)
  • Teachers should only inform about beliefs, but they should not seek to make students believe. [2]

Keiserman adds a few other helpful guidelines from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. These additions include:

  1. Create a safe, respectful, and inclusive classroom through civil dialogue. (You can read more on civil dialogue in my previous blog.)
  2. Allow children to explore their own identities.
  3. Compare the commonalities among faith traditions.
  4. Communicate with parents on intentions
  5. Incorporate religious literacy into existing curriculum. [1]

This last point is especially crucial in the K-5 classroom in which much content is being taught. Thus, an educator can address this challenge to teaching religious literacy through literature in the classroom. Reading stories that incorporate faith traditions provide an opportunity for students to learn about religions as “lived religions.” As Leonard Norman Primiano Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies, Cabrini College stated, lived religions are “lived, as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it.” This contrasts with the typical method of learning about static religions, embedded in the past, and thus out of context for students. Through stories and the lived religion model, religions come to life in the classroom for young readers, allowing them to become acquainted with religious beliefs and traditions’ diversity and flexibility. Even with the non-fiction books on religion for K-5 readers, there is a focus on connecting the reader to the real-world. This also contributes to the lived religion approach, which helps students fully participate in a civic life filled with diversity. 

Below are three short religious literacy text sets sorted by grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. These can be used in the classroom to engage students in understanding lived religions. Please note that teachers should carefully read and review texts before using them in the classroom to ensure alignment with curricular goals. Also, if an educator is not entirely familiar with a faith tradition, use the Religion Matters educator resources page to find out more.

Grades K-1

Bullard, Lisa, and Holli Conger. My Religion, Your Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press, 2015. This book provides a multi-perspective story on four major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

Coombs, Kate, and Anna Emilia Laitinen. Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2017. This book showcases mindfulness poems for young readers.

Polacco, Patricia. Mrs. Katz and Tush. New York, NY: Random House Children’s Books, 2009. Larnel gets to know Mrs. Katz and her Jewish heritage as an immigrant from Poland.

Rylant, Cynthia. Creation. New York, NY: Beach Lane Books, 2016. This book tells the story of creation from a Judeo-Christian perspective.

Verde, Susan, and Peter H. Reynolds. I Am Human: A Book of Empathy. New York, NY: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2018. This humanistic story is about making good choices and finding common ground.

Wilson, Anne. Noah’s Ark. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2002. This book retells the story of Noah and the flood.

Grades 2-3

Bauer, Marion Dane, and Ekua Holmes. The Stuff of Stars. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018. This story details the wonder of every child who made from stardust. It isn’t religion specific but about awe and wonderment. 

Das, Prodeepta. A Day I Remember: An Indian Wedding. London, England: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2014. This book documents a Hindu wedding through colorful photographs.

Hoffman, Mary, and Karin Littlewood. The Color of Home. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2002. Young Hassan arrives in the United States from Somalia and paints a picture at school of his homeland.

Khan, Hena, and Julie Paschkis. Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2018. This book tells the story of Yasmeen and her family and friends celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

McDermott, Gerald. Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti. New York, NY: Square Fish, 2011. This book tells an Ashanti tale of Anansi, his arduous journey, and decision.

Muth, Jon J. The Three Questions: Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy. New York, NY: Scholastic, 2002. A Leo Tolstoy story about Nikolai asking three very important questions in life. What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?

Seattle, Chief, and Susan Jeffers. Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle. Boston, MA: National Braille Press, 1995. Chief Seattle describes his people’s utmost respect and concern for the earth.

Grades 4-5

Ajmera, Maya, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon. Faith. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2009. Photographs document how children around the world celebrate their faith traditions.

Bortzer, Etan, and Robbie Marantz. What Is God? Willowdale, ON: Firefly Juvenile, 2002. This text provides a comparative introduction in text and colorful pictures to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and their sacred texts.

Buller, Laura. A Faith Like Mine: A Celebration of the World’s Religions – Seen through the Eyes of Children. London, England: DK Publication, 2006. A comprehensive informational text provides plenty of pictures that detail the major and even some of the world’s more minor faith traditions.

Demi. Confucius: Great Teacher of China. New York, NY: Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, 2018. A short biography of Confucius details his life and some of his essential teachings.

George, Charles. What Makes Me Amish? Farmington Mills, MI: Kidhaven Press, 2004. This text discusses the origins, beliefs, praxis, and celebrations of the Amish.

_____________. What Makes Me a Buddhist? Farmington Mills, MI: Kidhaven Press, 2005. This text discusses the origins, beliefs, praxis, and celebrations of Buddhist faith tradition.

_____________. What Makes Me a Hindu? Farmington Mills, MI: Kidhaven Press, 2004. This text discusses the origins, beliefs, praxis, and celebrations of Hindu faith tradition. Teachers should note that this text incorrectly represents Hinduism as polytheistic.

_____________. What Makes Me a Mormon? San Diego, CA: KidHaven Press, 2005. This text provides core beliefs, rituals, holidays, and challenges to Mormonism.

Glossop, Jennifer, and John Mantha. The Kids Book of World Religions. Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2013. An informative text details the major faith traditions of the world.

Goble, Paul. Song of Creation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2004. Adapted from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, this story invites readers to see God in creation.

Hamilton, Virginia, and Barry Moser. In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Stories about the origins of life from around the world. 

Marsico, Katie. Buddhism. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Buddhism through text and pictures.

­­­­­­___________. Christianity. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Christianity through text and pictures.

___________. Hinduism. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Hinduism through text and pictures. Teachers should note that this text incorrectly represents Hinduism as polytheistic. Read more from on this challenge guest blogger Sabrina D. MisirHiralall, Ph.D.

___________. Islam. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Islam through text and pictures.

___________. Judaism. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Judaism through text and pictures.

___________. Sikhism. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2017. This text, which is part of the Global Citizens: World Religions series, describes Sikhism through text and pictures.

McDermott, Gerald. Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale. New York, NY: Viking Press, 2002. An adaptation of the Pueblo Native American myth explains how the Spirit of the Sun was brought into the world.

Osborne, Mary Pope. One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship. New York, NY: Knopf, 1996. A non-fiction story uses photographs to detail seven major faith traditions today.

Patel, Sanjay. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group, 2006. Pixar animator and director Sanjay Patel describes Hinduism’s most important gods and goddesses with full-color illustrations and profiles. Teachers should note that this text incorrectly represents Hinduism as polytheistic. Read more from on this challenge guest blogger Sabrina D. MisirHiralall, Ph.D.

Polacco, Patricia. The Trees of the Dancing Goats. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2011. Jewish and Christian families work together to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.

__________. Christmas Tapestry. New York, NY: Philomel Books, 2002. This touching story is about two families and two faiths (Christian and Jewish) during the holiday season.

Woog, Adam. What Makes Me a Protestant? San Diego, CA: KidHaven Press, 2005. This text provides core beliefs, rituals, holidays, and challenges to Protestant Christian traditions.

 

[1] The First Amendment CenterA Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

[2]  Kimberly Keiserman, “Chapter 20: Teaching about Religion in the Elementary Classroom,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.