by Ami Chander
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is part of a collection of essays on teaching religious studies for K-12 teachers. The essays were collated and edited by one of the CrossCurrents Editorial Board members, Henry Goldschmidt. We always welcome essays and ideas on pedagogy, particularly when connected to interreligious work, social justice, and the arts.
While growing up and attending public schools in Paramus, New Jersey, I often felt like I was two people living parallel but disconnected lives. One Ami existed on weekdays during the school year. She had a few close friends, did well in her schoolwork, and participated in a handful of co-curricular activities; still, most of her teachers and classmates knew little about her. Naturally shy and quiet, she tried to blend in with the rest of the class. Her brown skin and curly hair marked her as one of the few kids of South Asian origin, but she tried to dress like the white kids and kept her thin kanthi mala – a necklace made from sacred tulsi wood with a pendant of Lord Krishna – tucked in to her shirt. The few times one of her teachers mentioned Hinduism in class – usually in reference to polytheism or the caste system – she would feel frustrated and misunderstood, and would squirm in her seat self-consciously.
But after school and on weekends, another Ami came to life. This Ami removed her shoes as soon as she entered her home, and bowed her head before the family shrine. She helped her mom cook elaborate vegetarian feasts to serve to guests at the devotional gatherings (called satsangs) their family hosted on the first Saturday of each month, and helped make the flower garlands that they would respectfully drape on satsang guest teachers – usually shaven-headed monks in bright orange robes. This Ami looked forward to Sunday evening visits to the Hindu temple, where she would meet her closest friends at youth group meetings. Some Sundays she would ask to be dropped off early so that she could help polish the silver paraphernalia used in the rituals; polishing while sitting in the quiet temple room, which always smelled of sweet incense and sandalwood, felt like a meditation and helped her feel connected to the worship that happened there. This Ami was still shy and quiet, but occasionally she took on small roles in the dramas the youth group put on, based on exciting stories from epics like the Ramayana or Mahabharata. This Ami saw others like her, and felt seen by them.
It was only many years later, first as an undergraduate in Montclair State University’s education program and then as a Masters candidate at Teachers College, that I began to process how deeply this “double life” had impacted me. I learned about the idea of a divided-self, and could appreciate the value of integrating my multiple identities. I began to realize that I had internalized the idea that success (or merely survival) at school required me to reject a significant part of who I was, and try to pass as what I was led to believe was “normal.” Learning more about the “hidden curriculum” of dominant educational institutions, I understood that I had been marginalized and experienced invisibility at school. Not only was I not given the space to express my faith and cultural identity as a Hindu – my faith and identity were, in fact, erased.
Faith erasure – indeed the erasure of any aspect of one’s identity – is generally problematic. But this sort of erasure is particularly harmful to students of color, the children of immigrants, and those who identify with faith traditions outside of Christian normative frameworks. When we tell these students, explicitly or implicitly, that they must leave their faith identities outside of the classroom – a space that often represents, to them, what mainstream society is all about – we remind them of their otherness, underscoring and intensifying a sense that they are “outsiders” and “perpetual foreigners.” Inadvertently, we convince them that these aspects of their identity are undesirable or incompatible with their learning. These students, already saddled with the task of navigating liminality or “in-betweenness” in their daily lives, can easily start to see their faith as a weakness to be suppressed or something shameful to be hidden from view. Faith erasure can create a false dichotomy in which the student is forced to choose: at school, she can either be a whole person or “normal” – but not both.
As an elementary school teacher, I have come to deeply believe in honoring the wholeness of my students’ personhood. A core principle of my philosophy of education is that to effectively teach children I must ensure that they are seen in every facet of their lives – including their religious and secular ethical identities. My students should not have to leave these vital parts of who they are at home in order to “get by” in school – rather, I want to empower them to bring these aspects of their identities and experiences into our shared learning space. Moreover, I truly believe that by doing so, my students will enrich one another’s understanding of and appreciation for the religious “other.” As an educator, I want to create space in the classroom for students to express what matters to them and why, while also learning to appreciate how their neighbors, peers, and strangers do the same.
I have been fortunate to work in schools and districts that take diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work very seriously. I have benefited tremendously from trainings and professional development opportunities that help teachers incorporate DEI frameworks into our pedagogy. I have also had the opportunity to contribute to diversity and community-based education myself. I have worked hard to incorporate multi-faceted diversity in my design of the reading curriculum, so that all students can learn about others and feel seen. Unfortunately, however, I have noticed that religious diversity is too often conspicuous by its absence in DEI frameworks. In discussing this blind-spot with colleagues, it seems that many fear inadvertently offending others while trying to teach about religious traditions they know little about. Some mistakenly believe that teaching about religion is synonymous with proselytizing for religion, and is therefore impermissible in public schools. Or they might feel that religion is too private and personal to engage with effectively in the classroom. It is simply easier and safer, they conclude, to “keep religion out of it.” While I can sympathize with the intention and concerns behind this stance, I find its impact deeply troubling.
But what, I often wondered, is the alternative? How could I address these misunderstandings and raise awareness among my colleagues about the need to include religious diversity in larger DEI conversations? And, perhaps most challenging to me, how could I effectively engage my students (second-graders!) in the study of religious diversity? With these questions in mind – and with more than a little hesitation – I applied to participate in the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute in July 2022.
The three weeks I spent as a summer scholar in the institute were eye-, mind-, and heart-opening for me. They were also deeply healing. I realized that I had never fully grappled with the trauma I had been carrying from my own experiences learning about religion in school. As the summer unfolded, I became more keenly aware that the pedagogical framework I had grown up with was one that often left me with feelings of dissonance, frustration, and even embarrassment. Though ostensibly neutral, the “world religions” curriculum I was presented with as a student invariably positioned Christianity (and a white Eurocentric version of Christianity) as the normative benchmark that everything else in the textbook was measured against. I dreaded the unit on India and Hinduism – not because I was ashamed of my faith, but because my religion was described in terms of facts, figures, and statistics that felt dry and removed from my own experience. Frustratingly, it felt like Hinduism was being force-fit into rigid categories that reflected a Protestant Christian definition of religion and didn’t seem true to the way my family and I understood our faith. Even worse, at times it felt like my faith was reduced to stereotypes and over-simplifications, or that seemingly “exotic” or “bizarre” aspects of Hindu life were taken out of context and highlighted. And at the same time, I felt like the “world religions” model gave me very little real understanding of other faiths – just lists of facts and trivia, with no clear connection to people’s religious lives.
By contrast, the Religious Worlds institute’s emphasis on “lived religion” invited a rich exploration of religions on their own terms, as they are actually understood by their practitioners. Every academic presentation and textbook reading specific to a faith was balanced with panel discussions composed of multiple contemporary faith leaders and practitioners – who were often quite different from one another. The result was vibrant, personal, intimate, authentic … and, yes, often confusing and messy. As a cohort, we pushed against cookie-cutter generalizations and resisted the temptation to create monoliths. We didn’t memorize facts about Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism – we encountered many Islams, plural Judaisms, multiple Buddhisms, a plethora of Hinduisms. We witnessed deep resonances across faith lines, and we also bumped up against contradictions and tensions within faiths. We broke bread (and dosas) together, and forged our own little community as we felt humbled and welcomed into the many communities we visited.
I began this essay by sharing a bit of my own experience growing up as a Hindu kid in public school. At the time, I felt like I had to keep key aspects of my identity completely separate from my life at school. I feared that these aspects alienated me from everyone else or marked me as weird; I saw them as weaknesses. Today, as an educator and a parent, I have grown to see those parts of me as gifts and strengths that add value to my classroom and home. I am a Hindu-American; a woman of color; the American-born child of immigrants. I have experienced marginalization and discrimination; in some spheres, however, I am aware that I carry privilege, wield influence, and bear the burden of responsibility. I carry all these parts of myself with me, and I believe they equip me to contribute to the learning communities and spiritual spaces within which I find myself – not as a divided self, but as a whole person.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute for teachers is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York, in partnership with Union Theological Seminary, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Ami Chander (she/her) is an elementary school teacher at Riverside Elementary School, part of the Princeton NJ Public School District. She earned her BA from Montclair State University’s education program and her MA from Teachers College at Columbia University, both in elementary education. A practicing Hindu in the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition, Ami has been involved with teaching spirituality to children in her community for almost two decades.