It’s helpful to discuss religion in our ESL classrooms because so many of our Canadian celebrations have roots in the Christian or other religious traditions. If we are to be cultural interpreters, we need to help our learners to understand our holidays and beliefs. But we also want to give our learners the language that will help them interpret their religious traditions and beliefs to Canadians. This takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect and a sincere desire to learn from each other.
I begin the discussion at Thanksgiving. I put on the board 4 headings: Holiday, Story, Symbols, and What does it mean to me. I then tell about Thanksgiving, and the stories behind it. I have my cornucopia and lots of pictures of Thanksgiving dinners. I have slices of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Most of the learners love this part. When I talk about what it means to me, I make a web on the board with all the things for which I am thankful such as my country, family, and opportunities. This sparks lots of discussion, especially about their families, and their educational opportunities etc. It also produces some very moving journal writing.
Then I invite the learners to share about their religious celebrations and observances as they come up in the calendar. I put the four headings on the board before their presentation, to give them some direction. Over the years, I have collected pictures of the Haj etc, which I offer to them.
Buddhist students are less able to articulate their beliefs, so I say early on, that we will all do Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese New years. This is a lot of fun, and is a great way to teach the vocabulary of personal characteristics. Great preparation for resume writing!
This has almost always gone well because I make clear at the beginning that our purpose is to build bridges. We can say that we believe something, but not that we are right and others are wrong. We can say why we do something, but not that others of our faith “should” do the same. We try to build connections to Canadian practices. For example, at Ramadan, Muslims share their food with the poor, just as Canadians give to the Food bank at Christmas. During Lent, I give up sweets since I have a sweet tooth. A learner will inevitable ask why I do that, since I am not fat. I then explain that fasting is a spiritual discipline not a weight loss technique. I have had Muslim students appreciate the language and concepts that help them explain why they fast.
This allows me to explain the true meaning of Christmas and Easter. I have a crèche and usually students will be able to tell the Christmas story. I have a wonderful book which has lots of classic pictures to tell the Easter story. In all the years I taught, I only had two Christian students who objected to my calling it the Christian “story”, both saying, “But it is true.” My response was that in this classroom, we say that Christians believe that it is true. That has avoided any conflict of beliefs.
Often a student will share a personal struggle, or say that they are going to a job interview. I will often offer to pray for the student after class. This is almost always accepted and appreciated.
I have so appreciated my opportunities to share the Christian faith in a fair and respectful way.