Smart Schools Teach Religion, but Leave Spirituality to the Students

I wrote and submitted this article the day before the bombings in Paris.  How silly it seemed, the next day, to be writing about red cups as an impetus to teach religion in schools.  The content of the article was made maybe even more relevant, but it was edited to remove the first and last paragraphs instead of revising them.  It turned out to be a bit of a clunky article, but the message is consistent (link to SCMP, or full original version below).  What do you think?  

scmp.com/…/religion-hong-kong-schools-teach-it-dont-preach-it 

Last week my Facebook feed was full of red coffee cups. The latest social media phenomenon centered on a Starbucks minimalist holiday cup design which one consumer strangely extrapolated to be a scourge against Christmas and, by extension, a direct threat to Christianity. The extent of attention his video garnered in the U.S. media got me thinking about religious literacy and its place as an academic subject in schools.

My sense is that the secularization of school curriculums in a well-intentioned commitment to separate church and state has had the unintended consequence of creating a general public illiteracy about religion. According to New York Times bestselling author Stephen Prothero, “Only ten percent of U.S. teenagers can name all five major world religions, and 15 percent can’t name any.” In an effort to avoid offending anyone schools have decided to skip religious education altogether, so students are left to gather what understanding they can without the analytical framework schools usually provide. This has fueled uneasiness and misunderstanding instead of cultivating tolerance from a base of knowledge.

Schools should not promote religion, but they should teach it.

Understanding history is impossible without an understanding of the religious traditions that helped shape the world. From a purely secular standpoint, atheists should know and understand what they choose not to believe in.

Schools have very different approaches to the question of religious education. In my opinion, Hong Kong International School does a relatively good job at weaving religious education into the curriculum. As part of its mission statement HKIS states that it is, “An American-style education grounded in the Christian faith and respecting the spiritual lives of all.” At HKIS, Christianity is taught at all levels and is an integral part of the ethos of the school, but it is not expected that all students will practice Christianity.

In the elementary years, HKIS students are taught a basic understanding of world religions with cultural and traditional experiences both in the classroom and through field trip visits around Hong Kong to mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship where children are encouraged to ask questions. Throughout the year parents of many faiths are invited to share traditions within the classrooms.

In the middle school years, religious education focuses on understanding one’s own values and beliefs and respecting those of others. Charitable outreach, social justice and world issues are discussed in the context of personal values.   On Back to School night I was impressed to hear a middle school religion teacher explain that, “We teach religion, but we do not teach spirituality. Spirituality has to be developed on an individual basis.” This distinction gave me confidence that the school was not proselytizing.

In high school, students cultivate a more subtle and complex understanding of the differences and commonalities among world religions. Students study, go on service trips, sometimes engage in shared practice of different religions and explore further their own sense of self.  Some students find great expansion happens in these classes, and for some, the few minutes of silence and reflection in religion classes are the only moments of calm in their day.

Marty Schmidt, a high school humanities teacher at HKIS, calls this Social Conscience Education, and has written extensively on the topic.  Schmidt describes social conscience education as, “A personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally engaged understanding of the world.”

This is one example of a school that embraces religion as an essential field of study in a well-rounded education, yet inextricably linked to human development.

In the words of twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey, “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”

The red cup incident should remind us all to reflect on actual needs, problems and possibilities rather than allowing fear and obliviousness to distract our own carefully cultivated convictions.

Music Literacy for Kids

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1874953/let-children-play-musical-instruments-their-way

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If your evening routine includes arguments, incentives and timers in order to cajole your children to practice an instrument, you might want to rethink your approach. While creating music should be a joyful lifelong experience, the path toward mastery of an instrument can be tempestuous if the motivation is wrong.

Music, like competitive sports, AP classes and volunteering has become another near chimera in the desperate sprint toward collage acceptance.   For some, music is a ticket to college. But for the vast majority, music practice ranks near the top of the list of topics that induce day-to-day stress in busy households. The path to musical literacy for the majority is strewn with abandoned instruments.

Despite having grown up with music teacher parents, I never learned to play an instrument. I was determined the same would not happen to my own children, so I followed the typical path signing them up for traditional music lessons from the time they were small. In my home I have two violins, a trombone and a piano; all abandoned by my children. Perhaps it’s my own lack of resolve in disciplining them to stick with it, but I could tell that their lack of enthusiasm was honest and any amount of prodding by me would be a battle.

For my eldest I sought the advice of Dr. Frank Abrahams, a prominent college music educator in the United States. I expected he would share the latest practice technique with me, but instead he simply said, “Get him an ipod. That way he can figure out what kind of music he likes. Once he knows what he likes, I can teach him how to play it.” I was shocked (and a little disappointed at first), but then I began to understand the approach.

“What’s great about this idea” says Kathryn Bechdoldt, beloved Middle School Choir Director at HKIS, “is that it gives kids the ability to examine and grow their taste independently. Giving a child ownership of their aural environment, their time, and their taste will immediately increase their interest. From there, it’s the teacher’s job to find ways to stretch and support knowledge and skill in a variety of genres.”

My son abandoned the piano and trombone, but picked up the electric guitar when I found a teacher who taught him to play rock music. His genuine interest and a lack of pressure from me found him more open minded when a jazz musician offered to work with him, and encouraged him to play acoustic and to practice scales so he could move his fingers more smoothly over the strings. This gave him ownership of the process and the outcome. His goal was to be able to play the music he likes rather than to play scales better than he did yesterday. He felt empowered to improve himself, not simply challenged to please the teacher.

But music, like a sport or mastering anything takes practice and discipline. There’s no getting around learning to read music and practicing scales, but the student has to understand the purpose. For example, Ms. Bechdoldt explains that, “When I’m teaching guitar, I show students how much more strength their fingers have when they hold the guitar neck with correct technique, and how much more easily and quickly they can switch chords. It allows them to see that I’m not making rules at random; the “rules” of how to hold a guitar are actually making them better guitarists.

Start by asking yourself what’s your goal in music education for your child? Do you want them to have performance experience, to win awards, recognition, or do you want them to have a life long love of music and the ability to create it?   If the latter, then perhaps let the child explore music in a fun, creative way by attending all kinds of live music concerts, let them pick the music you listen to in the car and seek out instructors who are forward thinking and who love to create music themselves.

Consider music making as an art form, not a competition to be won. Encourage kids to learn to play music that they like and expose them to a wide range of music to expand their horizons.

For example, Premiere Performances of Hong Kong ‘s PLAY! Family Concert Series is a great way to introduce children to world-class, live classical music in an accessible and fun way.http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1874953/let-children-play-musical-instruments-their-way

These are positive things parents can do to empower children to cultivate authentic, life-long musical literacy.

Decision Fatigue

Back to school SCMP Article this month on decision fatigue…

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1855976/how-habit-takes-drudgery-out-parents-decision-making

Most people celebrate the New Year on January 1st or according to the Chinese Lunar calendar in January or February each year. The New Year is a perfect time to set intentions, try new things and to make new commitments to be our best selves.

I also celebrate the New Year, but for me the real New Year begins in late August when the kids go back to school.   Back to school marks the end of unscheduled days and late bedtimes, and the beginning of routine and rigor. My annual family photo albums begin each year not in January, but with the first day of school and end with our adventurous travel and lazy days of summer photos.
Each year as the kids go back to school we all have an opportunity to try new things, commit to new routines and to set goals. The kids choose new activities and their busy schedules enable me to explore new interests too. I sign up for volunteer positions, revamp my exercise, take on consulting jobs, meet new people and have more energy to engage in projects I have been putting off all year.

While the unscheduled summer months hold their charm and the pace of the school year is exhausting and complaint-worthy, most parents secretly yearn for the sanity of routine and schedule, and with good reason. Research shows that children thrive within the comfortable boundaries of familiar routines, clear expectations and sensible limits.

Child development experts unfailingly advocate the importance of routine for children. Routine is the foundation of elementary school. At home, children thrive with well-established morning and bedtime rituals. “Bath, brush, books, bed” is a popular, healthy evening routine in households with any age children. This gives everyone something to look forward to and sets a clear expectation of when it’s time to turn off the lights and go to sleep.

Routine is also important for adults. A fascinating 2011 New York Times article by John Tierney described the phenomenon of decision fatigue, claiming that humans have a finite capacity for decision making each day, and that this capacity is depleted every time a decision is made, no matter its relative importance. For example, the article suggests that the time of day a judge hears a case is a more important indicator of the likelihood of parole for an inmate than are the circumstances of the case. Judges are much more risk averse right before lunch and late in the day than in the morning or immediately following a lunch break.

Making decisions can be exhausting. The more decisions one makes, the harder each one becomes. After awhile, decision makers can become reckless or reluctant to make any decisions at all. In a series of fascinating studies, researchers demonstrated that making choices eventually undermines willpower and resolve too.

Stanford University psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal has written extensively on the topic of willpower. Her bestselling book The Willpower Instinct provides great guidance for those looking to change habits and set more positive routines. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another useful book that describes the science behind the formation of habits and the importance of cultivating positive ones.

Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can be mitigated by a solid routine, and, interestingly, by a boost of glucose. Instead of waking up each morning trying to decide if you should go for a hike or a run, sleep in or eat breakfast, automating those decisions frees up precious space for more important decisions later in the day.

Annie Dillard reminds us that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” With consistent day-to-day routines, we have more space to make constructive big decisions and the willpower to stick to those resolutions, whenever we begin.

Raising Financially Literate Children

In this month’s Between The Lines column in the South China Morning Post, I wrote about financial literacy for children, offering both practical and philosophical guides for initiating these important discussions with adolescents:

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1848250/why-we-find-it-hard-be-straight-our-kids-about-money

Financial literacy is as important to teach our children as is any other kind of literacy, and yet many of us shy away from candid conversations about money with our children. In so doing, we miss an opportunity to instill family values and to cultivate positive traits like generosity, patience and perseverance.

When I lived in Santa Monica ten years ago and had young children, I was pleased to see many teenagers in my neighborhood who could babysit. Talking to their parents, however, I was told that they were too busy and they didn’t need the money. I was astounded. Babysitting was my route to financial autonomy when I was in High School. I babysat for a dozen different families who paid me about a dollar an hour. I saved my money and thought through my purchases carefully, always hesitant to part with that hard earned cash.

Wanting to impart the same lessons to my own children, I attempted to introduce an elaborate plan to teach my first born about money. I gave him three dollars each week allowance and insisted that he put one of each in three separate envelopes labeled “spend,” “save,” and “donate.” The problem was, he wanted a toy that cost $30. At that rate it would take him so long to save enough to buy the toy, he would have lost interest (an important lesson in itself, but not the one I was trying to teach). At that age, was waiting five months really teaching him anything about financial management? I soon abandoned my allowance plan.

Ten years later many wonderful resources exist to guide parents through allowance strategies that are more successful because they are both practical guides and they help parents initiate conversations about underlying values associated with stewarding wealth. In this broader values-based conversation that incorporates lessons about gratitude, generosity and responsibility, raising financially aware children is easier and more meaningful.

Last year, New York Times money columnist Ron Lieber released a book entitled The Opposite of Spoiled. Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money. This book offers practical tips for the best way to handle basic financial transactions including everything from allowance to donations, birthday presents to cell phones and more. It also helps parents to identify and instill traits and virtues that embody the opposite of spoiled. He says, “when parents shy away from the topic, they lose a tremendous opportunity—not just to model the basic financial behaviors that are increasingly important for young adults but also to imprint lessons about what the family truly values.”

Raising Financially Fit Kids by Joline Godfrey and Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees by Neale S. Godfrey are two more excellent books that walk parents through the process of raising financially literate children. The website www.jumpstart.org is a practical resource offered by a coalition of diverse financial education stakeholders working together to educate and prepare youth for life-long financial success.

It’s never too early to begin to introduce the concepts of wealth stewardship to children. Children’s picture books can be a terrific way to initiate discussions about money management and generosity. The Penny Pot by Stuart J. Murphy focuses on using math in everyday life and comes with oversized coins to help them do so. Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins is a great read aloud picture book about entrepreneurship and the costs of doing business.

For teens and adults, the 1926 classic by George S. Clason, The Richest Man in Babylon uses ancient parables to discuss wealth management and might be a good option for both parents and teenagers to read to begin a deeper, more philosophical discussion about affluence and values.

Conscious stewardship of wealth is as important a skill to impart to children as are manners and kindness. A local Hong Kong philanthropist explained that his motivation comes from witnessing his father’s own generosity and from Confucian teachings to take care of one’s family. Christian values also encourage generosity and restraint in the accumulation and dissemination of wealth. Whatever the source, teaching children that money should be spent wisely, given generously, and shepherded carefully will help inculcate valuable life skills and positive character traits.

Sometimes the benefits can accrue directly to the parents. For example, I love my dog, but I really dislike is the early morning dog walk. This summer my youngest son and I came to an agreement. If he would do the morning dog walk, he would be paid $10/week. For him it is a source of pride, gets him up and out for a good long brisk walk around the neighborhood, teaches him responsibility and has awakened a new understanding. He has started to consider purchases in terms of what percentage of his weekly earnings something costs. When he realized that buying a trinket at the market cost over half of his weekly earnings, he quickly stopped pestering me about it.

On The Same Page

I’m not sure why the titled it “Take a leaf out of book groups” in the paper, as that makes no sense to me, but here’s the latest musing anyway… (a link, and full submitted text below, as usual).  

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1843994/why-we-should-be-encouraging-everyone-read-pleasure

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Over the summer every student, administrator and teacher at my son’s High School will read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Carefully selected I suspect for the timely themes of race and identity, this book will ignite conversations and spark debates around the campus. Curious, I decided to read the book too, and it prompted me to consider further the value of a common literature reading experience among a large group of people.

I have had the pleasure of being a member of an active book group in Hong Kong. We take turns hosting, providing a simple meal over which we earnestly discuss the book without a moderator or prescribed set of questions. Like many expatriate communities, the composition of our book group has changed over the years – currently more members of our original book group live in New York City than in Hong Kong – but we have always replenished with perceptive and literate women who love books.

Beyond the social aspect, the value of this group has been the broadening of mind and perspective that occurs as the result of reading books I never would have chosen myself, or didn’t even particularly enjoy after reading. When members share personal history, cultural references and academic expertise relevant to the book, my understanding and my appreciation for the book is always enhanced.

When children’s author Deborah Wiles visited Hong Kong the entire HKIS Upper Primary read one of her books to build enthusiasm in preparation for her visit. Children were able to discuss the book, gained confidence meeting the author and shared the experience with their peers. Unlike didactic work in which a book is assigned and taught by an instructor, this type of common literary experience is voluntary, undirected and intended for fun.

Parent/child book clubs are another way of connecting, bonding and sometimes broaching difficult or embarrassing topics through literature. Difficult circumstances faced by characters in a novel provide distance and hypothetical scenarios that are useful in initiating tricky discussions with children. These conversations offer insights from both parents and peers that can translate into real life lessons.

Sometimes common reading experiences expand beyond the personal network to larger communities. The One City One Book program started in Seattle in 1998 and has been embraced in some form or another by hundreds of cities around the world. The Library of Congress keeps a running list of these programs in the U.S., and the National Endowment for the Arts funds similar programs under the title The Big Read in some cities.

Oftentimes initiated and managed by public libraries, these programs encourage all community members and visitors to read a carefully selected title, and many host creative events to encourage discussion, bring the community together and enhance the reader’s understanding of the book and the underlying themes therein.

Selecting a single book that is both noteworthy, but does not offend or endorse any one group or ideal over any other is the most difficult element of implementing this kind of program.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated eleven cities around the world as Cities of Literature. These cities embrace a rigorous process to demonstrate a unique and fervent appreciation and support for the creation, consumption, critique and celebration of all aspects of literature. Achieving this designation from UNESCO is an arduous process and a considerable honor.

Bookstores are closing all over Hong Kong and less than half of our city’s adult population admits to reading for pleasure. The benefits of reading for pleasure have been widely reported, but like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, daily exercise and abstaining from harmful behavior, the advice is rarely heeded. Modeling reading is important for building young readers. Hong Kong might consider striving to be the next UNESCO City of Literature to encourage reading for pleasure and to set a good example for the younger generation.