Teaching World Religions in Public Schools: Building Religious Literacy

This course will provide teachers an opportunity to explore specific topics in world religion.

In collaboration with Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University.

In an era of globalization, mass media and migration, religious literacy is increasingly important in the cultivation of global citizens. Religious literacy is the knowledge of, and ability to understand, engage, and encounter religion and philosophical beliefs from the perspective of believers. Educators, as public intellectuals, play a critical role in teaching the academic study of world religions, which allows us to address misunderstanding, stereotyping and clashes of ignorance in our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious global village. Armed with the knowledge, skills and values to engage a religiously diverse world, educators teach and encourage their students to understand and value people of all faiths and no faith, and to work together for peace.

Course overview

Teaching world religions and religious literacy in public school classrooms can be challenging for teachers if they lack confidence or feel they need to improve their own content knowledge about religions and philosophies. Yet, world religions are clearly incorporated into many of the state of Texas TEKS such as World Cultures, World Geography, and World History as well as AP* courses, such as AP Human Geography and AP World History.

Participants will deepen content knowledge in the study of religions within their fields using the guidelines of the Texas TEKS and AP course descriptions. Teachers will engage in academic reading, reflective writing, discussion boards, and active learning. This course will culminate in a workshop to develop a set of classroom lesson plans utilizing newly acquired content knowledge.

Who Should Attend: Teachers of World Cultures, World Geography, World History, AP Human Geography, AP World History and World Religions courses

What to Bring:

  • Course materials will be supplied.
  • Please bring a laptop and any pre-assigned readings.

Course Facilitator: Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni, Program Director, Boniuk Institute, Rice University

Gayle Lasater Pagnoni has taught in secondary and tertiary education for over a decade, and holds a doctorate in religion from the University of Florida. With undergraduate degrees in Anthropology and International Relations, and a Master’s in Latin American and Caribbean Studies with emphasis in Sociology, she specializes in western hemispheric religion, race, and globalization. Her focus is on monotheisms and in particular, Christian diversity, including a uniquely American variety - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She joined the Boniuk Institute in August 2016 as Program Director for Religious Literacy and K-12 outreach, education, research and collaboration.  

Instructors: The course is facilitated by a master teacher from the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance and consists of interactive presentations by faculty and advanced graduate students of the Rice University Departments of Religion and History, and the Boniuk Institute, with collaboration by the Houston Independent School District Secondary Social Studies instructional team.

When: June 26-29, 2018; 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Where: Courses are held on the Rice University campus.


Early Registration: $435* (until March 26)
Standard Registration: $485* (March 27-June 11)
Late Registration: $535* (after June 11)

Tuition includes course materials, parking and lunch.


Participants: Please download the participant packet, which includes your printable parking permit.

Download Participant Packet

Professional Development Credits: Participants will receive up to 26 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits or 2.6 Continuing Education Units (CEU). SBEC Continuing Professional Education Provider Number 500571

Acknowledgment of enrollment: Once you register for a course through our online registration system, you will be enrolled in the course. An enrollment acknowledgement will immediately be sent to the email address on your account showing payment confirmation or including instructions for submitting payment via check. Please contact our office, 713-348-6031, if you have any questions.

*AP and Pre-AP are registered trademarks of the College Board, which was not involved in the development and delivery of this professional development.


Please note the following course agenda is subject to change.

Tuesday, June 26 

Frameworks for Religious Tolerance: First Amendment and UN UDHR Article 18
This session will contextualize the First Amendment in American geographic, political and religious history. Educators will investigate some of the implications of the First Amendment in the value and challenges of teaching civic religious tolerance through religious literacy education in public schools. As a universal ethic, civic religious tolerance is addressed through the First Amendment and the UN UDHR Article 18.  
Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni, course facilitator
Traditions of China through World Culture, Geography, and History
Educators will explore in this session Chinese “schools of thought” – Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism – which are often called philosophies and how these traditions are blended in culture and society through China’s history. Further, these traditions problematize the categories of religion, which will give educators the opportunity to engage other non-western ways of thinking.  
Dr. Nanxiu Qian, Professor of Chinese Literature, Rice University, Rice University 
Nanxiu Qian is professor of Chinese Literature in the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice. She received her M.A. from Nanjing University, China (1982) and her Ph.D. from Yale (1994). Qian's research interests include classical Chinese literature, Chinese intellectual history, comparative literature, and studies on the Sinosphere. She has published in both English and Chinese. She has published several books, journal articles, and poetry.  One of her literary essays won the first prize of the Ninth Literary Award of Taiwan's Central Daily (1997). She won two teaching awards while teaching at Nanjing University (1981-1986). Her research has received grants from the National Endowment for Humanities (2000, 2001-2002) and American Council of Learned Societies (2000-2001).  She is also the principal investigator on two collaborative projects endowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities (2004-2007, 2016-2019).

Wednesday, June 27 

Abrahamic Traditions through World Culture, Geography and History: Islam
This session will feature the diversity and complexity within Islam, one of the Abrahamic traditions. Despite sharing commonalities with Judaism and Christianity, Islam is frequently misrepresented and misunderstood through popular politics and discourse. Teachers will also investigate pluralism, tolerance, and the Quran through diverse cultures and practices in Islam.    
Dr. Zahra Jamal, Associate Director for Boniuk Institute, Rice University
Zahra Jamal has taught at Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, Michigan State University (MSU), and Palmer Trinity, a college preparatory school. She founded and directed the Civil Islam Initiative at University of Chicago and the Central Asia and International Development Initiative at MSU. She has consulted for the UN, State Department, Aga Khan Development Network, Swiss Development Cooperation, and Aspen Institute. Dr. Jamal received a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard, and double B.A. in Slavic Studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from Rice. She joined Boniuk Institute in July 2015.
Abrahamic Traditions through World Culture, Geography and History: Judaism
In this session, educators will explore diversity within Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic traditions. Given a history in diaspora, Judaism has expanded all over the world, to the Americas, and more recently, in the American Gulf Coast to Houston. Teachers will engage with this rich cultural complexity, from the global to the local, with a feature on American Jewish life.  
Dr. Joshua Furman, Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Jewish Studies, Rice University 
Joshua Furman specializes in American Jewish social and cultural history, with research interests in suburbanization, education, and family life since World War II.  He is currently working on a book project about the history of the Houston Jewish community and the migration to the Meyerland neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. His article on the life and career of the German-Jewish psychologist Kurt Lewin was published in Contemporary Jewry in 2017. At Rice, Dr. Furman offers courses on African American-Jewish relations, immigration in American Jewish history and Jewish food. 

Thursday, June 28

Traditions of India through World Culture, Geography, and History
Utilizing the interconnections between culture, geography, and history in traditions in India, this session features Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Despite the commonalities in the Indian traditions, as Buddhism, in particular, crossed the Himalayas, new and diverse expressions emerged that teachers will explore in depth with a scholar in Tibetan Buddhism.  
Justin Kelly, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Religion, Rice University 
Raised on a farm in Massachusetts, Justin Kelley studied Environmental Economics at Tufts University. Traveling to Asia in 2005, he spent the next ten years living in and around religious centers in India and Nepal, where he studied Tibetan language, Hindu and Buddhist philosophical systems, and various meditative approaches. Additionally, he served for three years as a monk under the tutelage of Tibetan Buddhist master Yongey Mingyur Dorje Rinpoche. In 2015, Justin became a PhD student at Rice University Department of Religion where his research focuses on indigenous environments, and the psychophysical transformation that occurs within religious practice and identity. This past year, he taught courses at Rice entitled Buddhist Art and Literature and Tibetan Language, Literature, and Culture.
From Theory to Practice: Making Classroom Connections
In two collaborative sessions, teachers will work together and with available scholars to create classroom connections between new knowledge acquired and lesson planning. By the end of the week, teachers should leave with at least one set of lesson plans to utilize in their classrooms.  
Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni, Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, Rice University

Friday, June 29

Teaching about Religion through TEKS in World Cultures, World Geography and World History
Utilizing TEKS in new, innovative and interconnected ways, in this session educators will study diversity in Christianity (one of the Abrahamic traditions) through the Atlantic World and Americas approaches.  During the early modern age of exploration, Christianity became the religion of empire that reconfigured the Americas and transformed Christian diversity. 
Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni, Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, Rice University
LaChardra McBride, Teacher Development Specialist, HISD Secondary Curriculum and Development
LaChardra McBride is a native Houstonian with a decade in education. She is a graduate of Sam Houston High School and obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from the University of Houston. She has taught 6th grade World Cultural Studies, 7th grade Texas History, and 8th grade U.S History at Lamar Fleming Middle School and Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy. At Fleming Middle School, she served as both Social Studies Department Chairperson and in Teach like a Champion (TLAC) Teacher Leader corps. In 2016, LaChardra joined HISD’s Secondary Curriculum and Development team, serving as a Secondary Social Studies Teacher Development Specialist. As a Teacher Development Specialist, she is responsible for writing curriculum—particularly, 6th grade Master Course lessons—as well as continuing TDS duties. She is a member and has participated in professional development including Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and Glider Lehrman Summer Seminar on “Civil Rights”. She was a member in HISD’s Teachers Teaching American History (T3AH) grant cohort.
From Theory to Practice:  Making Classroom Connections
In two collaborative sessions, teachers will work together and with available scholars to create classroom connections between new knowledge acquired and lesson planning. By the end of the week, teachers should leave with at least one set of lesson plans to utilize in their classrooms.  
Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni, Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, Rice University

  • Educators will increase knowledge, skills and best classroom practices on the First Amendment and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 18 on religious freedom and exercise to teach about religion, religious diversity, and religious pluralism as central to tolerance and democratic coexistence
  • Educators will learn new approaches to cultural, geographical and historical knowledge of the world’s major, diverse religious traditions as outlined in the TEKS, AP course outlines, and NCSS Religion Companion Supplement with which to deepen content knowledge and skills
  • Using lesson plans developed during the workshops, educators will engage their students to critically understand and appreciate different religious traditions, and to understand this diversity both as strength and as a learning opportunity to enhance students’ cultivation of shared values of humility, respect and intellectual curiosity toward all