FELICIAG GONZALEZ ked her two children into bed, told them each a favorite bedtime story, kissed them good night, and returned to the kitchen. With her husband away on business, it fell to her to clean up from dinner and straighten up the children's toys alone. It was 9 o'clock; she'd be up at 6, getting her children off to school at 7:30, and in front of her first class at 8:30. Fortunately, she had no papers to grade, and earlier that afternoon she had reviewed what she was going to teach tomorrow by skimming through class preparation notes from the past few times she had taught the same course. So she could go to bed. Yet she hadn't opened the new book that she'd bought on the establishment clause of the Constitution, and she would be teaching about the First Amendment to her eleventh-grade advanced placement history class the next day. She realized that she should try to read some of the new work. And so she didnot to her satisfaction, but enough to learn its author's argument and to reexamine what the Framers meant by an establishment of religion. She turned off the light at 11.
The next day, sure enough, one of her students asked her to explain not the clauses prohibiting limits on the right of assembly or of the press, which were the usual subjects of discussion, but the meaning of an establishment of religion. But those two hours with the new book had not helped her very much. While informed enough about the meaning of an establishment, Ms. Gonzalez could not yet explain its historical complexitiesthe eighteenth-century position of the Church of England in the colonies, the existence of multiple establishment ("How could there have been lots of established churches in a single state?" one student pressed her. "If that was so, why were the Framers so worried?"), and so on. She left school that day dissatisfied with herself.
She decided to turn her frustration (and, she admitted to herself, her embarrassment) into a shared effort: she and her students would study together so that she, as well as they, could get the answers she sought. So she devised a paper assignment in which each original state had its own single student historian; the Bill of Rights got three students and the Church of England one; and she decided to take James Madison for herself. For the next month, she frequently joined her students in the school and town libraries, studied Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance," and steeped herself in his writings about the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and the Bill of Rights. When her students' papers were due, she had her own paper ready for them to read, just as they read each other's and she all of theirs. Of course, her students were somewhat uneasy about reading hers-especially when she asked them to comment on it and give her a grade. (An A, they decided, even though she had misspelled the name of Madison's birthplace.)
The class got so involved in the subject that some of its members decided to enter the state's National History Day competition. Spending afternoons with them, Ms. Gonzalez helped them plan and design a display that, after competing for the contest, could travel to libraries throughout the county. When the project won, she took the whole class out for ice cream. When the project competed in the national competition, it won first place there, too. She was so proud of her students that she decided that they needed more than ice cream this time; she wanted recognition for them.
Usually, the large display board in front of the high school carried only sports news, like "Cavaliers 8-0 for Season.
一Conference Champs." She wanted a change.
The principal was reluctant: "What will the community think? It's only interested in the teams."
"Well," she replied, "Let's try to change its ways. Let's recognize the students who achieve by learning."
For the rest of the year, all those who rode by could read "Cavaliers Win National History Day Championship. School Has Five Merit Scholarship Finalists."
Spurred by the success of her assignment on religious establishments and by her students' success in their National History Day contests, Ms. Gonzalez tried something she had long contemplated but, fearing parental objections, had never dared. She wished to get away from the brief and denatured treatment of religion in the required textbook and transform it so that her students could learn in greater depth about this central engine of American history. Moreover, she hoped to have her students study religion throughout the course, not just when studying disestablishment or the great revivals of the nineteenth century.
So seeing her opportunity in the group of students she chanced to have this year, she seized it. Her desire to continue treating religion as integral to American history, to include the subject throughout the advanced placement syllabus in future courses, however, would demand much of her-more study, more preparations-and all on her own, for the summer institute on American religions that she had applied for was not scheduled for six months. Yet she was determined to teach what she wanted most to learn about; and she was determined to do so in a way that taught about religion while avoiding any hint of indoctrination.
When she dug in, she discovered that the self-imposed task was almost too much for her. Her family found her devoting more time than usual to reading and studying in what free time she had. Nevertheless, she was determined to add the study of religion, a subject she had long thought missing, to her course. To help divide the labor, she assigned separate religions to each student-Free Will Baptism to a Jew, Judaism to a Catholic, Mormonism to an African-American Muslim, Pentecostalism to an atheist, and so on, so as to expose each to new perspectives and to broaden the knowledge of each. Lacking an appropriate text that she could assign, she had to undertake much more lecturing than she liked.
But if she did not become the authority and provide guidance, who else would? To questions from colleagues about the danger of proselytizing, she had a ready answer: "I won't tolerate it. Yet this course is not going to be about religious appreciation-everyone learning a little bit about lots of creeds. Each student is going to learn about one religion in some depth. The students can't understand the nation's history without understanding its people's religious faiths and the elements of them that permeate all our culture
Ms. Gonzalez's curiosity inspired her students to become curious, too. By the end of the course, a couple of her Jewish students knew more about their own faith for having studied the struggles of German and Irish Catholics to protect their immigrant religions in a predominantly Protestant nation. One self-styled atheist had become deeply knowledgeable about Jehovah's Witnesses. The last day of class, her very best student expressed admiration for how much Ms. Gonzalez knew about American history.
"Well," she replied obliquely,
"we've all had to work hard,haven't we?"
"We sure have," the student replied. "And some of us have been wondering what your own religious faith is."
"I didn't want you to know while we were considering religion in general and the many religious faiths represented in the United States," she said. "But there's no harm in your knowing now. I'm a Methodist. But in the classroom, I've tried to express another faith-the faith that we can all learn a lot together. I hope that I've done so, and I hope that you're converted to that faith."