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The stories we teach our children...

I recently noticed an online discussion about the the advantages and disadvantages of "mythology" units that are taught in schools throughout the US. It began with the following image:

Some repliers believed that mythology units were the only way that US students could learn about pre-Christian gods and goddesses and without framing these stories as the stories would not be taught at all.

Others debated that all religion is myth, so why shouldn't schools teach these stories as such?

Others pointed out that the teacher did not make this worksheet and may very well be required to use it.

So what's the problem? The problem is that while, yes, each religion has its own mythology, schools are not framing majority religions as "myth". The original poster in this online discussion noted that she lives in the Bible belt. I am guessing that her children's school is not referring to Christianity or its stories as "myth".

When schools frame non-majority religious stories as "myth" and the stories of majority religions as "belief" we have a problem. When schools teach pre-Christian "myths" as "a story that people told long ago" or things that people "used to believe" they deny the living tradition of those religions, which (as we Pagans know) are still very much alive.

Further, schools often tell faith-based stories of indigenous peoples as "myths" or frame them in the context of "Native Americans (or Ancient Egyptians, Ethiopians, Chinese people) used to believe, or used to think that..." they relegate important traditional stories and oral histories to the realm of historical fiction. This practice denies the validity of those stories in the cultures from which they are a part and mitigates their ability to have lasting impact on the contemporary world.

Teaching traditional stories as "myths" teaches our children an unfair bias--imagine a teacher saying "Long ago, people used to believe that a woman named Mary, who was a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, who they thought was the son of God". What do you think the reaction of the parents in the OP's bible-belt school would be to this framing?

What should schools do instead? Teach stories of all faiths and cultures as "traditional stories". Do not frame the stories as "people used to believe". Explain that people in the contemporary world still believe these stories. Explain the important role traditional stories and oral histories play in our world. Ask students to consider the stories their own family members tell them--how have they helped to shape their own lives?

Speaking out is the first and best way parents can begin to shift bias in teaching. This is they type of deeply personal, grassroots activism that causes a shift in the way teaching and learning happens in our public schools. This is how mother Roni Dean-Burren brought light to her son's textbook that re-framed slaves as "workers". It is the type of activism that is calling attention to racist narratives written into a Texas textbook about Mexican-American heritage. It is the same activism that led Pagan mom Ginger Strivelli to call attention to the bias present when her children's public school decided to hand out donated Bibles to all children in the school.

Here are some tips from my article 2013 Advocating for Pagan Children in Public Schools that can be helpful in advocating for Pagan children in school:

  • Approach the situation with the belief that everyone involved cares about your child. I have yet to meet a teacher who does not care deeply about his or her students, so I have to believe that when teachers make mistakes and behave in ways that are hurtful to students and families that these mistakes come from a lack of awareness about how hurtful the behavior is. It is likely that your child may be the first Pagan person his or her teacher has ever met, so it could very well be the teacher’s naiveté (rather than hate) that is fueling his or her hurtful behavior. Viewing your child’s educators not as enemies but rather as allies in resolving the issue will create a much more positive and productive environment in which to reach that resolution. This takes courage and self-control which is especially difficult when someone has wronged your baby, but in the end, your positive outlook will make a difference, especially as you find yourself in a position of educating the educators about your faith and about appropriate behaviors in creating a welcoming environment for all students.

  • Know what you believe and find a way to articulate it clearly to others.When situations like this arise, Pagan parents often find themselves made the unwitting or unwilling spokespersons for the Pagan community. This is incredibly unfair and you can decline this daunting role by simply saying, “I cannot speak for all Pagans, but I can speak to my own family’s experience (or tradition)”. Having said this, while you do not have to assume the role of spokesperson for all Pagans, you do at minimum have to assume the role of spokesperson for your family and its needs. Pagan beliefs, traditions and practices can seem very foreign to members of mainstream religions or those who are entirely unaware or grossly uninformed of the Pagan community. So, distilling your family’s tradition down into an easy to understand statement will be helpful in supporting why your family’s needs are necessary. For example, if you want your child to be excused from school for all of the Sabbats, you should probably include in your statement something like “Our family celebrates eight high holy days, known as Sabbats. We are seeking an excused absence for our child when these holidays fall on a school day, so our child can stay home in observance of the holiday”. Further, as we know, in situations of ignorance words like “devil-worship” or “evil” or the like can sometimes arise. Being able to articulate your beliefs will help you to keep a cool head as you correct these hurtful stereotypes should they arise. You will be able to say something like, “’Devil-worship’ is actually not a part of my family’s faith, but it is an incredibly hurtful stereotype which we consider a slur. We do not recognize any devil or supremely evil force, so we do not worship such an entity. We do, however, worship a benevolent God as well as Goddess.”

  • Come to the conversation with a list of specific outcomes that you believe will make your child’s school experience better. Whether it is simply that your child’s teacher will stop making disparaging comments about your faith or wanting your child to be excused from school on the Sabbats or wanting the school’s winter holiday celebrations to include Yule—it is best to know what you want from your child’s school and, again, be able to articulate its importance clearly. If your list of desired outcomes includes having your child’s teacher fired, you may want to reconsider or at least give this a great deal of objective thought. Consider your ultimate goal here, is it to simply remove one teacher or to help bring about acceptance for your child and quite possibly students of other minority religions as well? If the teacher is fired, he or she will likely leave school a less-than-enlightened perception of Pagans not to mention you will still need to share a community with this person. Consider if you are willing to tolerate other parents’ reaction to your campaign to fire the teacher, not to mention how the other students in class might treat your child if they find out why Mrs. Smith was fired. Also note that it takes a lot to fire a tenured teacher in many school systems, so consider if you have energy to pursue this end. Every situation is different, but the silver lining of instances of school-based discrimination is that it is an opportunity for growth and the possibility of a new level of acceptance for Pagans in your community. It places you and your family as the leaders of a kind of change can be far reaching and have a lasting positive impact in your community and in the greater Pagan community.

  • Document incidents of bias and discrimination. If your child is continually reporting disparaging remarks or negative interactions with his or her teacher (or other educational stakeholder), then it is time to begin documenting these incidents. This is because you will likely find yourself in at least a few meetings surrounding these incidents and having a list of specific examples to refer to will go a long way to helping you keep a cool head and be able to provide detailed and documented examples of the negative interactions you are trying to stop. I would recommend creating a chart with the following columns:

Date; Description of Incident: People Present; Parent Communication with School (include who you spoke to); Action taken by School; Resolution Reached Yes/No; Notes

It can be really easy to communicate less-than effectively when it’s your child who’s hurting and to get lost in a sea of “educationalese/leagalese” . Having a list of documentation is key to illustrating the problem and resolving it.

  • Communicate frequently, respectfully and IN WRITING. Always communicate to your child’s teacher in a respectful manner—for one thing it’s better to have an uncomfortable conversation with a calm, cool and collected attitude and for another, you should be modeling the type of communication you wish to see between the teacher and your child. Try to communicate via email or in writing and request that the recipient of your communication respond in kind. This way you have a paper trail to follow and to bring with you to meetings should you need to. Also, having conversations in writing means you will be able to review the conversation. Being able to re-read your conversation might give you clues as to where mis-communication is happening, or what the teacher’s specific biases are or where they are coming from. You might even find that upon a second read of the teacher’s email that her tone was not as hostile as you initially thought when you had steam coming out of your ears as you tried to defend your child.

  • Set an intention. Create an intention statement and keep coming back to it in conversations. It could be something like: “We are seeking a safe and supportive environment for our child’s education. This type of environment honors diversity, including religious diversity. It is our wish that your institution (including faculty, staff, administration and other stakeholders in my child’s education) can work together towards a goal of building that supportive environment through a mutual objective of supporting students and families.” You might also wish to come up with examples of what it would look like if your intention became a reality in your child’s school. Having examples such as “my child would be able to wear a pentacle necklace to school without the fear of ridicule or judgment from his or her teacher and peers, just as other children wear crosses and stars of David without the fear of ridicule and judgment. “ or “Our holidays would be included in school seasonal conversations and celebrations”.

Bias exists in our schools and parents are on the front lines to speak out when they see it. Kudos to you, Crystal, for speaking up for your child and Pagan children everywhere!



Advocating for Pagan Children in Pagan Schools is an article I wrote back in 2013 in the Pagan Families blog on Patheos. It later ran in issue #115 of Circle Magazine. Back issues can be purchased here. Photo above published with the permission of its original poster.

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