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Virtual reach of Religious Diversity Journeys expands education on world religions amid pandemic

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

At East Middle School in Plymouth in her seventh-grade social studies class, Shelley Lloyd is using virtual field trips, part of a program called Religious Diversity Journeys, to teach about world religions.

“One of the things I like about it is a live Q&A where they can ask questions that sometimes people are afraid to ask,” Lloyd said.

 “There is one about Sikhism that’s entitled, ‘11 Things You Want to Know About My Turban but Were Too Afraid to Ask.’

“I think it’s just so wonderful,” she said. “I’m learning about these things, as well.”

Under the auspices of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, Religious Diversity Journeys has expanded in 17 years from the idea of a teacher in Berkley to classes at several schools in Metro Detroit.

Kennedy Clawson works at her home school desk with her mother Rachel Clawson as they work on Religious Diversity Journeys, part of The Interfaith Leadership Council, a local group responsible for the course, at their Canton home on Tuesday, December 8, 2020.

In 2020, serendipity, a rare phenomenon during the coronavirus, struck.

Forced by the pandemic, producers, organizers, videographers and programmers scrambled beginning in March to deliver the learning online, creating virtual field trips and other course material from scratch.

Fruit of the labor is a 640%  increase in web traffic to the site of the Interfaith Leadership Council, since Nov. 1.

They also had to reconceptualize television productions related to the seventh grade classes, which are airing on the local station of the Public Broadcasting Service, WTVS-TV, including at 7:30 p.m. Monday as part of One Detroit.

The classes help fulfill a world religions mandate for seventh grand social studies classes in Michigan.

Students said Religious Diversity Journeys provides real-life, interesting lessons outside of the classroom and around diverse communities of Metro Detroit, even if it is virtually, this year.

“I really like the website,” said Kennedy Clawson, a student, who also participated in the staging of some of the virtual field trips. “There’s a lot of things to do, and it really helps learn more about it.

Religious Diversity Journeys, The Interfaith Leadership Council, a local group responsible for the course on Tuesday, December 8, 2020.

“There’s five different religions that you can do. This is about their culture and religion. And, there’s recipes; there’s a lot of information.”

Assisting in making videos for the virtual classes, Clawson visited local Sikh and Hindu temples.

“I really enjoy just being able to learn more about it,” she said. “For example, now when I’ve learned about Sikhs wearing turbans, when I went outside, I noticed how many people are actually Sikh around me.”

Rania Hammoud, a curriculum coordinator for the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, said the increased impact of the class, forced by a pandemic, is prized.

“We’ve been involved with Religious Diversity Journeys for three years now, and in the past only a small percentage of our seventh grade students were able to participate,” Kozler said.

“Now, so many more students and teachers can participate.

“As part of Michigan’s seventh grade social studies content expectations, students are already learning about the different world religions,” she said. “Using the RDJ resources obviously makes students make better connections to their learning.”

Before 2020, the program was in extensive use in Canton Township, Dearborn, Farmington, Hamtramck and Plymouth, according to staff at the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

Supporting the growth of the program, which its producers say reached 800 students last year, are a number of organizations and foundations, including First Foundation, First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Islamic Relief USA, the Nissan Foundation.

When COVID-19 struck, the financing some schools offer for tuitions for the program was in jeopardy. It also affected the terms of a grant used to bring some of Religious Diversity Journeys to WTVS-TV, public television, in Detroit.

Kennedy Clawson works at her home school desk with her mother Rachel Clawson as they work on Religious Diversity Journeys, part of The Interfaith Leadership Council, a local group responsible for the course, at their Canton home on Tuesday, December 8, 2020.

“What we started seeing early in the summer was school boards were zeroing out field trip budgets, said Wendy Miller Gamer, the program director for the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

“We projected very early on this summer that the vast majority of our schools would have no ability to pay tuition.”

Gamer said First Foundation agreed to donate more money to bring the course work and field trips to students virtually.

“We had some long-term planning and work that we really spent an intensive summer doing,” Gamer said. “We weren’t scrambling. It was very methodical and very prepared. But, it was an entirely new curriculum and an entirely new platform that we created.

“We are extremely proud that we involved 800 kids in our in person program last year,” she said. “This year, with our program online, the potential is tens of thousands of kids.”

In addition to shifting the course material entirely online, Gamer and what she described as “a whole bunch of working mothers working on their own time,” recreated the field trips to local churches, mosques and temples that are an integral part of the teaching.

“We had to take a look at what happens in a five-and-a-half hour personal field trip and to reverse engineer it, so that each component we wanted to be sure to represent is on the screen,” Gamer said.

And, what student does not like a field trip?

“The basic principles of decreasing barriers of otherness, teaching students about faith from a sociological perspective, teaching kids about the similarities that bridge our faiths and enrich our communities, those messages have not changed,” Gamer said.

“But how the message is delivered has changed radically.”

 To “teach culture belief and experience” and share what religion means to an even wider audience, Detroit Public Television applied for a grant to film students doing the course work and taking the field trips, for the One Detroit program.

The grant was approved about the third week of March, when much about how the world does business suddenly changed.

 The Michigan Humanities Council allowed what in effect was “a pandemic shift” to the way the grant was written, Gamer said.

“Again, we brainstormed, and what we came up with is filming five different communities, and DPTV engaged a local company called Reel Clever Films, and we are working with this documentary film team, and we have filmed four out of five of our journeys.”

WTVS is broadcasting what has been produced.

“We are proud to offer this series of spiritual tour, which can help us appreciate our differences while discovering the common threads of conscience and compassion that hold us together as a community,” said Rich Homberg, president of Detroit Public TV. “There is no better portal than visiting the mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, churches and the othe places of worship to learn about each other.”

The teacher who thought of the idea 17 years ago, Gail Katz, is still a member of the board of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

Katz said she started teaching English as a Second Language because her mother emigrated from Russia and she also lived with her maternal grandfather growing up.

“I heard all the stories about living in a different country, and so many of my members of my grandfather’s family perished in the Holocaust and I heard all those stories,” she said. “I decided that I would devote my career to helping immigrant families.”

In 2003, she noticed an article in the Jewish News about a grant that the Jewish Community Relations Council had received for education on world religions and thought it could be something that would be perfect for her students. She ended up running what would come to be called Religious Diversity Journeys.

“In 2006, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion took it over,” Katz said. “Fast forward to 2013, that is when the Interfaith Leadership Council took it over.

“I had retired from teaching, and I was very involved with the education committee of the Interfaith Leadership Council to take it over. What a perfect educational opportunity,” she said.

“It was a wonderful program, and I am so happy the IFLC took it over. It has grown from 160 students in 2003.”

The legacy of Katz’s conception is now a sprawling educational and media initiative.

“My hope is that when we send kids to this program that they learn two things,” said Lisa Kozler, a teacher at East Middle School in Plymouth. “One is compassion and the other is that we are more alike than we are different.

“And then, my hope is that they come back to school and share it.”