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Grunthal teacher on mission for world religion instruction

By: Grant Burr

Posted: 04/9/2017 9:00 AM

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The world religions class at Green Valley School has no final exam but it does have a final assignment. Students are required, at a minimum, to attend at least one service at a faith group different than their own.

Have you heard the one about the Grunthal student that walks into the Buddhist temple?

Actually, there’s no punch line. In fact, it’s more of a regular occurrence than you might think and all as a result of some inquisitive GVS students from almost a decade ago.

"I have enough of them that go to certain places often enough where I know that at the Buddhist temple I have students that go there and the first thing people there say is, ‘Oh, you’re from that class in Grunthal," said teacher Michael Zwaagstra.

In 2008, Zwaagstra was in the midst of teaching a Grade 10 American history course when it touched on the history of the Mormon church. Zwaagstra said the group of students became very interested with the particular topic of Mormonism.

"We can talk about it a little bit more but I can’t focus too much on it because this is a broader American history class," he recalled telling them.

The students weren’t to be easily deterred and asked if he would ever consider teaching a course in which students could learn about different religions. Zwaagstra, who will tell you he always loves a good debate, was convinced. That same day, Zwaagstra says he pitched the idea of a world religions course to then-principal Rick Ardies, who challenged him to create a proposal. A few approvals later and the course was added to a multitude of school-initiated courses approved by the province for instruction at individual schools.

In 2010, Zwaagstra welcomed his first batch of students into the Grade 12 course, including many familiar faces.

"That was the year those Grade 10 students, who really wanted a course like this, were in Grade 12," he said.

It’s a popular pick for a course if you are in Grade 12 at Green Valley School. Twenty-four students took the course that first year. Today, Zwaagstra said it’s fairly typical for 45-50 students to take the course-a large percentage of the school’s entire Grade 12 program.

"Some come in with strong religious convictions, some don’t, some are still thinking, some are undecided…overwhelmingly the reason they come in is that they are interested in the topic," he said.

Though a community like Grunthal might be viewed as a predominantly Christian community, Zwaagstra said there has been huge support from parents for students learning about different religions.

"The point of the course is not to make students change their perspectives, absolutely not," said Zwaagstra.

"These other ideas are out there. Should we know what they are? Yes, we should know what they are. That’s not a statement on should we change what our views are. That’s up to people themselves whether their views are going to change or not or move in another direction. I’m not here to make people think differently. I’m here to help them think."

Now, he’s helping to turn instruction on world religions into a potential elective course for every public high school in the province.

Zwaagstra, along with two other teachers who have offered similar courses at their own schools, have worked at the behest of the education department since 2015 to develop resources, choosing a textbook and developing a provincial curriculum document tentatively titled, A World of Religions: A Canadian Perspective.

The province’s interest in offering such a course, mirrored the interests of his own students.

"Manitoba is becoming an increasingly diverse province," said Zwaagstra, explaining the provincial government’s rationale.

"We have many people immigrating here from other parts of the world that have different religious perspectives and it makes sense for students to have a better understanding of where people are coming from. In many cases students don’t know anything about what other people believe."

Zwaagstra and his two teaching colleagues on the planning committee are currently piloting the new course in their classrooms this year. By this fall, he hopes the course will be ready to be offered more broadly. For the Grunthal teacher, that has meant a few tweaks to his original course but instruction remains largely the same, including the popular guest speaker component.

"It’s one thing to learn about, let’s say Hinduism, from a textbook but it’s another thing entirely, once they’ve got some of the background, to have a Hindu priest come in and answer their questions-that catches their interest," he said.

Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and more find themselves at the front of Zwaagstra’s classroom sharing about their faith and answering questions from students.

"The point of this is to find out what people actually believe and we don’t find that out when we try to sugarcoat everything and play down any possible difference. The point here is to actually hear what people think because, at some point, you’re probably going to encounter people that have different views than yourself, so let’s learn how we deal with that."

For example, he referenced the first impressions students when a Muslim woman entered the class wearing her hijab.

"Many students haven’t, or don’t realize they’ve talked to a Muslim before, and after a little bit…after she pulls out her iPhone, they realize she’s really a lot like us," he said.

"She’s not this person that’s way out there, she lives in Winnipeg and shops at the same places we shop. A lot of that is just breaking down some of those ideas and making sure students have accurate information."

Presenting factual information, from the perspective of believers, is a large focus of the course’s instruction.

"If you’re going to talk about what someone believes and what they think, make sure you actually know what they believe and what they think," he said.

Zwaagstra said he hopes students leave the course with greater critical thinking skills and greater comfort interacting with people of different faiths and religions.

"It shouldn’t be intimidating to have a conversation with someone, just because they are in a different faith. You should be able to sit down with someone who thinks differently than you and have an honest discussion…knowing that there are really nice, friendly people in these different faith perspectives that you can be friends with, get along with and live beside."

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