From Hindu priests to Muslim imams to Zen Buddhist teachers to Jewish rabbis to Catholic priests, all have hosted students from the Bloomfield Hills High School IB World Religions class at their religious sites and visited the class to speak on their religions. "One of the things we try to do is take advantage of the incredible religious diversity in this community. Literally, we have all the major world religions within 20 minutes. Instead of me teaching everything or the kids presenting to me, I have local religious leaders come in," explained teacher Matt MacLeod. "This is something that most public schools don't have, and you just don't get other places. It promotes understanding and diversity."
The IB World Religions class is offered to both full IB Diploma Programme students as well as any BHHS student interested in learning more about major religions or just taking an IB class. The class is a combination of field trips to nearby religious sites to receive presentations by religious leaders, class visits from religious leaders, and student presentations to religious leaders.
"As a part of having an audience outside the classroom and connecting with our community in this Diploma Programme class, you aren't taught, for example, Judaism, by me," said MacLeod. "You are taught by a Jewish rabbi. Kids don't present just to each other, they are going to teach to experts in the faith who will then dialog and discuss their ideas and presentations with them. I'm a co-learner and we explore together."
MacLeod continued, "We also go on field trips to all these places of worship, which is a cool way of connecting to our community. I reach out to people in the local community and ask them to come in. Over the past three years, my students actually have recommended many of our guest presenters. A couple are parents of current or former BHHS students."
Senior Jackson Irmscher said IB World Religions is a favorite class. "I love how we get different speakers because it gives us a lot more insight. When you get these professionals from these major religions, it allows us to learn things we might not otherwise have learned in a traditional classroom setting." Junior Noah Ables agrees, "This is also one of my favorite classes. You get to experience your presentation a lot differently than you would in other classes. In other classes you get your information from just one teacher, but here we have so many more resources and get more than one point of view so what you are learning about religion is not biased."
The set up of the class is unique as well. MacLeod has students design and prepare the lessons themselves. "I give them the guidelines and the curriculum components," said MacLeod, "but they select the presentations and teach the class to make it more of an experiential style. This is project-based learning with grading modeled on standards-based grading where at the end of the unit, they sit down with me and they decide what is a fair grade. If they are unhappy with the grade, then they have to go back and do something to convince me that it should be higher. These are very in-depth conversations where they know exactly why they got, for example, a C, and what they need to learn to improve. They get these formative grades along the way on the individual components, but nothing counts except the final grade where we sit down and look together at what they learned and accomplished."
Senior Joseph Boguski said he did more preparation than usual for this class, particularly before the religious leader visited to review the presentations. "I did more research and made sure I was knowledgeable on the topic and wouldn't say anything incorrect."
One such visitor was Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, an Orthodox rabbi from the Friendship Circle. "What I enjoy is seeing teens think through processes and open themselves up to concepts and how that might work in different frameworks," said Rabbi Blumstein. "I see this class as a very structured place to learn new concepts so it's a very safe environment. The teacher does a great job at really creating an open learning environment. So, even if the students know certain concepts, this allows them to step out and learn some new ideas. It's a really great approach."
Rabbi Blumstein himself teaches at Hillel Day School and Frankel Jewish Academy and reported that the experience has been positive. "I'm usually on the other side of questions and answers where people are asking me questions. It's very engaging to see them try to come up with the answers to the questions that I ask. These are really intelligent kids."
Senior Tommy Cohen-Tannugi presented on gender in Judaism. "I thought Rabbi Blumstein asked in-depth questions and made us reflect more deeply on points in our presentation." Conner Klemer, a junior in the class, also liked having an expert available for information and discussion. "I liked getting the feedback on our questions in general because the Rabbi's questions were difficult to answer, so I appreciated learning what he viewed as correct."
The year-long class is structured so that students learn about the religions of the east in the first semester and then the major Abrahamic religions in the second semester. "At the end of each unit, you pick something from the course guide and you teach it to me. You can write me a paper, give a presentation, do a video, or even do an art project," said MacLeod as he showed an AP Art student's representation of the Buddhist wheel of death. "We don't take as a part of this class take tests that show me you can memorize. I want students to show me their learning. However, those students who take the IB test at the end of the class do very well on it."
One big benefit of the class is increasing understanding of diverse thoughts and opinions among students at BHHS. "This type of learning and this type of diversity in our community is so cool. Having these kids do what is real, to have people in to have serious, huge conversations about events and issues, is so important to our students," emphasized MacLeod.