By Mike Stanford, editor-in-chief
Standing speechless as second hour drew to a close April 21, world religions teacher John Camardella read an email validating his work over the past two years: the national standard for teaching religion that he and others developed had been accepted by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).
This process began in July 2015 when Camardella was contacted by Benjamin Marcus, a Wheeling alumnus and research fellow at the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in the District of Columbia. Marcus had seen Camardella’s curriculum and wanted to invite him to join the writing team to develop a national curriculum. Since then, Camardella has collaborated with Marcus, academics, administrators and teachers to advance religious education nationally.
At first, they focused on lesson plans and curriculum material. During this time, Camardella says, their work lacked legitimacy. It was high quality, but there was no reason any teacher would feel compelled to adopt their curriculum. In April 2016, the team shifted its attention to the NCSS standards.
These standards, laid out in a document called the “C3 Framework,” offer national guidance to states on how to structure social studies curricula. The team found that in addition to lacking provisions for how to teach religion, the 110-page document only contained the word “religion” five times, and even then only in passing.
The team worked on developing this standard from July to September. Camardella traveled to Washington six times during this period to work on the project, and he considers this the most intellectually vibrant environment he has ever been in. Accompanying this excitement, however, was the knowledge that all the work could be for naught.
Each of the other national standards for electives in the C3 Framework were developed by the governing body for that field. For example, the psychology standard was written by the American Psychological Association. Although the team had backing from big names at schools like Harvard and Georgetown, they were operating without the endorsement of the American Academy of Religion (AAR).
“They have no reason to say, ‘Oh yeah, people who just randomly wrote this national standard for how to teach about religion, we’re gonna include it now in the national book for how to teach social studies,’” Camardella said.
These concerns were quelled when the AAR gave approval in February 2017. While this was not akin to crossing the finish line, Camardella says this gave them “massive street cred,” which ultimately led to its acceptance into the C3 Framework on April 21. Camardella believes the impact of this is profound.
“[To] everyone who was like ‘Where are the standards? What do you teach by?’ … now we can say we have standards,” Camardella said. “It changes the whole game.”
Camardella believes the document’s flexibility is the key to its impact. Utilizing the acumen gathered by Camardella at Prospect and the other writers in their experiences, it offers guidance for how others seeking to develop a religion curriculum.
“[It’s] not to ever say that the way we teach religion in Mt Prospect is how people should teach religion in California [or] Louisiana,” Camardella said. “The key to this now, ‘Educators, build your own curriculum. This is how you go about building it.’ What we’ve done is given people the framework.”
From here, Camardella, Marcus and other members of the writing team plan to advertise the framework and build upon it with more specific material. Camardella will also have other opportunities related to the project’s success, starting when he leaves for Jerusalem with Foreign Language and Social Science Division Head Gary Judson to meet with the association that approved Judaism component of his work.
On a personal level, Camardella is humbled by his opportunities and success. When he started teaching World Religions at Prospect, he never considered making a national impact. He credits his accomplishments to his preparation in the area gained through tireless determination to improve as a teacher.
“A lesson that my parents taught me … is that you work your tail off just for a chance,” Camardella said. “You’re never promised anything, but when your number’s called and you have the opportunity to do something big or possibly big, you get up every day and just throw yourself into your passion.”
While personally satisfying, Camardella sees this as more than the sum of his work; he credits his students as well. For this reason, he held a celebration in World Religions on April 24 with the food of each class’s choosing, which included Tortorice’s Pizza, Buffalo Wild Wings and Spunky Dunkers.
“I said [to students that] if these standards ever get approved before you graduate, we will celebrate,” Camardella said. “I’ve always said, ‘I’m here for you. I’m a teacher, I’m here for my students. I’m not here for me.’ … I could not have done this without a religion class.”
As Camardella’s boss, Judson has witnessed his dedication to students and his class. He believes that this recent accomplishment further legitimizes Camardella’s work.
“The big part is that since his curriculum has been accepted as the national standard, I think that just shows the validity of the curriculum,” Judson said. “The fact that you could get some people from all different religions to accept the curriculum shows the amount of work he put into it.”
Camardella agrees and thinks that this curriculum is especially relevant given the challenges facing the world today.
“We live in a pluralistic, increasingly diverse society,” Camardella said. “[In] the future of this country, first and foremost, there needs to be an understanding of what makes this country, in my mind, a wonderful place, an example for the rest of the world.”
He believes that religion courses at Prospect and across the country, in accordance with the newly created national standard, have the power to help students confront these challenges.
“We don’t endorse religious beliefs. We educate about religious beliefs,” Camardella said. “In doing so, we offer our students a way to engage with the world as it is.”