Prayer in School: What happens in a ‘Moment of Silence’?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
A MOMENT OF SILENCE often is used among men and women in public service as a way to honor the fallen. This photo from the USS Kearsarge, serving in the Persian Gulf, shows the ship’s personnel pausing in an annual moment of silence to remember victims of the “9/11” attacks. (Photo by U.S. Navy’s Ash Severe, released for public use.)

A MOMENT OF SILENCE often is used by men and women in public service as a way to honor the fallen. This photo from the USS Kearsarge, serving in the Persian Gulf, shows the ship’s personnel pausing in an annual moment of silence to remember victims of the “9/11” attacks. (Photo by U.S. Navy’s Ash Severe, released for public use.)

Have you participated in a Moment of Silence? Often, Moments of Silence are expressions of remembrance and respect for those who have died or used to commemorate a tragedy. These are common occurrences in schools.

If a student cares to pray during a Moment of Silence, is it permissible?

This week, we’ve considered various angles on what is still a contentious issue in America: prayers in school. As a new Pew survey reports, a majority of Americans still support prayers in school. We’ve considered prayers at graduation ceremonies, writing about prayers or other religious themes in a term paper, and “See You at the Pole” prayer events.

Today, we consider the Moment of Silence. The theme this week is neutrality. School officials cannot officially encourage or discourage religious expression at schools. If students—on their own—choose to pray, they can do so as an expression of religious freedom.

The Moment of Silence is one of many issues covered the Department of Education’s guidelines. These guidelines state:

“If a school has a ‘minute of silence’ or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Teachers and other school employees may neither encourage nor discourage students from praying during such time periods.”

Back in the 1990s, Colin Powell, who was thinking about running for the White House, famously said that he didn’t favor prayer in public schools but he did favor a Moment of Silence.

Critics of the Moment of Silence contend that it is just a sneaky way to slip prayers into the school day.

So, what do you think happens in a Moment of Silence?
Have you participated in one?
If so, did you pray?

Prayer in School: See you at the pole?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
See You at the Pole at a Middle School

A See You at the Pole event at a middle school. While these events are “student initiated and student led,” they often involve adults as well—as in this case. Photo provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons by “TCWikieditor.”

“See you at the pole” is a student-initiated gathering of Christian students who meet at the schoolyard flagpole before the school day to pray and worship. Starting in 1990, it is now an annual event here and abroad.

Is this use of school property constitutional?

“See you at the pole” (SYATP) started as a small gathering in Texas. It grew into a global event. An estimated 1 million students in the U.S. participate, with see-you-at-the-pole events in many other countries. The SYATP website emphasizes that the event is “student-initiated, student-organized, and student-led”—a key to the constitutionality of the gathering.

Traditionally, a day in September is designated for the event. This year, it was September 24. A somewhat recent shift has been from a single day to a week of prayerful activities. The “Global Week of Student Prayer” this year took place from Sunday, September 21 through Saturday, September 27, 2014.

These events are permissible, and in their official capacities, school officials cannot discourage or encourage participation. The U.S. Department of Education explicitly addresses SYATP, stating that students may organize such events before school “to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities groups.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also weighed in, and you can read their opinion here.)

Do “See You at the Pole” events take place in your local schools?

Do you know someone who participated?

Do you support such activities?

Prayer in School: Can a student write a term paper about prayer?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Officially sanctioned prayers are banned in public schools, including any religious expression in classrooms or graduation ceremonies led by school employees.

But what if a student wants to write about prayer or God in a class assignment? Is this allowable?

I once faced this situation. I teach in a public institution of higher education and so the ban on officially sanctioned religious expression obviously applies. But I had a business-school student ask me if it was okay to write about “God as a business partner” to fulfill a class assignment for a term paper. For example, in some banks, loan officers routinely pray with their clients for good terms on pending mortgage applications. Some companies incorporate religious principles into their business models. Chick-fil-A restaurants, for example, are closed on Sundays.

The student’s proposal might seem like a gray area, but the Department of Education is clear about the answer. Suppose, for example, that an English teacher gives an assignment to write a poem and a student writes a sonnet about prayer. This poem “should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Students are free to “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” The instructor should judge the product solely on “the basis of academic standards.” It cannot be “penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.”

I confess that I didn’t then know all the details of the DOE guidelines, but it was apparent to me at the time that it would be fine for the student to write a term paper about God as a business partner.

Have you faced a similar situation?

Do you agree with DOE’s policy on the expression of religious beliefs in class assignments?

Children’s Values: Just how much curiosity do we want?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Children's Values
Colorado school students protest conservative curriculum

Click this collage of headlines to jump to the Los Angeles Times story.

“Curiosity” is a good value to teach our children, millions of Americans agree—however, the Pew report we are examining this week shows that liberals and conservatives are likely to disagree on its relative importance.

The eruption of protests among students and teachers in a suburb of Denver, this week, may reflect this difference. Pew did not ask specifically about the Colorado case, but a political split over “curiosity” appears to be part of the Colorado conflict.

THE NEW  YORK TIMES REPORTS, in part: “ARVADA, Colo.—A new conservative school board majority here in the Denver suburbs recently proposed a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” In response, hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience. On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools across the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado, streamed out of school and along busy thoroughfares, waving signs and championing the value of learning about the fractious and tumultuous chapters of American history.”

The students are concerned about more than “curiosity,” but their comments in national news media make it clear that their desire to be curious is a prime motivation. In the hundreds of news reports streaming out of Colorado, teenagers are quoted as saying that they want to ask probing questions in their American history classes. They are wary of being taught from textbooks that they fear may be slanted, now, toward conservative viewpoints on our history.

PEW FOUND—Liberals are much more likely than conservatives to value curiosity as a quality they would like to see in children, according to the new Pew survey we’ve been consulting this week. Over eight of ten consistently liberals (86%) say that curiosity is especially important for to teach children. A third say it is among the most important values. Just over half of consistently conservative Americans (55%) say that curiosity is a very important value for children, with 6% saying that it is among the most important.

What do you think about the school protest this week?

Do you think the protests are motivated partly by curiosity—or other motives?

How would you resolve the Colorado conflict?

Banned Books: Why are books challenged?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Banned Books
CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham's new book about worldwide response to James Joyce's "Ulysses." Click this cover image to visit the book's Amazon page.

CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham’s new book about worldwide response to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Book censorship is a time-honored tradition. Banning books is alive and well in America today. Today, we consider why books are challenged—the reasons cited by those who attempt to ban books in our schools and libraries.

What do you think is the main reason?

This week, as most of America’s schoolchildren are going back to school, we’ve examined new attempts to ban ‘demonic’ books, the No. 1 banned book in the last 10 years, self-censorship by authors in our climate of surveillance, and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week this month and 451 Degrees, a high-school book club devoted to reading banned books. (By the way, I asked my son about Captain Underpants, the No. 1 banned book in the last decade. Had he read it in elementary school? “Yes,” he said. “It was kinda funny, but pretty stupid.”)

We conclude this week by considering the reasons why books are challenged.

There have been 5,099 challenges to books from 2000–2009, according to the ALA. Here are the main reasons why books are challenged. (Note that some books are challenged for multiple reasons, so the figures below don’t total 5,099.)

  • “Sexually explicit” material (1,577 challenges)
  • “Offensive language” (1,291 challenges)
  • “Unsuited to age group” (989 challenges)
  • “Violence” (619 challenges)
  • “Homosexuality” (361 challenges)

More challenges are made to books in school libraries than any other place, followed by challenges to books used in classrooms and then books available in public libraries. There are relatively few challenges to books used in college or in academic libraries, according to the ALA.

Are you surprised to learn that “sexually explicit” material is the most commonly made charge?

Of these five reasons, which one is the most important to you?

Which of the five is the least important to you?

Banned Books: How about a book club—for banned books?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Banned Books

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-outPeaceful protest in defense of one’s principles is one of the core American values, as I describe in United America. In the political arena, it’s called critical patriotism. How does this same spirit play out in the literary sphere?

How about a book club devoted to reading only banned or challenged books?

A group of students at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago did just that. They call themselves “451 Degrees” in honor of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s book itself has been challenged and banned, which is ironic given that it describes a world where reading is forbidden and books are burned.

Members of 451 Degrees devote themselves to reading books that are challenged, controversial, or banned. The book club and the Lane Tech student body won the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Award in 2013 for their protest of The Chicago Public School’s banning of Persepolis, a book by Marjame Satrapi. (Read more about the award here.)

Later this month, the American Library Association (ALA) is hosting its annual Banned Books Week (September 21–27, 2014). If you want to participate, you can. The ALA is inviting readers to make and post videos on the Virtual Read-Out YouTube channel in support of intellectual freedom. You can read from a banned book, or discuss a banned book and what it means to you. Celebrity videos are featured on the Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out. (Want to participate? Here’s the Banned Book Week Virtual Readout page with information for participants and links to earlier videos.)

What do you think of the 451 Degrees book club?
Would you support a similar club in your local school?
Do you plan to participate in this year’s Banned Books Week?

Enjoy this brief video that served as the official Banned Book Week Video Trailer last year …

Banned Books: Is U.S. surveillance leading to self censorship?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Banned Books
NSA signs with flowers

NSA headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, northeast of Washington D.C.

Banning books is one thing. It’s even more serious to influence what gets written in the first place. Self-censoring by authors was one of the outcomes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as authors tried to avoid offending anyone. Eventually, books were banned entirely.

But self-censoring couldn’t happen today, right?

In fact, it’s such a serious threat that nearly 30 famous writers just sent a letter to the U.S. Senate urging changes in the way our National Security Administration (NSA) carries out mass surveillance on Americans. The list of top writers includes lots of writers familiar to high school and college students: Don DeLillo, Nikki Giovanni, John Irving, Tony Kushner, and even the writer better known as Lemony Snicket.

In their longer letter, the writers said: “Mass surveillance invades our private thoughts and lives, chilling speech and spreading fear and mistrust throughout a society. Mass surveillance is censorship.” As evidence, the writers cite a 2013 survey by PEN American Center, a branch of PEN International. PEN’s mission is “to protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted or attacked in the course of their professions.”

Writers are very concerned about government surveillance, much more so than the general public. Over a quarter (28%) say they have “curtailed or avoided social media activities.” About one fourth (24%) say they have “deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.” And, 16% say they have “avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic.”

One writer said he aborted a book project because he feared his research would attract the attention of surveillance authorities. The topic was “civil defense preparedness during the Cold War.”

Here’s what he said, quoted from the PEN report: “… as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation’, ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”

Is self-censoring a price we should be willing to pay if it means more security? Over a third of Americans (36%) in my national surveys agreed with the statement: “I am willing to give up any freedom the government asks me to give up in order to protect this country’s safety.” Half of all Americans disagree, with 14% in the undecided category.

Are you willing to give up any freedom the government asks you if it means better safety and security?

Do you know of any authors who are self-censoring?

Are the concerns expressed in the PEN report overblown or justified?