Alene Arnold leads JMS students in a discussion during a Soulful World Class. (Photo credit Sean Raper)
Across the country, educators are coming to understand that cultivating spirituality is an essential part of a child’s development. The Jewish Middle School of Nashville believes that a focus on spiritual growth is as essential to middle school development as curriculum. With students coming from diverse faiths and backgrounds, fostering a sense of spirituality is no easy task. To address this challenge and bring a fresh and candid perspective to a topic that is often fraught with tension and hesitancy, JMS created a didactic and innovative world religion curriculum called Soulful World.
While many schools bear a misplaced fear of teaching world religions, and shy away from it, JMS educators believe that studying religion, either through its literature and art, or through its influence on political and social issues, is a fundamental part of developing spirituality. Through the examination and analysis of varying religious philosophies and ethics, students develop the ability to see themselves as spiritual and religious beings. This in turn fosters a heightened understanding that they are part of a greater community and world.
Alene Arnold, Co-Head-of-School, says, “The class as a substantive world religions class where everything is taught through the lens of one’s own personal beliefs and conclusions.” For example, Arnold will introduce the concept of God and provide a general definition for the term. Students will study the way different religions view and understand God, but then they will inevitably come back to the central questions of, “what do I think?” and, “what do I believe?” Aisha Fransciosa, an eighth grader at JMS, says, “Soulful World allows us to think deeply about different religions and talk about ourselves without any judgement.”
Throughout their middle school years, one of the core issues that students deal with is a development of identity and spirituality. JMS Founder Rabbi Saul Strosberg, believes, “In Soulful World, students learn how the development of identity is emphasized in different cultures and religions. Soulful World also challenges students to think about ethics, values, and what is essential to maintaining a just and kind society.”
While tolerance of diversity is often touted as a cultural standard, JMS encourages its students to aim higher. Arnold and Strosberg advocate that the discussions and explorations in Soulful World give students the knowledge needed to develop a better sense of self and one’s place in the world. Learning the diverse ways in which people understand and connect with a higher being allows students to shift their priorities from the physical and focus on the spiritual. Consequently, students learn to value pluralism and not just tolerate it. The Soulful World curriculum has set a new standard for educators on how to foster spirituality in its students through the study of world religions.