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Lesson Planning Ideas: The World's Religions

Looking to liven up grade 6-12 social studies instruction or add a multicultural element to your class? Want to celebrate diversity by discussing holidays around the world, and not just in December?

Expand students' world views by helping them understand religions with which they might be less familiar. Offering kids a global take on religion lets them appreciate the perspectives of the many faith groups within, and outside of, the United States. In this way, kids develop the diversity skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

Click on the names of the religions in the table below to access mini-articles that provide more information on the religion, as well as the corresponding holiday that falls within a particular month. Faiths in the table include: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and Baha'i.

The mini-articles offer a basic rundown of beliefs and practices, information about two holidays observed in the faith, and links to enrichment resources such as photographic images and relevant phrases in various languages.

muslims in a mosque world religions
Inside a mosque (Islamic house of worship)
in Damascus, Syria

Each month of the school year, try opening discussion on one or more religious observances that might be new to your students. The selection of faiths here is certainly not exhaustive; you will want to encourage students to identify and explore additional religious traditions not on the list.

Below the table, you'll find (1) general tips for discussing diverse religions in the classroom, (2) introductory information for students, and (3) discussion points and activities you can use to cover each religion.

Religious Observances (left) and Associated Faiths (right)
Oshogatsu Shintoism
Rissun Shintoism
Naw-Ruz Baha'i
Tomb Sweeping Day Taoism
Hola Mohalla Sikhism
Chunga Choepa Buddhism
Rivdan Baha'i
Easter Christianity
Vaisakhi Day Sikhism
Dragon Boat Festival Taoism
Vesak Buddhism
Ramadan Islam
Ganesh Chaturthi Hinduism
Rosh HaShanah Judaism
Yom Kippur Judaism
Diwali Hinduism
Hajj Islam
Christmas Christianity

NOTE: The indicated timing is approximate for many of the holidays. Many observances are timed to lunar cycles that change from year to year. In addition, some observances begin in the month indicated but carry over to a subsequent month. If you prefer to teach about a holiday on its actual start date, you will need to research the specific date on a year-to-year basis.

Discussing Diverse Religions in the Classroom

Religion can be a complex and even contentious issue and therefore needs to be approached carefully in the classroom. The good news is that clear guidelines offer appropriate practices for public-school educators.

The Teaching About Religion site offers a helpful list of "do’s and don’ts" as well as concrete examples of what appropriate classroom instruction on world religions looks like. In general, educators will want to present a secular discussion that neither endorses nor denigrates any one religion. They will also want to make sure that the experience is comfortable for students of any faith, as well as those who do not have a religious affiliation.

As such, teachers will want to make sure they avoid:

  • Role-playing any sort of practice that can be considered a worship activity (i.e., holidays should be discussed rather than "celebrated").
  • Requiring or pressuring students to disclose or discuss their own religious beliefs (this includes singling out students who may represent a particular faith).
  • Allowing student discussion to go in the direction of proselytizing or judging peers.
  • Stereotyping adherents of various faiths or ignoring the diversity present within every faith.

Likewise, any outside speaker the educator may engage should be comfortable abiding by these guidelines.

Introductory Information for Students

What is a religion?

Begin by asking students to define the term "religion." Record students' responses on chart paper, or have them share their ideas verbally with the class. Alternately or additionally, you may wish to have students record their answers in a personal journal.

Compare their ideas to sociologist Emil Durkheim's classical definition:

"[Religion is] a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community."

The United Religions Initiative also offers a thorough definition of religion that's geared toward younger students.

Remember that students may tend to provide definitions that reflect the scope of their personal beliefs. Through discussion, ensure that you arrive at a definition that's inclusive enough to cover monotheistic, polytheistic and nontheistic religions.

If students have written their initial definition as a journal entry, after teaching about world religions, have them go back and determine whether they want to revise or expand their definitions.

What do we know about world religions?

Introduce the names of nine world religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and Baha'i.

Ask students: Are any of these familiar? Have students use a journal or KWL chart to indicate what they know about these religions.

Try administering a pre-quiz to assess prior knowledge. One quiz might involve putting the nine faiths in order of their number of adherents worldwide. The correct answer, as indicated on, is:

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion
  3. Hinduism: 900 million
  4. Chinese traditional religion (includes Taoism): 394 million
  5. Buddhism: 376 million
  6. Sikhism: 23 million
  7. Judaism: 14 million
  8. Baha'i: 7 million
  9. Shintoism: 4 million

Another quiz might involve matching a key concept or term with its corresponding religion. Here's an example (the term is followed by the answer in parentheses):

  • Torah (Judaism)
  • Muhammad (Islam)
  • Crucifixion (Christianity)
  • Kami (Shintoism)
  • Diwali (Hinduism)
  • Karma (Buddhism)
  • Amrit (Sikhism)
  • Chi (Taoism)
  • Naw-Ruz (Baha'i)

Define the terms monotheism, polytheism and nontheism. Students should remember these terms, as they will be used later to describe various faiths.

Have students identify particular faiths that are least familiar to them. What do they want to learn about them? Ask them to record answers in their journals or in the 'W" column of a KWL chart.

Discussion Points and Activities

Before you begin, remind students of any "ground rules" that will apply to discussions. Assure them that no one will have to share personal information or beliefs, and that discussion should explore each faith without positive or negative judgment.

Start by giving an overview of the distribution of religions worldwide. The site rank-orders faiths in terms of the number of worldwide adherents for each. To put things in visual perspective, you may wish to present this screenshot of the site's world-religions pie chart:

world religions

How does the above global distribution of religions compare to that within the United States? To answer that question, try sharing the following screenshot from

u.s. religions

Ask students: Do these pie charts show what you would have predicted? What was surprising? What was something new that you learned? How does the U.S. differ from the rest of the world? How is it similar?

Students may notice that Christianity is the largest faith both in the United States (79%) and worldwide (33%). And while the U.S. is more diverse than most countries in terms of the number of faiths it represents, in America the non-Christian faiths are present in much smaller percentages than they are elsewhere around the globe. For example, less than 1% of Americans are Muslims, compared to 21% worldwide. For more in-depth information on religions in America, see this Pew Forum report.

Next, present the information on each religion using the nine mini articles (links to these articles also appear in the "Religious Observances" table above):

For each religion, cover the following:

  • Origins of the faith (When was it founded? Was there an identifiable founder?) Find detailed information about the founding of various religions here.
  • Whether it is monotheistic, polytheistic or nontheistic
  • Where in the world most of the faith's adherents are located (the mini-articles have limited information on this; in addition, provides a breakdown by country, and Encyclopedia Britannica provides a breakdown by continent)
  • Major beliefs or emphases
  • Variations among followers of each religion (information on subgroups of each religion can be found here). You'll want to make the point that we need to be careful not to stereotype members of faith groups; religion is a public as well as a private affair.
  • Scriptures or holy texts/books
  • Key figures or individuals
  • Major values or rules for human behavior
  • Key holidays/holy days/religious observances
  • What is unique about the religion (relative to others in the list of nine)
  • What is similar about the religion (relative to others in the list of nine)

Ask students to take notes and use graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams or fact tables (see Example 1 and Example 2) to help them process the information.

To extend the lesson, try one of the following:

  1. Invite a class speaker who is a member of a faith that may be less familiar to students. Have students prepare questions for the speaker ahead of time. If an in-person visit is not possible, use online tools such as, Skype or Google+ Hangouts to hold a virtual meeting.
  2. Individually or in groups, have students conduct further research and document their learning with a Web tool such as, a cloud-based platform that allows for collaborative research, highlighting/annotation, saving of images and more.

Wrap-Up/Assessment Options

  • Ask students to go back to their journals or class chart paper to determine whether their definition of religion needs revision. Reflect upon what changed in terms of students' conceptions of religion.
  • Have kids fill in the 'L" (what I learned) column of a KWL chart or make a concluding journal entry that reflects knowledge gained about world religions.
  • Administer a post-quiz that involves (1) rank-ordering religions by number of worldwide adherents or (2) matching concepts with the corresponding religion. (See Introductory Information for Students section above for quiz answers.)
  • Ask students to create world-religion trivia quizzes and administer them to each other, or facilitate a "Jeopardy!"-style class competition.
  • Invite each student to share a new word, new practice/belief or new holiday/religious observance with which s/he was previously unfamiliar. What was the most interesting or surprising thing learned?
  • Have students plan to share additional information about one of the 18 covered holidays (or additional ones of their choice) at an appropriate future time during the school year. Consult the BBC's interfaith calendar for ideas. Students should select holidays with which they are not currently familiar. Suggestions for student sharing include: a PowerPoint presentation, poster, photo essay, paper scrapbook, set of online bookmarks, or transcript of an interview with a faith leader or person of a particular faith that is different from one's own.
  • Challenge students to practice delivering two- to three-minute "nutshell reports" (brief explanations of each religion for an audience that knows nothing about the faith).


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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