Washington Post goes into the classroom in front-page story on Bible classes in public schools

Let’s talk about Tuesday’s front-page Washington Post story on “Teaching Scripture in public schools.”

But before we do, let’s refresh ourselves on some relevant background: Back in January, President Donald Trump tweeted his support of Bible classes in public schools:

As I noted at the time, Trump’s tweet followed a USA Today story that reported on “a wave of ‘Bible literacy’ bills emerging in state legislatures.”

I said in that post:

Here’s the deal: Bible classes in public schools already exist, and they have for a long time. While the USA Today story, for example, did a nice job of quoting politicians and advocacy group talking heads, the better, more enlightening story is in the classroom itself.

That’s a point I’ve made before, urging reporters to talk to actual students and teachers involved in such classes — and if possible, observe in person — to see what these courses are actually like.

Fast-forward to this week’s Post story, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see religion writer Julie Zauzmer actually go into Kentucky school classrooms to report her piece.

That approach — which, according to a tweet by Zauzmer, involved two trips to the Bluegrass State — makes all the difference in the Post’s insightful and informative report:

Zauzmer’s lede sets the scene:

GLASGOW, Ky. — Todd Steenbergen leads worship services in church sometimes, but today he was preaching in a different venue: the public-school classroom where he teaches. 

“A lot of people will look at the Beatitudes and glean some wisdom from them,” he told the roomful of students, pointing toward the famous blessings he had posted on the board, some of the best-known verses in the Bible. “I want you to think about what kind of wisdom we can get from these today.”

While Steenbergen was urging students to draw lessons from the Bible here in southern Kentucky, students in Paducah — halfway across the state — were reading from the Gospels as well, in a classroom where they drew pictures of the cross and of Adam and Eve walking with dinosaurs, hanging them on the walls.

Scenes of Bible classes in public school could become increasingly common across the United States if other states follow Kentucky’s lead in passing legislation that encourages high schools to teach the Bible.

Activists on the religious right, through their legislative effort Project Blitz, drafted a law that encourages Bible classes in public schools and persuaded at least 10 state legislatures to introduce versions of it this year. Georgia and Arkansas recently passed bills that are awaiting their governors’ signatures.

Keep reading, and the Post covers criticisms from opponents of these courses and offers relevant context from a major U.S Supreme Court decision.

The story doesn’t include comments from Project Blitz leaders, but you can’t quote people who won’t talk to you.

Give the Post credit for trying:

Leaders of Project Blitz did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.

But again, the best part of the story is when the Post focuses on the classroom itself:

At McCracken County High in Paducah, Ellen Powless takes a different approach in teaching her Bible class.

All students have a Bible in print as well as a Bible app on their phones or school-issued laptops. Students read chapters for homework and spend much of their class time going line by line through the text together.

Powless paces the room, steering her students through question after question about the words of Scripture.

“Tell me about Isaac. What do we know about Isaac?” she said one morning this semester.

Silence. “That’s okay,” said Powless, who has taught English for 21 years in the school she also grew up in. “Let’s go to the text — Genesis 25.”

“ ‘Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren,’ ” she read. “Hmm, what other character have we seen that’s dealt with barrenness?”

In class, she calls biblical figures “characters” and always refers to “their god,” not to “God.”

Go ahead and read it all.

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