See Me, Feel Me

Blue Valley School District Wins Award With Hands-On Religious Literacy Program

With the Blue Valley Culture Trunk program, the school district is being recognized for their interfaith education, which uses authentic religious artifacts (above) for the students to touch and explore. They hope it leads to students celebrating religious diversity. (Photo: Daniel Boothe | Flatland)

Walking out of her school library this morning, Manasvi Chennareddy gushed about spending the past hour learning about the variety of religions from around the world.

“I didn’t know about Sikhs, or that other religions existed,” said Manasvi, a sixth-grader at Harmony Middle School in Overland Park. “And now I know all of their practices.”

Manasvi is a Hindu, as is her friend and classmate, Suchira Somaraju, who thought it was “pretty cool” that other students were learning about her faith as well.

“I think some students practice their religions at school, and some of the students wonder what they are doing,” Suchira said. “This teaches everybody, and keeps students from making fun of each other.”

And that is what the Blue Valley Culture Trunk program is all about, said the teacher, Ronda Hassig: “Understanding.”

Designed to educate students about Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism, the program provides a hands-on learning experience using various authentic religious objects.

More than two dozen pieces travel to various schools in the Blue Valley School District in large trunks. This is not a museum; Touching is encouraged.

Handling the artifacts is what engages the students to ask questions and spark genuine curiosity, Hassig said.

A founding member of the district’s Diversity Team, Hassig is passionate about educating children to be open and inclusive to those who have a different belief system.

“The only way our world has any chance of surviving is to love one another, and the only way you can love someone is to know where they are coming from,” Hassig said. “We want kids to be aware of the people they go to school with, aware that the foundation of every religion is to be loving, and to make the world a better place.”

The program caught the attention of Kansas City interfaith leader Mahnaz Shabbir, who championed their efforts to the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

At its annual fundraising event Tuesday, the council is scheduled to present its “Table of Faith Award” to the district. The award goes to an organization that spreads the ideas of diversity, peace and understanding, said council Chair Mary McCoy, a Kansas City-area reverend.

McCoy said Blue Valley is one of the few school districts in the area “that actually teaches religion with the idea to learn about each other, to understand each other and to improve our community through that mutual respect.”

The honor is a reflection of the district’s commitment to teaching inclusion, said Kelly Wessel, coordinator of the Diversity Team. “We just really care about each and every student,” Wessel said. “A lot of school districts may say they do, but we walk that walk,” she said.

The interfaith council is a nonprofit with representation from more than 20 religions.

Shakil Haider, chair of the Midland Islamic Council, will receive the “Table of Faith” individual award at the fundraising event.

Daniel Boothe is a reporter for KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism. To reach Boothe, email him at reporter@kcpt.org

This story is part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project “BeyondBelief,” a series of stories and discussions about faith and the different faith traditions in our diverse city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Learn more about “Beyond Belief” here.

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