Cottonwood Heights • In Jodi Ide's world religions class, Brighton High students discuss issues in the global spotlight ranging from the mosque planned near New York's ground zero to a British ice cream ad that poked fun of Roman Catholic beliefs.
Next trimester, Ide's classroom discussions will include students from the United Kingdom, Palestine, Israel, Indonesia and other nations.
Canyons School District is one of the first in the United States to try out Face to Faith, a Tony Blair Faith Foundation project that taps technology to connect students of diverse faiths from around the world. Participating classrooms have face-to-face conversations through video conferencing. The foundation provides a moderator for every chat.
"It will be interesting to get a different perspective," said Mallory Robbins, a 17-year-old senior at Brighton, "to see how their religions influence their thoughts about politics, the environment and other stuff like that."
Robbins said this will be the first time she will get a chance to speak to people her age in other countries.
Ide, the world religions teacher, will use Face to Faith as the foundation of a new World Religions II course, which starts after Thanksgiving break. The program includes in-class lessons so that students have an understanding of topics, such as freedom of expression and poverty in particular countries, before they engage in international dialogues. The elective class will count as a social studies credit.
"It's really a way for these kids to learn how to dialogue and engage in civil debate," Ide said. "This school district itself is becoming more and more diverse. Kids need to be able to navigate that."
Canyons also plans to bring Face to Faith to Hillcrest High as part of two classes: World Civilizations and IB Theory of Knowledge. Hillcrest's community council will be asked next month to sign off on the plan, which has been endorsed by the superintendent and the district's board. Brighton's community council gave its unanimous support last week.
"It's absolutely great," said Noor Ul-Hasan, a parent on Brighton's community council. Her son, a senior, plans to take the Face to Faith class. Ul-Hasan, a member of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, said it's important for her son to have opportunities to connect with people outside the Muslim community.
"I want to encourage my son to learn about other faiths," she said, "appreciate commonalities and build those relationships.
Too often in Utah, she added, "Mormons stick with Mormons. Muslims stick with Muslims."
Canyons is adopting Face to Faith with an eye to the First Amendment and separation of church and state, Superintendent David Doty assured parents at the Brighton community meeting.
"This is perfectly legitimate under our state and federal laws. We can talk about religion," Doty said. "We will be learning about what [people of faith] believe and why, but there will not be any attempt whatsoever to say this is how you should believe."
At both schools, the classes will be optional. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, brainchild of the former British prime minister, covers the entire cost, including training for teachers and video-conferencing equipment.
Doty hopes other Utah schools will follow Canyons' lead.
As educators work to prepare high school students for college and careers, he said, students will need the skills to communicate in a global society. He pointed to polarizing issues of faith, such as the Manhattan mosque and a Florida preacher's abandoned plan to burn copies of the Quran, Islam's holiest text.
"I see these conflicts in our society getting worse not better," Doty said. "If we don't teach kids to dialogue now, then what will our world be like?"
About Face to Faith
What • An educational program run by the London-based Tony Blair Faith Foundation that connects students from diverse backgrounds around the world through video conferencing and online chats. A curriculum accompanies the program that helps students discuss global issues such as the environment, poverty and freedom of expression.
Who • Participants are secondary-school students in the United Kingdom, India, Singapore, Lebanon, Canada, Pakistan, Jordan, Palestine, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the Philippines, Israel and Australia. Students in Utah's Canyons School District would be among the first in the U.S. to join the group.
Cost • The Tony Blair Faith Foundation covers the cost for participating schools, including training teachers and providing video-conferencing equipment.
On the Web • http://www.facetofaithonline.org.