The Social Studies of Spirituality

spiritualityBy Kasey Christian

(photo from

Where are the boundaries between Social Studies, Science, and Spiritual beliefs? Where do these distinct practices intersect? How does a teacher model equal respect for each?

As professional educators, how do we teach about intrinsically interdisciplinary (and sensitive) topics such as the basic foundations of life and death?  Both alternative and popular cultures have explored the intimate intersection between natural sciences and spirituality since the earliest discoveries of humankind.  Through exploration of cultural customs and beliefs, a similarly fascinating intersection can be found between social studies and spirituality . As an outdoor educator in a formal, non-traditional setting, much of the curriculum I teach is based on the cultural history of the land.  As I respectfully acknowledge both the facts and beliefs of particular cultures, I am repeatedly challenged to articulate the similarities and differences between social studies, science, and spiritual beliefs.  In my desire to regard each subject area with equal respect and value, I am currently grappling with this dynamic, mysterious and sometimes perplexing crossroads between disciplines.

For example, as we walked along a trail, one student shared with me and several other students that there are “spirits trapped in seeds floating through the air”.  He stated this as fact.

I inquired into the source of his statement; “very interesting idea…how did you learn that?”

His response was stated with equal assuredness: “Samoa. My parents are Samoan and I was born in Samoa and they taught me there”.

At that moment I felt I was straddling a wobbly fence dividing fact and faith.  From this awkward seat, the inheritance of one cultural understanding of the world was coming to terms with another culture’s customary beliefs. I wanted to draw out more from this unique opportunity to learn about Samoan cultural heritage, but I could also imagine parents of one of the other children getting  frenzied as their child informs them that at “science camp” they learned about the “spirits in seeds”.  What was striking me as most important was to ensure that the kids understood that the idea of spirits in seeds is an expression of a belief, and that when we discussed seeds as a stage in the life cycle of a tree we were then speaking of a tangible scientific truth.

I asked the kids to share any other stories or ideas about seeds that they might know.  A couple of voices spoke up about how seeds could have souls and could be alive, and I smiled in realization that by personifying the seeds the kids were recognizing the life of an object which previously seemed inanimate to them. Several other children mentioned how stems, leaves and flowers shoot up out of seeds as they grow in the ground.  Through their observant words, the kids made apparent their recognition of life as both soul and physical growth.  Again, they sparked me to wonder if I was guiding them to learn about science or spirituality. I think that the answer is both, and that the subjects are integrally connected even at times when we least expect it. Furthermore, social studies was fluidly brought into the conversation as we stepped into the Garden Classroom to learn about human practices of composting and gardening.

After spending a morning at the garden and composting sites on our main campus, a hike to the nearby cemetery provides valuable perspective of the human history of the land.  The students typically explore the cemetery in the style of a scavenger hunt to help them answer the questions:  “what happened here in the past- who lived here, what did they do, and how do they have anything to do with what we see here today?”  In addition to the usual response of “Ewww…this is creepy”, they often come back with questions that shock me, such as “Are we walking on bodies? Where did the people go? What are they doing? Are they decomposing?”  Somewhat reluctantly, I struggle to answer these questions.

How can the topic of death be educationally framed for young students? The world’s many different cultures have richly developed stories which we can share to make sense of the spiritual journey after life.  This attempt to explain the unseen is a cross-cultural commonality amongst the wide variety of societies.  Therefore, when answering students’ questions about what happens to people when they die, a straightforward factual explanation of the process of physical decomposition does not seem sufficient. Nor does it seem entirely appropriate.  It would be relevant to discuss cultural customs around burial practices, but that choice is partially evasive of the students’ direct questions. It seems unfair to evade the potentially harsh realities of their inquiry by redirecting the conversation towards information that is more easily comprehensible.

After tumbling ideas around in my mind, the best solution to my struggle came from a student’s comment regarding the visit to the cemetery: “Oh, now I understand why we came here- because there are cycles happening here too.” This student noticed the common ground between the garden, compost, and the cemetery. By doing so, I realized that this student understood not just the basic content, but also the larger context and concepts embedded in the lessons. This student did not distinguish boundaries between science, social studies, and spiritual beliefs. Rather, he constructed a single integrative concept to include all of his learning.

While I do not intentionally guide students to make connections in the exact same way that the above mentioned student did, I have not forgotten his words. If a student can make the connections between observations of a seed, a lesson on compost, a visit to a cemetery, then I think that educators can too.  What strikes me as most important is how we frame the content of the lessons.  If lines begin to blur in the students’ understanding, then we can help them by inquiring into the source of the information.  For example, we can ask questions like “Where can we find evidence to support that idea?” or “What do you notice that leads you to believe that?”  Thinking about and discussing the sources of knowledge, whether from science, social studies, or spiritual beliefs, shows respect for each distinct practice.   Integrating the disciplines allows the students to deepen their understanding and connection to their own personal lives. Aren’t those connections at the core of interdisciplinary instruction? Aren’t they also excellent demonstrations of students learning and making meaning?

Kasey Christian is a University of Washington Graduate Student pursuing a Master’s of Education degree. She will soon complete IslandWood’s certificate program in Environment, Education, and Community, where she has been an Instructor of their School Overnight Program for 4th and 5th grade students.