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Camardella and D214 world religions team lead the nation

Published August 17, 2023

On August 17, the team of world religions teachers from District 214, led by Prospect High School’s John Camardella, made a presentation to the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2023 convocation in downtown Chicago. The presentation was titled: “A U.S. Public School District Fully Committed to Religious Literacy? Yes!”

The presentation to the global group of religious leaders came on the heels of Camardella’s July visit to Washington, D.C., to participate in a conference organized by the U.S. Department of Education. Camardella was invited as a featured speaker at the first-ever “Free to Learn: Inclusion, Rights and Accommodations for Students of All Faiths and None” event, which explored religious literacy, and the rights and obligations of schools to accommodate students’ religious needs. The program included U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and other representatives of both the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Both prestigious invitations affirm District 214’s national leadership in supporting student learning about the world’s diverse religious makeup—so that students can become better-informed neighbors, workers and voters. And since 2009, when he began teaching the first World Religions class, Camardella has led the district’s cutting-edge curriculum.

Over the past five years, he has worked with his four colleagues to develop the country’s first dual-credit high school world religions course. The team includes Brian Hauck from Wheeling High School, Saarah Mohammed from Elk Grove High School, Sean Radcliff from Rolling Meadows High School and Jeanne Shin-Cooper from Buffalo Grove High School.

Camardella literally helped write the book on teaching about religion in high schools. He and District 214 alum Benjamin Marcus were part of a team that drafted the standards and best practices for the National Council for the Social Studies.

Camardella, who took a sabbatical from District 214 two years ago in order to earn a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, also shares his passion with the broader community. He offers monthly evening lectures for parents of the students in his classes, who come to learn and discuss what their children are studying—and often other community members drop in as well. He also teaches a summer course about religious literacy for other District 214 teachers, including site visits to local religious buildings and places of worship. “We are embedded in these communities, where our students and parents live, but often as teachers and administrators we have never been to these places before,” he said.

He passionately believes that religious literacy—understanding and respecting other people’s backgrounds and beliefs—is critical in a country as diverse as ours. “As a country we have expectations about our students’ general literacy—being able to read and write. We encourage financial literacy, and being literate about nutrition and social media usage. Being religiously literate also is important to the community,” he said. “When you’re more religiously literate, the chances that you’ll engage with people more peacefully goes through the roof.” He says he hears back from District 214 alumni who have taken his course and use its learnings in surprising places: healthcare workers who have better understanding about treating people of different faiths, for example.

From Camardella’s perspective, though, ultimately the work is all about peace: “I tell my students, ‘We don’t have to agree with each other, but we are going to be respectful,’” he said.  “It’s not an issue of acceptance; none of us say that. But we need awareness and understanding. That gives us a real chance at peace.”