Subject: You can teach, but don't preach
Neosho school board prepares to vote on including Bible in reading program
Jeff Wells Globe Staff Writer 1/16/05
History and Christianity are intertwined, says Daniel Lewis, a history teacher at College Heights Christian School in Joplin.
"The Bible is history, so I certainly teach from it," Lewis said. "I don't think you are teaching history if you are not teaching from the Bible."
But College Heights, Lewis said, intentionally presents a Christian view and tries to incorporate the Bible into lessons in all subjects. Lewis begins his world history class by having students read Genesis.
"I would definitely miss that if I was in a public school," Lewis said.
The role of the Bible in public schools is being debated locally as the Neosho R-5 Board of Education prepares to decide whether to include the Bible in the district's accelerated reading program. Area educators say the Bible needs to be in classrooms and libraries to provide a context for history, literature, culture and more, but they say public-school teachers must use care to avoid proselytizing.
"You teach the Bible," said Bill Stephens, superintendent of schools in Miami, Okla. "You teach the literary concepts, but you don't preach the Bible."
Mary Alice and Chuck Nelson, the parents of a Neosho Middle School student, purchased a biblical tutorial computer program last year and donated it to the school for use with the accelerated reading program.
Students in the program choose from thousands of books, and then take tests to show whether they understand what they have read. Some teachers use the accelerated reading program in class, while others offer extra credit.
Neosho school administrators removed the materials from the school's computers earlier this school year because they worried that the tests might be an "excessive entanglement of church and state," said Superintendent Mark Mitchell. The Bible was never removed from the school's library or a regular reading list.
"We don't discourage kids from reading the Bible," Mitchell said. "We use it everywhere we can. Our only concern was to get a legal opinion about whether we could give the accelerated reading test on our computer network."
Last month, the parents asked the board to reinstate the tests. Board members said they wanted more time to consider whether the Bible should be included.
Mitchell said the board will discuss and likely resolve the issue when it meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Neosho Middle School.
Mitchell said that after talking to the district's attorney and the company that provides the tests, he is going to recommend that the tests be reinstated.
"We believe that we are well within community standards to leave the test on the computer network," he said.
Board president Steve Marble said he plans on voting to retain the test.
"I don't want to start censoring things," Marble said. "I want to leave the responsibility to parents."
The Bible is in the library at Galena (Kan.) High School and is part of the district's accelerated reading program, said Brian Smith, Galena superintendent.
"It's just like all the other classics," Smith said.
Books are added to the accelerated reading list at students' request, Smith said. If a test isn't available for a book, the school will create one, he said.
"We want to reward the students for reading books," Smith said. Jason Hare, of Joplin, a student at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, said he believes schools are promoting Christianity if the Bible is included on the accelerated reading list.
"It doesn't make sense to place one religions text on an accelerated list unless you place all the religious texts on a list," Hare said. "There would be no move around here to put the Quran or the Talmud on an accelerated reading list."Part of literature
Stephens, the Miami superintendent, said it is necessary to discuss the Bible while reading some secular works. Some literature books, he said, have biblical references explained in footnotes.
"The Bible can be used appropriately as a historical document, but it can't be used to teach religious beliefs," said Carthage Superintendent Gary Reed.
Jeff Martinek, an associate professor of English at MSSU, said that the King James Version of the Bible is "a masterpiece in and of itself just viewed as a work of literature." "I think we need more study of religious texts in public schools," Martinek said, "but it must be done in a non-denominational manner." Alice Snodgrass, McDonald County High School librarian, said she often sees speech-and-debate students consult one of the library's five versions of the Bible or the school's copies of sacred texts from other religions, including studies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
Other books in the library examine the women of the Bible, Bible history and the writing of the Bible, she said.
Students in communication-arts classes use the Bible to study the poetry style of Psalms or to develop arguments for persuasive papers on topics such as the debate over creationism vs. evolution, she said. Social-studies students will use it to gather background information on historical periods and cultures, she said.
And, some students and teachers go to the library in a spare moment, open a Bible and pray, Snodgrass said.
Bible-as-literature courses were popular until the 1970s, said Webb City Superintendent Ron Lankford. The Webb City district, he said, does not offer a course on the Bible, but teachers may make references to the Bible during classes.
"To understand people, you have to understand their culture," he said. "The Bible could be valuable in that context."
The Bible, Lankford said, also may be used during discussions of current events.
"You have to be very careful in making sure that you don't teach that in a doctrinal fashion," he said.
While the Bible is common on the library shelves of area schools, the Quran is rare.
Lankford said that while Webb City doesn't have the Quran, he believes it also has its role in schools.