As both a teacher of world and art history there are so many times when I feel that the material I am teaching would make much more sense to then if I could show them an all-immersive experience outside the four walls of my classroom. Unfortunately, those experiences are far and few in between during the school year. However, the curriculum aligned this year that both AP Art History and AP World History were on the Byzantine Empire the same week and my high school just so happens to be less than 30 minutes away from a breathtaking Greek Orthodox Church. So we took a trip!
Visiting Holy Trinity Church
We organized an after school trip to the local Greek Orthodox Church to hear a lecture by the resident Iconographer (artist). This way, the lecture was clearly about art and how it connects to religion, not on what to believe or how to worship. Site visits to religious houses can easily be misunderstood as a transgression of the First Amendment, they are not. As the teacher, you need to clearly explain to students that you are visiting with a historical and artistic lens, not practicing the religion. I prefer to have the students go with me, rather than on their own so I can control this aspect of the visit.
Prepping the Students
Before the site visit, we covered information needed to understand the religion, art, and historical traditions of the church. For example, in AP Art History, teach the churches of Hagia Sophia and San Vitale along with the icon of the Theokotos. This way, when the students visit the church they can nearly pick out reoccurring themes and formal qualities of the art. In AP World History, we taught the historical context of the Byzantine Empire, focusing on Constantine and Justinian but also covering the artistic endeavors of the Hagia Sophia and the theological debate behind the Great Schism of 1054.
Read more: Travel Tip: Dressing for Houses of Worship
During the Visit
Depending on the goals of the class, have an assignment for the students to do at the site visit to keep them attentive. They can do sketches, or jot down notes related to the subject of the class, or come up with questions. Whatever you choose, don’t make it too strenuous so they are allowed to absorb just being in the space enjoying the visual, emotional, and auditory nature of the visit.
Debrief after the Site Visit
Take time after the site visit, either at the site or in the classroom, to clarify any questions, concerns or new ideas that the students have. You want to be sure to address any misconceptions before they develop into a grave misunderstandings. For many students this may be their first time visiting a house of worship other than their own and they are likely to have lots of questions about different beliefs and traditions.
P.S. I actually completed my Curriculum DevelopmentProject for my Religious Worlds of New York Summer Institute on this very topic.
P.P.S. The Religious Worlds of New York website has a lot of great resources for teachers planning a site visit.