Learning occurs beyond the classroom, says Davis Academy eighth-grade social studies teacher Matthew Barry, who alongside sixth- and seventh-grade social studies teacher Joelle Jordan will teach comparative religion as part of the Reform Jewish day school’s new seventh-grade curriculum.

After collaborating with Assistant Principal Jeff Rothstein, Associate Head of School and Principal Drew Frank and other administrators, Barry and Jordan decided to re-evaluate what seventh-graders should learn. Using curricula taught in high schools and other middle schools, they decided to cover geography, then tackle bigger issues related to religion.

The revamped course includes a unit on human geography, followed by Roman history and its geographical, social, political and economic impact on the world, leading to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with an exploration of historical and geographical perspectives, including the spread of trade routes, inventions and diseases. There also is a separate unit on comparative religion.

The religion course examines key questions regarding today’s popular religions and their foundations, history and traditions, and it draws comparisons with Judaism. The curriculum covers the geography behind each religion’s beginning, how the religions thrive in certain regions and the number of people practicing them in relation to the world population.

Davis Academy social studies teacher Matt Barry

“Neither of us has ever taught something like this before, but as a Jewish day school we thought it would be interesting if the kids see outside of the Jewish spectrum,” Barry said.

He has traveled to Israel nine times with eighth-graders to explore historical sites, including Nazareth and mosques, but he felt that students should know more. “Although the kids have some background information on the sites, they need to see and gain greater exposure so they may attain a better understanding of the world around them, especially regarding religiosity.”

Barry said social media often mislead students on religion.

“Kids may see something regarding Mormonism from ‘The Book of Mormon’ or ‘South Park,’ which is often related to pop culture, and although it may be funny, they need to understand the greater context,” Barry said. “There are 14 million people in the world who practice Mormonism today, as well as previous presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Students need to realize there is more out there than social media resources. They need to know more about these religions and why they exist.”

The goal of the comparative religion unit is to have students look at texts and develop organic questions about each religion, Barry said. “A social studies class shouldn’t be the regurgitation of facts, dates and famous dead people, but a natural discussion and debate on why the past has affected and created the present and where we are headed in the future because of those things.”

He also hopes to introduce a unit comparing various wars from social, political and economic standpoints.

Rather than provide a strict curriculum, Barry and Jordan spent the summer developing a series of questions for students.

“I want students to understand that geography is not just related to physical features or political boundaries, but rather how human and physical interactions with the world shape certain areas based on global perspectives and political structures,” Barry said.

Davis students also will have the opportunity to learn about Jamestown, Williamsburg and Washington on a trip through Virginia to the nation’s capital. The students will spend two weeks learning about the history of the region.

“I think one of the things that Joelle and I work well on is looking to see what items we can add to the curriculum. We constantly ask ourselves, ‘What are some other questions the students can research, as well as social and political topics they can discuss?’ ” Barry said. “This is our base, and our goal is to stimulate as much class discussion as possible.”

He added: “Middle school is a pivotal time for the students because the kids don’t accept the facts as presented, but rather ask questions and develop their own opinions about various subjects. What better way to discuss religion than in a classroom like that?”

He said Davis students travel all over the world during and after their time at the day school, “and we want them to understand what that entails before they leave the school. We want them to gain a better perspective of what’s out there before they travel.”