MRPL Student Feature: Interview with John Camardella

By: John Camardella, MRPL ’22

Editor’s Note: Halfway through this inaugural year of the Master of Religion and Public Life (MRPL) degree program, we asked our MRPL students to share their experiences with the program so far. In this post, John Camardella reflects on this year, his decision to attend the MRPL program as an educator, and the professional development program that he is designing to help school leaders better understand religion in the public school context.  

Tell us about yourself. What should we know about you?   

I am a student in the inaugural Master of Religion and Public Life program at HDS and an educator who teaches various courses on religion at both the high school and graduate level. My wife Lindy and I live outside of Chicago with our three children, Peyton (12), Marley (10), and Zach (4). 

John teaching his world religions class
Photo Courtesy of John Camardella

What were you doing before HDS? What led you to apply to the MRPL degree program?   

I have taught at Prospect High School in Illinois since 2003. There, I teach two world religions senior elective courses where students can earn dual credit through Eastern Illinois University. I’ve also taught graduate courses in religion through Quincy University and worked with the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Programme to restructure their World Religion course.  

I applied to the MRPL program because I, like most contemporary educators, have come to realize it is no longer sufficient to simply deliver educational content to people without challenging them to think about information in sophisticated and nuanced ways. Just knowing specific dates, dogmas, or religious rituals does not improve one’s understanding of the world, nor will that rudimentary knowledge make anyone more inclined to engage with it. My work here is geared towards offering school leaders an educational experience with a particular focus on how religion has played and continues to play a role in society and public schools so that they can in turn better serve and support their school communities.  

All MRPL students work on a year-long project as a part of their degree. Tell us about your project. What are you working on?   

I am creating a professional development program for public school administrators and educators. I want to help them better understand how religion intersects with race, gender, sexual orientation, and power dynamics in a public-school context. Over the years, school leaders have felt unsure or unwilling to engage in these conversations for various reasons – some don’t want to take the time to discuss something that they are hesitant to address and, conversely, others don’t want to take the time because they believe that they already know enough. Herein lies the power of religion, and my efforts with this program are to educate leaders and make positive progress in public schools.  

You’re halfway through your degree program, how have your studies impacted your outlook on your professional life already?  

Learning about the complexities, sophistication, and nuances inherent in religion can be utterly transformational, and this program has assisted me immensely in this regard. Through my research, I have discovered that many professional development programs in public schools avoid discussing religion altogether or present religion as a category separate from all other aspects of identity (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.). These frameworks that silo identities for inclusion are problematic, and sadly, most public-school districts offer professional development that reinforces these exact methods.  

My MRPL project aims to fix this deeply embedded and structural problem in teacher development programs by building a comprehensive curriculum in service to school leaders. The primary aim is to assist them in recognizing how religion is embedded in culture and intersects with all aspects of life. By increasing their own religious and cultural literacy, I believe that they will be better able to serve their staff, students, and surrounding communities by improving their programming and support structures. I hope to facilitate a convincing experience that will enable each leader to create an environment that encourages all staff members and students to participate fully in the school’s culture without fear of being their whole and complex selves.  

What about the program has been life-giving? What has been challenging?   

Dr. Moore has helped me come to terms with the civic consequences of religious illiteracy in ways that have forced me to reconsider my firmest convictions as an educator. For the first time in my professional life, I’ve also had the time and space to contemplate what I want to do with the second half of my career, and the professors, course offerings, and collegiality amongst the students have made this experience incredibly worthwhile.  

The greatest challenge has been being away from my wife and our three children. When I was admitted to the program, we had multiple family meetings before I accepted the offer, and I can say the sacrifice has been worth it.   

What advice do you have for prospective students exploring the MRPL degree program?  

Surround yourself with people who will challenge your previously held assumptions and pick classes that call to you. The year moves at a rapid pace but finding people and coursework that nourishes your intellectual and spiritual life can be sustaining. 

What is your favorite coffee/hangout spot in Boston?  

For coffee, I head to Darwin’s on Mount Auburn, a few blocks off campus. As for dinner and drinks after class, my favorite spots are Grendel’s Den and Daedalus, both near Harvard Square.   

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