Angela Youngman turns her attention to religious education, potentially the most difficult and divisive of subjects to teach creatively and sensitively

Teaching religion is probably the hardest task any teacher can have. There are so many pitfalls for the unwary and so many ways in which children’s (and parents’) religious beliefs can lead to misunderstandings and upsets. It is an extremely sensitive area and one that needs careful preparation and thought. Yet it is also an area in which teachers can play an extremely important role in fostering tolerance and understanding between children of differing religious backgrounds. All schools have to abide by an agreed religious syllabus, which has been set up between the local authority and the religious leaders such as the appropriate Church of England diocese within that area. This is loosely linked into the National Curriculum religious education requirements. Christianity forms the principal part of the religious education requirement; but has to be supplemented by knowledge of other major religions. How far this situation will change in future years is uncertain as Rupert Bristow, director of education for Canterbury Diocese and chairman of Kent SacRo points out: ‘Will it go inexorably towards a national curriculum or will the half-way house be maintained? We need some local ownership because the lack of teaching specialists and the involvement of different faiths in a local area means they invest a lot of time and effort into the programme. We want to ensure that schools have the best quality religious education that we can and that children know enough about other faiths to understand them.’ There is a national shortage of specialist religious education teachers, which means that most primary school teaching involves teachers who are not specialists in that subject. However, the primary adviser for religious teaching in each area can provide expertise; and there are always various Inset courses that can be attended. Many teachers experience problems in teaching religion simply because they have little or no religious belief of their own. It is hard to teach stories that they do not themselves believe convincingly; especially when those stories involve issues such as faith. Trying to explain abstract concepts such as faith to children is not easy.

Godly Play

The Church of England has come up with an idea that is proving to be an extremely valuable resource for teachers. Known as Godly Play, it aims to give religious stories immediacy and a relevance that children can understand. Based on Montessori teaching methods, Godly Play was devised by Dr Jerome Berryman of the American Episcopal Church. It is now used widely within the Church of England’s own children’s activities; likewise by local education authorities and state schools. In Suffolk, for example, the LEA has stated that Godly Play is to be used as part of the county’s National Curriculum religious teaching. Helen Woodroffe, education officer at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds comments: ‘One local primary school used Godly Play for their Ofsted presentation. The inspector was so thrilled by it and the way in which it was undertaken that he marked it excellent and put it on the website as an example of good practice.’ So what is special about Godly Play? Why is it having such an effect? The answer lies in the approach. As Jerome Berryman explains: ‘In most religious education, children are told who God is. In Godly Play children discover who God is.’ Rather than having a story explained to them, children listen to a story and then have to work out their own ideas as to what it means. Every Godly Play session starts in the same way. Wherever possible, tables and chairs are moved away to create an open space. Children sit on the floor in a circle and share something such as a dish of raisins. The aim is to create a sense of something special being about to happen in which they can all share, and all have equal importance. A story is told using simple scenery such as blue material for the sea, yellow material for the desert together with puppets or wooden figures being introduced at appropriate moments throughout the story. The story of Abraham, for example, may be told with a sand tray for the desert complete with dunes and palm trees. Wooden figures make footprints on the sand as they are moved along. Such images are very strong and show just how hard it would have been for Abraham to go on such a journey in the desert. The story is always told slowly and quietly in a reflective manner. This is followed by a short discussion with lots of open-ended wondering questions. What would have happened if? How would the disciples have felt being left behind? Who do you think you are most like in this story? The children are then given time to create their own response to the story using a variety of craft and art materials, books and puppets. They are not told what to create or what to do. They make their own decision. Some will create a picture or make an object; others will read a book, go and play with the puppets or wooden figures, perhaps retelling the story themselves, or simply sit and think. At the end of the session, all the children return to the circle and show their work to the others, explaining what it means to them. Often these responses can be very eye opening for the teachers, revealing new insights into their pupils. On one occasion, a child returned to the circle with a picture of a gravestone and explained that was where his mother was – this was the first time the teacher discovered that the mother was dead. The open-ended section of Godly Play is the most difficult initially for teachers to understand, as there is no clear learning outcome. The response from children can be very worthwhile. All schools that have used it have been impressed as to the way children – even the most disruptive – respond. Alison Harries, formerly children’s adviser for the Chester Diocese says: ‘The story of Abraham in the desert makes children think about situations beyond their control. In response to a wondering question about leaving any part of the story out, one girl wanted to leave out Sarah dying. That led to an interesting conversation about death being part of living.’ Once the technique is mastered, other religions can be tackled in the same way: telling stories from the books of each faith, and asking children to reflect upon them then come back into the circle with their own responses.

Further ideas and resources

Look at information about children in a class and identify what their religious backgrounds may be. If there are Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or Muslims in the group why not ask them to do a little presentation showing how they worship. Parents and local religious leaders will often be glad to help especially when it comes to religious festivals such as Diwali. Such festivals are a wonderful resource when it comes to teaching religion. Colourful with unusual stories and activities involved, they immediately capture a child’s attention. For example, the Christian year is dominated by Christmas and Easter; the Hindu year by Diwali; the Islamic year by Ramadan and Id-ul-fitr; Judaism by Hannukah and Passover. Children enjoy sharing their experiences at such times. Explore craft and art ideas, which could be used in conjunction with studies of various religious festivals. However, care has to be taken not to accidentally offend religious beliefs – for example, the prophet Mohammed is never depicted in the Islamic faith. Strict Muslims may not accept depictions of any animals or human beings.

Help in finding suitable projects can be obtained from CurriculART. This website is a new subscription-based resource for primary teachers which offers a host of innovative creative projects based on QCA units of work for RE. For example teachers working on projects about Islam could create an eye-catching three-dimensional latticework tower. The latticework is made from papier-mâché pieces, the shapes of which are all taken originally from Arabic script and painted in appropriate colours.

Another important resource that should not be ignored is local religious leaders and religious buildings in the vicinity of the school. Ask the imam of the local Mosque; a priest or rabbi to come in and talk to the children about their lives, the way they worship and their beliefs. A visit to a religious building will provide lots of information and unexpected insights. At Norwich Cathedral, for example, children can try on small-scale versions of the Bishop’s robes; while a visit to a synagogue might involve boys being asked to wear caps and sit separately from the girls. Likewise a visit to a mosque may require shoes to be taken off at the door. Such activities immediately provoke lots of questions from the children, which can be quickly answered by the leader of the workshop. Such a visit gives an immediacy which no books or web resources can provide; making it much more memorable and adds to the child’s experiences of life. Prior preparation and visits are essential as they will help the teacher identify important areas of the building and ensure the workshop or visit exactly matches what is needed. During the visit, have a supply of worksheets and maps available. These can help children find places within a church such as the nave, altar and font. The priest or guide helping with the visit will be happy to explain what happens in each area of the building and what such items mean within the context of their faith. Some churches are willing to hold special ‘weddings’ or other services in order to help children understand the concepts and ideas more fully. Filming the children’s experiences on such visits and making presentations during assembly will ensure that the whole school can benefit. If no suitable religious buildings exist in your area, use the internet. Whiteboards can be used to show pictures of different religious buildings – a church, mosque, Buddhist temple. It may even be possible to take a virtual guided tour. This provides a good discussion point. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Perhaps the children can then try to make their own versions of the building using cardboard boxes, glue, papier-mâché and paint? When looking at teaching multi-faith education teachers need even more resources. Detailed preparation is vital. For example, teachers could collect a group of stories from different faiths and look for ones that have a similar message or style. Good examples of this are the parables of Jesus and the story of King Hakim’s Garden, which is usually told just before Ramadam. All of these have hidden messages. Can the children work out the message? Other similar stories might be the birth of Christ and the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness and the experiences of Moses and Abraham in the desert or the flight of the prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. Asking for help and being innovative will make learning about religion much more enjoyable for teachers and pupils. Even if the teachers themselves do not have any religious beliefs, it is important to remember that such beliefs are extremely important to others. Sensitive teaching at an early age can make a lot of difference in terms of tolerance of other people’s beliefs and way of lives as the children grow older.

Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer