All shall be well… My final assembly

I leave John Hampden Grammar School today after seven incredible years. Here’s the text of my final assembly:

As this is my last chance to ever speak to you I thought I’d pose you a difficult question. Are you the same person who walked into this hall for the first assembly of the year… way back in September? This might seem like a stupid question but as you will know I quite like questions. In fact I much prefer questions to answers. So. Are you the same person?

Well, let me give you some help. I’m a huge admirer of the poetry of TS Eliot. Not his stuff about cats but his more complex work. Ask your English teachers about The Wasteland. In one of his most famous poems Eliot offers up one of my favourite verses in the whole of English literature (and I quote)

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

What does Eliot mean? What I think he means is that life is something to be explored. Those of you who watch X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent will be familiar with this idea. Life is all about the journey. But he is also saying something else. Something more profound. That the end of our exploring is coming back to where we started and knowing it for the first time. Things change but nothing changes.

Ok. We need a bit more help to answer our question. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, born in the 6th century BC, is famous for saying that – you cannot step into the same river twice. What? Of course you can. I’ve been here for seven years and every year Mr Reed has taken year 10 down to the Rye to stand in it and measure things. So what does Mr Reed have to do with Heraclitus? Well, The river might look the same and be called the same bit it isn’t the same – it’s constantly moving, constantly flowing to the sea.  And you are constantly changing too. Mr Reed may tell you to stand in the river and then get out and stand in it again. But you won’t be the same. You will have changed. You’ll be a few seconds older with slightly wetter feet. Things change but nothing changes.

Look I don’t think we are getting anywhere so I’m going to go completely introspective. Here’s me. Wasn’t I cute? OMG there I am wearing a kilt. I had curtains and a dodgy haircut. How do I relate to these images from my past. Well I look at myself and don’t recognise myself. Two kids can age you. Things change but nothing changes. Possibly the greatest writer in modern English says something about this:

“…What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”  (George Orwell)

So let me pose the question one final time. Are you the same person you were when you came into the Hall back in September? You now know about Heraclitus. Maybe you didn’t know that before. Maybe you’ve heard of TS Eliot for the first time. Maybe you did well in your end of year exams. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’ve had your imagination and curiosity fired in a particular subject. Maybe you’ve found something really difficult or irrelevant. BUT Are you the same person who started the year? What’s changed? Are you proud of the changes you’ve made this year? Are you disappointed? Have things changed for the better or have some things changed for the worse?

The verse this assembly is framed around is taken from a poem called Little Gidding. It completes Eliot’s series of poems called The Four Quartets. He ends the poem by quoting Julian of Norwich a 14th century English mystic and saint and (here’s a QI fact for you) the author of the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman.

She famously penned (and Eliot quotes) one of the most optimistic aphorisms in the English language “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

So I’m moving on after seven incredible years. You are moving on to further adventures too. Things change but nothing changes. BUT maybe like Julian of Norwich implies – hopefully things turn out well in the end.
Thank you and goodbye.


Thoughts on Periscope in RE

The short video below was broadcast from my iPhone on 3G to the whole world – (ok – no one watched it live!)

It was broadcast and recorded in response to my friend and ex-colleague Daniel Edwards (@syded06) who sent out a request to teachers across the globe who are interested in seeing how periscope could be used in education.

My initial thoughts are in the video below but I think I’ve missed out some obvious ones. Visits to places of worship could be streamed to classes who couldn’t go. Students could broadcast to their class when they are taking part in religious festivals outside of school. I’m interested in hearing from #reteachers what they think and how they see it developing in the future.

Teaching 7/7

To mark the 10 year anniversary of 7/7 I have taught a lesson about the day linking it to the RS OCR GCSE units on  Religion Peace and Justice and Equality.

I started by reading the class the opening of my blog about my experience of 7/7 which was published by the Huffington Post.

We watched the @TrueTube film – and afterwards I asked if any of the class had any questions. A few wanted to know why the front page of the Evening Standard had the Olympic Logo on it. Others wanted to know more about the geography of London and how the attacks affected the city.

The question I then posed was a potentially risky one: What causes terrorism? The change in the law last week requires schools to identify students who might be at risk of radicalisation. The definition of extremism decided upon by the DfE (and why it might prove problematic) is quoted in this tweet below:

Andy Lewis has summarised many of the issues here while some commentators (see Owen Jones’ blog here) have raised concerns that this definition and law will limit discussion in the classroom. I fear it may but my students have yet to censor  their responses. When answering the question about the causes of terrorism they were extremely forthcoming and not afraid to refer to religion, government policy etc. in their answers (see below)



The outcome of the lesson was difficult to judge. We’d had a challenging discussion as to the extent that religion might be a cause of terrorism. We had learnt more about a key historical event. We discussed as a class what would make a comment in a lesson be judged as extremist and therefore worthy of being reported. Students time and again referred to freedom of speech being a key democratic value.

I want to end with this (unedited) response from one of my students who emailed me after the lesson:

‘The 7/7 video and lesson we have been through today, the 10th anniversary of these devastating bombings, has taught me much on this sensitive event in history, which I had little knowledge of prior to this lesson. However, we also learnt about why terrorism occurs, and the reaction from society. The society we live in tends to single out a group of race, culture or religion and blame evil and inhumane acts of terrorism on this group. Very quickly, stereotypes begin to form through the influence of the media and children, like myself, are taught subliminally to feel the same way about these groups. The current generation of youth have grown up to believe the word ‘terrorist’ is specific to Islamic extremists. However, my dad (who has an Irish surname) said to me that he told his dad when he was a kid that he wanted to change his surname when he grew up, as people in England degraded anyone with Irish origins due to the IRA in the 1970s. This shows that the word ‘terrorism’ doesn’t belong to a single group or country, but to any individual who causes acts of terror, and therefore society needs to change.’

Year 6 Transfer Day – What should I teach?

A thread on our subject’s Facebook page SAVE RE posed this very question earlier in the week. Suggestions included: do something on ultimate questions, guess the artefact, write your characteristics e.g. ‘If I were a car I would be…’ and more. In the past I have also taken a similar approach and done an introduction to RS on Thunks and a lesson on famous religious people and some famous things they’ve said. I’ve never been happy with either in that the aim seemed to be just to get them to do something ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ rather than something academic and meaningful.

This year I took a different approach. I had 25-30 minutes with a group of year 6 students and in the back of my mind was that this could well be their first ever lesson with a specialist teacher of RE with a Theology degree. So why not challenge them, assess their religious literacy and get them to really think?

I’ll take you through how the lesson went.

We first looked at four  pictures of the same story and the students had to try and work out what the story was. The first picture is by William Blake and the second by Caravaggio. Why not introduce these great artists to year 6 on their induction day? Why not tell them that ancient Biblical texts have inspired some of the greatest artists in history? I asked how many in the group had heard of the story? Under a third.

We then went over the pictures again and looked for some of the key images: ram, knife, angel etc. and discussed their potential significance.

I then read the story from the front (Good News Translation) pausing occasionally to throw in questions like: How was Isaac feeling? Did the servants know what was happening? Was God talking only to Abraham or did Isaac hear the voice too?

We then discussed the following questions. I would have liked them to have written their answers down but we did not have enough time.

  • In 5 bullet points explain the story (think carefully – what is the key information?)
  • If Abraham had killed his son as told to by God would this have been the right thing to do? Why?

Which of these statements do you most agree with? (YOU MUST EXPLAIN WHY)

  • This story shows that if you have faith then God will provide what you need
  • This story shows that God is all powerful
  • This story shows that God is sometimes wrong
  • This story shows that religious stories can have a dark side

Some of the students told me it was the first time they had ever read a religious text in this detail and been asked to critically analyse its subtext and meaning.

We finished by looking at Wilfred Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young which for me is his greatest poem. A couple of students had heard of Owen and only one already knew the poem and could work out how it linked to the lesson.

So there you have it. An actual transfer day lesson in RS that aims to develop religious literacy and isn’t about ‘thinking skills’ and introspection. We did that all in 25 minutes. I told the class that at secondary school they would have access to teachers who were experts in their field. Teachers who want to share their passion for their subject, in my case the academic study of religion, with their classes. I hope you’ll think I was successful. I’d be interested in your thoughts?