Holocaust Memorial Day Assembly 2017

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is How can life go on? In searching for answers to that question I came across the video you were watching on the way into assembly. I learnt for the first time that Nelson Mandela read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. Now I am aware of the possibility of confusion if I begin by talking about two separate periods of twentieth century history and draw links between them. But this assembly will continue on the basis that all of you will at least know who these two important figures are. In the video you’ve just watched Nelson Mandela talks about how reading the diary of a 13 year old girl (murdered during the Holocaust) inspired him and his fellow prisoners to resist Apartheid. I will return to this later.

But why today? Why was January 27th chosen to mark Holocaust Memorial Day? Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Russian Army in 1945. As you know our sixth form Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors visited the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp last year. I hope you will remember the very moving assembly they gave upon their return. Until the liberation of the camp by soldiers of the Red Army, 72 years ago this very day, the Nazis murdered approximately 1.1 million people in Auschwitz, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and people of other nationalities. Auschwitz is for the world today, a symbol of the Holocaust and atrocities of World War II. A war in which my grandparents fought in, and suffered through, to defeat the poisonous and racist ideologies of fascism and anti-semitism. It was only in 2005, that the United Nations who adopted 27 January as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Holocaust is such a big word. You will all have your own understanding of it. I thought I understood it. I studied it at school. Probably like you I’ve read many books about it (fictional and nonfictional) and watched many films, plays and TV shows. I’ve visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and other historical and geographical sites associated with it. But last weekend I learnt something new and it shocked me. Now I don’t often watch Antiques Roadshow. I associate it with the kind of telly my mum watches on a Sunday night like Songs of Praise and Countryfile. But last weekend I watched the Antiques Roadshow. It was a special edition to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s on iplayer for the next 18 days if you want to catch it. In fact you must watch it. Go home this weekend and sit down with your parents and get them to watch it with you. I’m going to play a clip that shows why we need days and assemblies like this.

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A board game from Nazi era Germany where you win by rounding up Jews.

What do we see here? We see not the death camps and the slaughter but a children’s game. We see how genocide and mass murder doesn’t just happen. It begins when we normalise hatred and prejudice. When we turn fear or dislike of others into a game or say it was just banter or a laugh or a joke. It begins with words, playground taunts and social media trolling. It begins with games and ends with gas chambers.

The aftermath of the Holocaust and of subsequent genocides continues to raise challenging questions for individuals, communities and nations. Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 asks audiences to think about what happens after genocide and of our own responsibilities in the wake of such crimes. This year’s theme How can life go on? is broad and open ended, there are few known answers. As time passes, fewer and fewer of those who survived the Holocaust are around to share their testimony. That is why we are so privileged that next month our sixth form Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors and Mrs Tinnelly have organised for years 9, 10, 11 to hear from Harry Bibring. He managed to avoid being killed in the Holocaust but his family, well… I will let you hear from Harry when he visits us soon.

So How can life go on? Life can go on if we make a pledge today not to remain silent and indifferent to prejudice and discrimination. Life can go on if we, like Anne Frank, like Nelson Mandela, if we pledge to spend our lives in the pursuit of justice and virtue. Of love not hate. Of understanding not ignorance. Of compassion not hatred. So How can life go on? Life can go on if we learn the lessons of the past. As Nelson Mandela says of Anne Frank:

The lessons of that tragedy sunk more deeply in our souls and also encouraged us in our situation. Because, if a young girl of 13 could take such militant action then we could follow the same example.

And what was her example? What was her militant action? It was to write a diary. To bear witness to the truth that life is worth living and that to live is to love. That, for me, is my answer to that profound question posed by the Holocaust Memorial Trust. How can life go on? By heeding from this day forward this message from the diary of a 13 year old girl brutally murdered 72 years ago but whose voice still calls to us through the pages of her diary:

We’re much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts. It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

 

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#ReActiveRE

No one would deny the two recent violent attacks in Orlando and Yorkshire have been deeply shocking and destabilising. However, what I have been surprised by is the seeming bandwagon RE teachers seem to jump on whenever tragedies like these occur.

In RE’s desperate attempt to justify its place in the school curriculum we seem unable to stop ourselves from colonising and fetishising violent tragedy. Why does ‘RE’ feel the need to respond to these events immediately? This should be something led by the school leadership and pastoral teams or, where it exists, chaplaincy. Form time, PSHE and Assembly all seem appropriate places where these events could be discussed and considered. I accept that in many cases RE teachers are well skilled (sic) to deal with difficult topics like this and I’ll answer questions on it & talk about it if asked but its not RE. We certainly shouldn’t feel the need to jettison existing schemes of work and replace them with #reactiveRE or ‘let’s do what’s in the news’ RE.

Knee-jerk responses are also unhelpful. The claim from the gunman in Orlando that he was a member of ISIS has been disputed by President Obama, who says the investigation is still at an early stage. However, many teachers will have gone in and linked this terrorist attack to Islamist extremism. The motives of the killer of Jo Cox are unclear but by the evening of her death RE teachers on certain forums were already planning ‘lessons’ on it. As a profession we need to be clear what the purpose of RE is and ensure that the resources we use and lessons we teach are clearly developing students’ knowledge and understanding of religion and belief. As Goethe wrote “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living from hand to mouth.”

My other concerns include that by making dramatic resources or lessons on these issues in the immediate aftermath, means students begin to associate violence in the world with religion. How are students in a position to make an informed response to these events when the full facts aren’t known. I also wonder about the role of RE in challenging oppressive structures day in day out. We need academic and critical RE ALL the time – not in platitudes and next day, one-off, powerpoint presentations.

Finally who decides which lives matter? Which events? What counts? This clip was shared by friends on Facebook a few days before the Orlando attacks. It broke my heart. But at no time did it ever cross my mind (just as it hasn’t with other recent tragedies) that I must urgently discuss it in RE.

It’s been a tough week. Thanks to Karin Oster for tweeting the following which seemed to sum up my thoughts on all this.

 

I’d welcome your thoughts…

 

Reasons why we should tell students our ‘religion’ (sic)

The following is written as a co-blog with my friend Dawn Cox. (https://twitter.com/MissDCox) Dawn’s blog puts forward the case that teachers shouldn’t tell students their religious beliefs. Mine is written in response, and you should read her’s first here. I think we should be free to do so (with care) and that there might be a number of reasons why this might be a good thing. Both Dawn and I work in nominally non-religious (non-faith) schools and I would think we would both agree that our points relate most to those environments rather than schools of a religious character. Being taught RE by the school chaplain in a church school would kinda give the game away! We also both teach in secondary schools and again our points are made from that perspective.

Background – I trained as an RE teacher at the Institute of Education in 2006/7. One Friday afternoon someone in our cohort asked the course tutors how to respond when a student asks what religion you are. The answer (so far as I remember it) was guarded. The first option was to say something like ‘this isn’t about what I think but about what you think’ and the second was to be completely straight (where appropriate) and tell them and move on. From that point on I’ve been guided by the second option.

For ease of comparison the following thoughts are written under the same headings as Dawn’s blog. Where I’ve quoted directly from Dawn’s blog I’ve used italics.

1.RE is the study of religions

I agree wholeheartedly with Dawn that RE is primarily the academic study of religion. However, she goes on to say that any programme of study whether it be at KS3 to GCSE will include the ‘taking account of different interpretations of beliefs & teachings and critiquing them.’ It is at this point, when interpreting and critiquing, that a student is going to naturally ask, ‘Sir, what do you think?’ If for instance looking at the Design Argument for GCSE I would respond that I find Hume’s criticisms very convincing and explain why. The student asked an honest question and I gave an honest answer, justified by reference to philosophical material. I have encouraged a student to critique religious and philosophical beliefs and I enjoy finding myself in disagreement with them.

2.Students/parents may accuse you of bias

I’ve never encountered this in my decade of teaching. Again Dawn uses the phrase ‘what religion you are’ without seeming to acknowledge that there will be many teachers of RE who are non-religious. Dawn also implies that it is possible to maintain ‘neutrality’ when teaching though I’m unclear what this means. By bias I take it to mean that Dawn is wary of being confessional. But the more I think about this, and I have thought a lot about it recently, I’m led to think that confessionalism is probably a useless term in education. For me education happens in a class mainly due to the relationship between the teacher and the students. And because that is in a relationship no exchange between the two is completely value neutral.  Students may be aware that I am ‘personally’ criticising a particular position or idea, but then that is part of what make RE an interesting subject to learn.

  1. It’s not needed

‘Decent RE happens without it. RE isn’t ‘better’ for a teacher sharing their beliefs.’ Maybe true but so much in learning depends upon the relationship between the students and the teacher. If the students trust the teacher to have mastery of their subject then sharing beliefs and ideas can lead to better learning. This is ultimately the reason why I made the decision years ago to be honest about my beliefs with my students. If my classroom is a ‘safe’ space where ideas can be debated and beliefs analysed and criticised then I cannot exempt myself from that model. If I am expecting students to answer questions where they need to justify a belief then, when I am asked a question, what message does that send to the class when I say ‘sorry I’m not prepared to answer that?’

  1. You’re one example

I think my students struggle to see me as a human being with a life outside the morning and home-time bell. I’m not sure they would see me as representative of anything, I should ask them!

  1. You can share your view without telling them it’s yours

I’d struggle to do this. Teaching is hard enough trying to manage activities, answer questions, keep an eye on someone at the back of the class. Saying ‘It must have been hard for Siddhartha to leave his family’ is one way of approaching teaching that story. Saying, as I might do, ‘as a father of two beautiful children I find this story very difficult as he must have found it so hard.’ is another. I go with the later because it gives a human side to what can be a very abstract story for children in the the 21st century.

  1. The mystery helps dispel stereotyping

My life is still a mystery to my students. When they ask me why I teach RE. I’d rather give the honest answer that I was brought up a Catholic, went to a Jesuit school, and studied Theology and RS at university. I say that the more I studied about the religion I’d been brought up in the more I began to question it. The more I learnt about religions that were not my own the more I then began to doubt if any of them were ultimately true and that’s why I’m now a humanist. I tell them that I cannot believe in any religions but still find them completely fascinating.’ That tends to leave them a bit bemused and with a touch of mystery but not in perhaps the same way Dawn suggests.

  1. We’re role models

Some students struggle to separate us being role models of behaviour & attitude with what we believe. In younger years they may lack the critical thinking skills to be able to understand that what a teacher says they believe in terms of religion is a personal opinion and a choice, not a ‘fact’.

I’ve left the section from Dawn’s blog unadulterated above. I take my responsibilities as a teacher very seriously. It is not my place to proselytise a particular view and if I felt I were doing that I would change approach with a specific class or student. I do emphasise that my journey of belief has been just that ‘a journey’ and much of what I believe is as a result of first-hand experience, learning, influence of teachers and friends, music, art, sport, upbringing etc. What I think about a lot of things changes on a daily basis and in some cases depends on what I’ve heard on the radio on the way into work that day.

Responses to counter arguments

1.”If I’m asking them to say what they believe I should be prepared to say what I believe”

I’ve answered this above. But as a riposte sometimes it can be a useful tool to push students into justifying their analysis or evaluation by me giving a personal anecdote or belief.

2.”It’s dishonest”

Not sure I get this point. Dawn and I will have to continue arguing about this online!

 

A Cross-Curricular Conversion

 

Cross Curricular

I’ve always hated the term ‘cross-curricular’ – it seems to water down subject expertise and knowledge in favour of generic skills or themes. As with many things in education a well-meaning idea (I can’t find the provenance of the term or when it became a buzzword in British education) is adopted as gospel and quickly becomes something to be evidenced (usually as tick-box exercise) rather than practised for the direct benefit of students.

So we are told we are all teachers of literacy and then have to show in detail where we are ‘using’ or ‘supporting’ literacy. Likewise for numeracy. I have seen schemes of work in RE that include a box for numeracy and someone has taken the time to fill in the space with something like – Using Bible passage today, students found page number using chapter and verse. This is deprofessionalising (sic) and a colossal waste of time that will have no direct benefit to the students. It’s there for the observers and the mandarins.

But can a different notion of cross-curricular education work? One which involves building the idea of the ‘academy’ with teachers working together to share the knowledge students need. This moment of conversion came to me when in my first term at my new school someone outside the RS department invited me into one of their lessons, not to observe, but to teach. It was invigorating and confirmed one of the reasons why I moved to the school and into the independent sector… more of this later.

The Academy

For some in education ‘academy’ has become a dirty word, synonymous with political interference from a disliked government. The origins of the term are worth considering. Plato’s Academy was built on the site of an olive grove dedicated to Athena,  the Greek Goddess of wisdom.

school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511.jpg!Blog

The School of Athens by Raphael

 

Historians cannot say for sure what exactly was taught at the Academy though it is likely philosophy, politics, poetry, history and mathematics all featured. Legend says that inscribed above the entrance was the following message:  “Let None But Geometers Enter Here.”

Back to my Damascene moment. An English teacher at my new school passed me in the corridor and said something like “I’m teaching Passage to India with Upper Sixth and might need you to email me some background on Hinduism to me.” Without thinking I replied “I’d love to. Why don’t I pop in and teach the first part of the lesson?” We fixed a time when I wasn’t teaching, I blocked myself from cover and made a date.

I’d read the book years ago and enjoyed coming back to it. The section they were studying was the opening of chapter 36. The ideas that Hinduism is a ‘living force’ required some unpacking as did the various references to Krishna which in turn required an explanation of the Trimurti. When Forster writes that “Aziz could not understand this, any more than an average Christian could” he could have been writing about anyone’s lack of understanding of religion now. So I spent 30 minutes or so on Hindu theology and cosmology and the idea that religion is alive for Hindus in this story in a contrasting way to the formal Anglicanism Forster so enjoyed satirising.  I invited questions and left the class with some notes to refer back to.

I moved to my new school in the independent sector for a number of reasons. An opportunity to focus on my subject was the primary one, though benefits of smaller classes were also attractive. I now do have more time for teaching. And before I get too institutionalised I want to lay down an invitation to my new colleagues. How best can we support the idea of a genuine ‘academy’ at our school? We have a wealth of subject expertise and knowledge? How best can we share and utilise that for the benefit of our students? Not by filling in useless boxes on schemes of work to show we are being ‘cross-curricular’! Not by it being forced as a requirement of performance management thereby reducing it to a chore or an obligation. It seems to me that informal invitations to teach across subjects is a good place to start.

As a teacher how could you, or do you, utilitse expertise from colleagues? I’d be really interested to know what you think.

 

SAVE RE – from itself

The article below appears in the latest issue of RE Today. Details on how to subscribe can be found here

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If you haven’t already heard of it, SAVE RE is an indispensible platform for sharing ideas and best practice. It is a shining example of how social media can revolutionise the way we interact with our fellow human beings – and I am a recent convert. But my enthusiasm for the group began to sour when I noticed the number of qualified teachers using it to ask – without so much as a please or thank you – for free resources. Annoyed by people seeming to take, take, take, I thought I’d conduct an experiment to see what happened when someone offered to give, give, give – so I posted the above, too-good-to-be-true, offer.

The response was interesting and shocking. Some people picked up on the fact that I was clearly joking. But many people posted request after request for lessons, resources and even whole schemes of work. Despite not knowing my credentials or me knowing the contexts of their schools and students, it was felt by some that the offer of someone doing their job for them was just too enticing to refuse. Now, I am no saint. I have throughout my RE travels begged and borrowed (never stolen!) resources from colleagues and mentors. But I wouldn’t dream of posting anything like this:

Anything on Sikh attitudes to abortion?

(No ‘please’. No context, such as the nature of the group or key stage being taught. No reference to prior learning or intended outcomes.)

Or this:

I’m being observed tomorrow. Has anyone got anything good and fun on Christian parables?

(It’s 10pm – no one can help you now. The fact that it is an observation shouldn’t matter, but this post not only indicates a lack of time for planning, but a lack of quality support from Heads of RS and a lack of overall planning skills.)

At best, these kinds of posts point to an ebbing of confidence among RE teachers; at worst, they smack of desperation. This is not what SAVE RE was intended for – but it does highlight some worrying traits among the RE teaching community.

Created in 2012, SAVE RE is the brainchild of Pete Edwards – Head of Religion, Ethics and Philosophy at Bristol Cathedral Choir School. He is as surprised as anyone about the popularity of his Facebook group – especially as it was set up purely so that he could share a letter he wrote to Michael Gove after the then Education Secretary announced that RE would be omitted from the EBacc. ‘It was only ever meant to be short-lived; I wanted to highlight the potential damage this could do to the subject and to young people’s education as a whole,’ Edwards tells me. He shared his letter with a selection of friends and colleagues, but, as is social media’s wont, the group’s presence snowballed – and it quickly became clear that there was a real need for a forum among RE teachers for sharing ideas and resources.

Today SAVE RE boasts more than 2100 members. Edwards thinks the reasons for the group’s popularity are twofold. ‘RE departments are often small – sometimes only one person, and possibly not a specialist – so the opportunity to discuss the teaching of RE and share resources is very limited. But also the pressures of modern teaching mean that there is very little time to think and collaborate effectively with others.’

As head of a department of, er, two, I fully understand these pressures. Defenders of the group have told me that, because they are the sole member of staff teaching RE in their school, the group is their first (and sometimes only) port of call for advice and resources. But there must be a line somewhere between sharing and encouraging ideas, and admitting that as RE teachers many of us are winging it, or taking advantage of others’ good nature. I asked Edwards how he, as the group’s moderator, feels about about this problem.

‘Planning great lessons is a wonderfully creative and engaging process, and people should not think ‘off-the-rack’ lessons will ever replace it,’ he says. “I have intervened in the past when there was some quite heated debate about people asking for entire lessons for observations – but I tried to make the point that someone else’s resources or lessons are unlikely to be as good as those that the individual has created, or adapted to suit their students and their style of teaching.’ Having said that, he does believe the group has metamorphosed into something generally very positive. ‘We have all needed help from time to time, and if SAVE RE can provide support to RE teachers across the country, that can only be a good thing.”

Do I still engage on the forum? Yes. Do some of the posts continue to frustrate me? Yes. But only because I care passionately about the quality of RE in this country, and its future. I worry that some teachers are isolated, and lack support from middle leaders and senior management in their schools. Many seem to be working on a day-to-day basis without schemes of work or any dedicated time available for long- and medium-term planning. Many seem to have emerged from their degree courses and teacher training without the necessary skills to research information or to plan lessons with confidence. The major changes coming our way, thanks to GCSE and A Level reforms, are going to mean teachers across the country will be planning completely new curricula. How can we support each other to plan and share best practice? When we ask for help, should we also offer something back in return? The growing membership of SAVE RE means it is likely to be a major force in support and CPD for teachers for the foreseeable future. The final word of hope comes from Edwards: ‘The best way to ‘Save RE’ is to teach brilliant RE, so that students love it, learn lots and we get their support and that of their parents.’ It falls to us as teachers to make sure we use SAVE RE positively and professionally. Only then can we SAVE RE, not from meddling politicians, but from itself.

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.

The slides are below. 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 – https://www.truetube.co.uk/film/77 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)

DanH

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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?

The slides for the lesson are below but I’ll take you through how the lesson went.

The first four slides are 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? One student put his hand up at picture three and said Cain and Abel, which was wrong. Then another brave soul got the right answer. 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?