The 3 Rs: Reading, Writing and RE

The inaugural #reblogsync has already provided much debate as to the meaning of religious literacy. Before anyone reads (or writes) anything on this issue however they should listen to this episode of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief from March 2015.  It is a fascinating discussion.

However, I’d like to turn the debate in a new direction and focus on the literacy part of the topic. I despair at the literacy and vocabulary of even my brightest students. Much of the focus of our school development plan is literacy. We have implemented the accelerated reader scheme into KS3 and are constantly looking for ways to improve the basic literacy skills of our students. As an RE teacher many of my lesson titles are questions and if I had a pound for every time a student failed to include a ? after a question I’d quit teaching and open a cocktail bar in Tahiti.

As anyone who has attended any literacy INSET will know ‘we are all teachers of literacy.’ I was told during my PGCE that textbooks are not worth investing in and if push came to shove then buying one of each (to copy) would be enough. Now I accept that the quality of many RE textbooks is woeful but this training led me down a path thinking that reading texts was bad and that RE had to be engaging, relevant and experiential if it was to be worthy. Couple that with a focus in my NQT year on Learning to Learn and thinking skills and I now look back on my ITT years with horror. I was lied to! At no point did anyone tell me that silent reading, reading as a class, comprehension tasks, accuracy of speelings (sic) might be important.

Here are some examples that I hope help demonstrate what I mean. They are all from my experience of teaching year 10 this year.

Christian attitudes to fertility treatment

I have taught (and examined) OCR GCSE for five years. I enjoy teaching it especially the medical ethics section. However the lack of religion and theology and in depth engagement with scripture in the official textbooks is shocking. When studying Christianity and IVF the textbooks suggest students learn this.

Copyright: Heinemann

Copyright: Heinemann

Copyright: Hodder

Copyright: Hodder

That’s it. No context. No exegesis. No knowledge of the book or character of Samuel and why he is important. It’s a case of learn the quote and say some Christians believe God decides that some women cannot have children because it’s in the Bible and you get an A*. So this year I spent a whole lesson with the focus being this text.

We read the whole of the first chapter of Samuel 1. Why?

  • To get my students to realise that the quotes that will get them the marks in their exams don’t exist in isolation.
  • To get them to read something hard. Just look at some of the names in verses 1-4!
  • To get them to really focus on the story and not just the quote, Reading it in detail drew out some excellent discussion about God’s role in the bible and what passages such as this actually mean: Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.’

Christian attitudes to forgiveness

A key text for this topic is obviously the parable of the unforgiving servant. As an examiner for this paper I am constantly giving marks to students who say Christians must forgive because of this parable. But have they really learnt it? I guide my year 10 short course class into a close exegesis of the text. I see them once a fortnight so have to time to waste. They read, discuss and write essays. Its a parable so they know from KS2/3 it’s a story with a meaning. But what is the meaning? Why should you forgive? Look at the text! If God is analogous to the King then you should forgive because if you don’t then God will judge you. And when I mean judge, I mean TORTURE! No understanding of Christianity and forgiveness can come without an understanding of judgement but again this is absent from any textbook discussions of this key parable.

Christian Attitudes to Equality

There was a recent spate of memes over at SAVE RE on facebook. This one spoke the truth.



The students I teach are in the main secular. There are some militant atheists but they, like Dawkins, still find religion interesting and worthy of study. In teaching this parable I tell my class that I’m an atheist and yet I find it one of the most profoundly moral pieces of literature in human history. Many were unsure what profound meant (I think part of a teacher’s job is to use difficult vocabulary and challenge the students choice of words) so once we’d got over that we moved onto reading the text. I then ask them is equality about treating everyone the same? According to GCSE papers I mark many think it is. Or is the Christian understanding of equality more complicated than that? Actually you are judged (back to that again) not by treating everyone equally but by this: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I then show them this cartoon by Khalid Albiah

and get them to explain the image in relation to the parable. But Lord when did we see you as a Sudanese orphan drowning in the Mediterranean? Some may see this as liberal confessionalism but that is not what I’m getting at. This cartoon was shared widely on social media when the migrant crisis in the Med became front page news. However without a knowledge of Christianity and the Bible: knowledge of kingship, the narrative of the Passion, atonement, sacrifice, etc. the cartoon loses its power. See Jonathan Porter’s excellent blog on this.

Religious literacy can come from discussions with believers and visits to places of worship. I would encourage this.  It certainly involves the skills of discernment, respect and curiosity so well articulated by Charlotte Vardy earlier in this blogsync.

But we mustn’t forget that key word in this discussion: literacy. We mustn’t lose sight of the literacy in religious literacy. Understanding of religion in the classroom comes from reading texts, discussing them and writing about them!

My first post…

After much procrastinating I’ve decided that it’s about time I got my own blog. I’ve guested for RE:Online and written for others but now seemed as good a time as any to claim some space on the world wide web as my own.

Why the cursed fig tree?

I was in the staff room the other day discussing figs with some non-RE colleagues, as you do. I mentioned the story in Matthew of Jesus cursing the fig tree and it transpired most weren’t familiar with it. You can read the story along with some ‘interpretations’ here:

As a story I find it fascinating even if it makes no sense. This nicely sums up why as an atheist I teach RE.

What’s the picture all about?

The photograph has been the background of my twitter profile for the last few years. It was taken in 2008 while walking around Phnom Penh. I assume it was the office of a Cambodian government department but I didn’t venture in. If there is one thing RE teachers love arguing about its what their subject is ‘for’ and what it should be called. Well ‘cults and religions’ does it for me!

Coming soon… my first main post is going to be a review of my last seven years as Head of RS (I’m moving schools in September) and what I would have done differently if I was starting out again.