I am a teacher of religion. Reflection on #tfreconference

As a first time blogger, I don’t think I could have been presented with a better opportunity than yesterday’s Teach First RE conference. The conference was held at Teach First’s plush offices in London which happen to have an excellent view of BoJo’s office and Tower Bridge. A view which has always given me a sense of purpose and validity about what I am doing with my life.

I am a Teach First Ambassador (2012 cohort) and I have very much separated myself from the programme since completing it nearly a year ago. I needed a break from the intensity of it all. Whilst my short break from Teach First has been nice, it very much felt like I was coming home yesterday when I stepped into the offices.

I left yesterday feeling enthused and excited to be a part of the RE community. I also felt for the first time that the RE community was willing to fully embrace us “Teach Firsters” for the first time. After all, we are a community of people who are all passionate and excited about the future of our brilliant subject.

There were three key themes which I felt haunted the day:

  1. What is religious literacy and how do we develop this in our students? (Very much a hot topic the moment with BlogSyncRE also being on this topic)
  2. How do we develop engaging but academically rigorous RE that has credibility when compared to subjects like History and Geography?
  3. Should we be fearing controversial issues in our classrooms?

Ultimately, I think all three of these themes are linked. They cannot be dealt with as separate issues, but what we do need is for them to be developed correctly. I will explain each of these in more detail a little later on.

We are an anomaly in the school system. We like to think of ourselves as ‘special’ in some way, different to the ordinary mundane that students are getting from class to class. However, we are not valued. Students, parents and our colleagues do not always see the point of what we do in the RE classroom. This is our big problem. It’s like we’re the ‘naughty little secret’ that some don’t want to engage with for fear of parental and potentially public backlash. So, ultimately, it is down to us. We are the experts after all (!).

In my short three years of teaching, I have not yet met a teacher that disagrees that RE teaching needs an overhaul and that we need more credibility and rigour in our subject. A-Levels are the closest we get to actually using our degrees for the greater good (UT pun intended). Whilst we all seem to agree that things need to change, not many people are offering concrete solutions. We can all use the Via Negativa when describing our subject. We know what we do not want for our subject, but have we really identified properly what our aims and purposes are? Do we know what we actually want to be?

To identify what we want to be engages directly with the three topics that haunted the conference yesterday. It will continue to haunt us as practitioners until we come up with concrete solutions that may not be perfect in their first draft and may not actually suit every RE teacher but we need to band together to secure the future of our subject as one that is respected, challenging and will hopefully lead us to some more passionate people who have the potential to teach our much-loved subject.

  1. What is religious literacy and how do we develop this in our students?

Yesterday, Ciro Genovese (Canterbury Christ Church University) presented to us the framework of Andrew Wright’s Critical RE. Wright’s Critical RE seeks to move away from the liberal education which is concerned with religious literacy being intertwined with spiritual experience rather than delving into the realities that exist, albeit human beings are limited in their knowledge of these realities (Wright in Grimmitt, 2000). I would argue that our days as teachers of personal and social development are over (Hay in Grimmitt, 2000). We need our students to critically engage with truth claims in order to build up an academic religious literacy. In order to do this, believe it or not, we need to teach religion. I am not saying that there is no place for the personal and social development of our students, we want them to be active citizens of the world, but I don’t think we need to explicitly teach this. If it were not for the GCSE paper asking their opinion on abortion, I don’t think I would have this in my classroom at all. Their thoughts will be personal and whirring through their brains all lesson anyway but their written work and speech in the classroom should always attempt to be academically sound and rationally thought through. Ciro called this ‘wisdom’ at yesterday’s conference. The students will ultimately develop personally and socially as they engage with the truth claims. What we have to ask is, do activities such as relating religion to football in order to make it personal for them actually have any gain? I won’t bring up the ‘Charlie Charlie’ debate again but you get my drift. None of these discussions have a place, certainly not when we are talking religious literacy for sure.

Before I started university, I was instructed to buy a book named Guide to the Study of Religion (Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon). Being the keen student that I was, I tried (and failed) to read this book before beginning my course at university. The first part of this book is entitled ‘Description’. The following chapters are entitled ‘Definition’, ‘Classification’, ‘Comparison’, ‘Interpretation’. My education up to this point had in no way prepared me for the debates and problems that lay in the world of academia. If it were not for a very kind Professor taking me under his wing and explaining things in detail to me, I don’t think I would have got through that first semester at university. My point here is, I was not religiously literate. I could not deal with the debate because what I had been armed with was the ability to express my opinion on ethical issues and due to my Catholic sixth form education, a small amount of knowledge on some of St Paul’s letters. Going back to those chapter titles, is this ultimately what we should be doing in our classrooms in order to build up religious literacy? Our students should be equipped with the ability to engage with scholarly academic debate.

  1. How do we develop engaging but academically rigorous RE that has credibility when compared to subjects like History and Geography?

In my first year on the Teach First Programme I signed up for coaching and was matched to a high-flying banker who worked for HSBC. We talked a little about the constraints of my school and how I couldn’t always do what I felt was best for the subject and for the students as my then Headteacher feared RE engaging in any controversial topics, except for what was necessary at GCSE. He talked me through how ideas were put forward in his world. Identifying the problems are not enough to gain someone’s trust in you. He talked me through how whenever he is presenting ideas to those more senior than him he always starts with the problems. He pointed out there is a danger of sounding like you are creating more work for them or whinging. I feel this is a pattern we may have fallen into as RE teachers. So, he said he is always one step ahead of them with the solutions already prepared. This gives the person a reason to trust you and it is then more likely that your ideas will be put into motion. This is what we need as a community of RE teachers.

Andy Lewis (@iteachRE) spoke a lot yesterday about how fragmented we are as a community. The varying different names for our subject (Religious Studies, Philosophy and Ethics, Beliefs and Books, Social and Cultural Studies, etc.) prove this point to be wholly correct. We are the ‘naughty secret’, but unfortunately we are afraid to admit that what we teach is Religion. We are teachers of Religion. What really needs to happen in our community is that we define ourselves as teachers of Religion, we identify the problems we face as a subject and we present the solutions that we, as the experts, would like to see happen.

We cannot be a credible subject when we fail to even define what we are. We cannot be a credible subject when we are not teaching theological or philosophical truths. We cannot be a credible subject if we run away from the controversy that surrounds our subject.

The solution here is clear, we are the experts. We have our subject at the heart of what we do. We are the ones who need to solve this problem.

  1. Should we be fearing controversial issues in our classrooms?

This topic is so intertwined with point 2. Students are not dumb. They can see the elephant in the room just as much as you can. You cannot teach Jihad without engaging somewhat into groups that use its name, just the same way that you cannot teach the Bible without including its controversial passages. We fear certain topics more than others. It makes us uncomfortable. This was beautifully summed up at yesterdays conference when Kate Christopher said we need to get uncomfortable. There will be conversations had that scare the wider world but if we do not allow our students to deal with these realities directly then we are stifling their expression and allowing misconceptions to go unnoticed. If communities are ever really going to be cohesive the way that the government wants them to be then there has to be a place where differences and cultural context is discussed and not ignored. It is not enough to stand up and say Islam means ‘peace’ or Jihad means ‘struggle’ when that is not the picture of Islam that our students are faced with in the media. We have to deal with the controversy in its very rawest form.

RE will only be valued by students when they really get to engage directly with such material. Until then it will be airy fairy, governmental nonsense that we all know is just to try and give the illusion of ‘community cohesion’.

#BlogSyncRE

http://www.BlogSyncRE.org.uk

Twitter:

@SeftonReligion

Advertisements