Why I am leaving ‘Save RE’

Save RE is not a productive forum for discussion. Save RE is a battleground. I have only actually ventured onto it a few times because I find the majority of things that go on there are not actually helpful or relevant to the kind of RE that I am striving to teach (academically rigorous, NO FLUFF!).

However, on the occasions that I have shown my face and made a comment or two, I have kept it in my usual blunt style and don’t tip-toe around what I am trying to say. Obviously this annoys people, but what I always seem to get is comments like “well you’re obviously a rubbish teacher then…”

Save RE should not be a ‘my horse is bigger than your horse’ forum. It is there to be a positive support to those teachers who are maybe the only one in their department (like myself) and who want support or even just a nod that they are doing the right thing. It is there to discuss the political drama surrounding RE law and the new specs and a place for people to muddle through and make sense of all the government nonsense.

But it is not. It is a place where people attack each other based on their teaching? I am no angel in this scenario, I do make very clear my opinions on matters and I express them in a way which may make others feel daft for having other opinions. Having had a taste of my own medicine, I would probably reconsider how I speak on there now because it’s not nice when you’re panicking about notifications from Facebook because you’re embroiled in an argument with someone. That is not how Save RE should make us feel.

I want to show you some examples of what I mean. Naming and shaming, without the naming.

Yesterday there was a thread about the new specs being ‘too traditional’. Personally, I welcome this as I have always hated the kind of RE that the exam boards have previously had us teach. So I commented. The reply is below:

FB 1 - edit

I don’t understand where my teaching came into that. “Sorry you have not been [teaching academic RE] Rebecca.” How would this person know what I teach? I am possibly the world’s biggest advocate for an academic RE. So why did this person make such a snide comment?

Besides the point, whether I am being academically rigorous or not, the Edexcel spec had organ transplants and Bruce Almighty on it. So why did the person responding feel the need to put me down in that moment? I am the only RE teacher in my school and if I wasn’t so cocky and sure that what I am doing is good RE, I may have gone away from that with my tail between my legs thinking ‘OMG I’m a failure’.

The person could simply have said something like “there is room in the GCSE specs to add academia, here is an example of what I have been doing…” I, maybe, (probably not) would have gone wow, please share, I would love to use some of your fantastic tools to help add some rigour into my classes. But instead they chose to put me down, even though they have never seen me teach.

I did give said person a piece of my mind though (obviously!). I just couldn’t stop myself…

FB 2

May I suggest that we don’t put each other down? This happens enough in schools from power mad managers who have nothing better to do. Everyone will teach differently, everyone will have different time constraints and different pressures. What is important is that we are unified in making RE better for the future. Save RE should be a safe environment, just like our classrooms.

I will be exiting Save RE today and will be glad that my Facebook will be rid of this nastiness…

(This is just one example, this is not the first time someone has made the ‘well you must be a rubbish teacher then…’ comment on there)

 

 

 

 

 

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RE, Islam and Terrorism 

This is such a huge topic and any RE teacher who is currently teaching Islam will no doubt be feeling nervous about the potential discussions that could arise in the classroom.

We have been taught and trained to handle these situations and “create the right environment” for our students to discuss Islam and it’s theology. However, the Islam that the GCSE would have us teach never actually deals with contentious issues. It papers over them in an attempt to perform the function of “community cohesion”. 

So we find ourselves being told to teach about Islam only ever as a peaceful religion and teach Jihad as directly linked to the greater Jihad (personal struggle) rather than the lesser.

I have a problem with this. I believe it perpetuates the stereotypes even more because we are not giving our students an honest, open space to discuss the theology in Islam which is causing so much disruption in our world.

More increasingly than ever I see people quoting parts of the Qur’an on sites like Facebook, highlighting that there are parts that need discussion. This usually then leads to comments which are inappropriate and misguided. 

When we discuss the Bible, we don’t shy away from its tough parts such as the book of Job or its strict laws on homosexuality. We break it down, we contextualise it, we talk about cultural relativism and whether or not these texts still have a place in society today. So why do we not do this with the Qur’an?

Are we afraid as teachers due to a lack of confidence with this particular holy book? Or are we scared of the controversy surrounding it?

We are doing a great injustice by ignoring the contentious issues in the Qur’an. Our students know it contains verses actively used by terrorists. It is the elephant in the room. We try to steer them away from this discussion with talks of peace and the inner struggle for Allah.

I would argue that the whole of society would gain a greater understanding of the ISIS demands and thought processes if they took the time to conduct the same exegesis on the Qur’an as we do on the Bible. So therefore, I think it is only necessary that we do deal with these texts with our students.

The aim would not be to take away the parts of peace and love from the religion, but to also acknowledge the parts which cause issues for us today.

ISIS are inherently Muslim. To the letter almost. Their practices and beliefs are tied up in the Qur’an literally. They believe that they are emulating the Prophet Muhammad’s actions during the early wars in Islam. The idea of the Caliphate is a Muslim idea. To shy away from this fact means that we are papering over the cracks and not giving our students all of the details they need to make a rational, informed decision themselves.

I don’t like to do injustice to any religion and especially one that is being discussed at great lengths by the whole of society, yet with very few who seem to actually have knowledge about it. 

Assessment in RE – the battle continues

Interestingly I attended a teaching and learning conference with my school today. The aim of the day was to bring all of the schools in my academy chain together and have those much needed curriculum discussions.
I was so excited by this prospect. I love working with other passionate RE specialists and I love to see what other teachers are doing in hope that it will help me to further develop my own RE department.

Today’s sessions were focused on the RE GCSE and the changes that are heading our way and whilst these do matter, I currently only have year 7 and 8 so they are less of a stress to me at the moment. So I focused my attention on picking people’s brains about assessment rubrics and life after levels in RE.
Being a part of a federation means that we share this sort of thing but there was nothing available for the RE. A few weeks ago, in a bit of a panic, I sat with my line manager and we managed to create a structure that works for us for now. It will need a complete re-working before next half term.

We are using the new GCSE 1-9 system and what I have created is not quite levels but it is not far enough away from levels either (Niel McKain’s Elvis image springs to mind). It had to be done though as data is due in but I need the time to think on it further. (I will put the rubric I am using on here at a later date)

So today, I asked people what they have been using to mark their assessments and input their data (on which we are all judged against each other). Each person was using something different – the common problem in RE. A lack of consistency is the biggest problem and contributes to bad RE.

I raised the question to the RE leader about this issue, as we know this is a national issue for RE not just a federation one. One of the other RE teachers who has shown me what he uses (which is brilliant) heard my complaint. We are hoping to make this much tighter and more consistent but what was so inspiring today was that there are so many RE teachers there that could be collaborating on all of this as the climate in RE changes.

I feel really excited today about creating my new RE documents and trying them out in my school seeing how they work and then sharing them with others so that they can be tested in different cultural and ability contexts.

We need to take control of our subject and hold it to such a high standard. The expectations should be sky high and having this rubs off on others. I had such positive comments today about my hopes for the future of RE across all our schools and I think that we went away feeling that we should collaborate more and utilise our knowledge to make the RE academically rigorous and successfully assessed.

Energising RE – CSTG conference

It’s been a week since the Energising RE conference and I’ve been thinking a lot about the events and conversations from last weekend.

It is brilliant that Culham St Gabriel’s put this conference on as it rarely happens that so many RE teachers can come together and talk about our wonderful subject; however, there were many things that bugged me last weekend. I am going to go through the two following themes:

  1. Assessment in RE – what will it look like?
  2. To NC or not to NC?

Assessment in RE

This is a big deal at the moment. I listened to various responses over the weekend as to how we can solve the problem of life without levels. However, there were no responses which I left feeling I would certainly adopt and I am desperate for a system in my new school.

First of all I attended a session which suggested AT1 and AT2 are not sufficient anymore and then proceeded to offer what looked like AT1, AT2 and something that kind of looked like a made up AT3 which didn’t add any value whatsoever. It took me everything to keep my mouth closed in this session as the type of skills being assessed were the kind of fluffy RE that should not be included at all! There was no space for testing knowledge or academic skills and I fear this is going to lead us right back to square one. One piece of work we were offered as an example was the Nativity scene with speech bubbles asking how each character “feels” as a form of assessment. What is this? I don’t even know that there’s any academic skill required there.

The second proposed option I came across was knowledge focussed and I heard lots of whisperings amongst the crowd which made it clear that this was not a popular choice. I think it would be excellent to have set knowledge that the students must leave knowing (a minimum expectation if you like) just like the other well-respected Humanities subjects. The main opposition came from the idea that this would be set nationally and would then somewhat upset the freedom that locality brings with it. This brings me on to my second point:

To National Curriculum or not to National Curriculum? That is the question!

The fear behind the word ‘National’ is somewhat misguided. Within National Curriculum’s there are still options and choices. History teachers choose between Russian history or British history so why couldn’t we choose between Islam or Judaism? This would be a professional judgement on the part of the RE teacher as to which syllabus best suits the children in their local area. There are many positives which a NC would bring. We would be clear as a community about our aims and purposes even if we don’t all agree with it. We would have more knowledge about what is happening lower down in ks1 and ks2 which would certainly help us to develop our students more in ks3. It would also give our Primary colleagues clearer guidance about what they should be teaching and may mean that teachers feel less afraid of the subject.

Ultimately the main problem in the RE community is that there are too many opinions. Not everyone is going to get their own way but we can’t sit and talk about this forever. Something needs to change as our subject needs to move into the future. I think it’s time we welcomed the change and worked together on solutions rather than talking continually about the problems.

It is clear we are not going to get a perfect answer right now to what our ‘assessment’ will look like but we have great RE minds and we can certainly figure this out once we know which direction our subject is going in. Also, I think it’s about time that RE teachers said goodbye to the ‘nice’ feeling style RE which is lovely to teach but ultimately does nothing for our students academically.

EAL + Religion = ?

Last night I attended an induction evening for the new year 7 at my new school. It was brilliant to feel a part of the school and start working with the students and families.

One of the key issues we will face next year is high numbers of EAL (English as an Additional Language) students. We have been told to bear this in mind when planning our schemes of work.

I have worked in a school previously with high numbers of EAL and it was so vital that everything was tailor made to suit them in order for everyone to progress the amount that they should. Every child has potential, even if they struggle with the English Language initially (to be honest, I think I’m still struggling with it now). Every teacher is a teacher of literacy and I have to sync my RE agenda with that.

So, in my reflective mood last night I started to consider all of the ranting and rambling I have done about academia in RE and how this is going to work in my new school with such high numbers of EAL students. I have previously criticised Critical RE for this very reason.

EAL learners need visual aids and cultural context if they are going to access the work I am setting them. Suddenly, my vision of doing in depth exegesis is starting to fade. How am I going to get everyone engaged and understanding the deep theological issues that I wish to discuss with them in the classroom?

I have put together the bare bones of how I want my new curriculum to look. It is centred on a chronologically ordered in-depth study of the Abrahamic faiths. Followed by a shorter look into the Indian religions. The over-arching theme for me is ‘Religion’ and an actual study of religions.

I read this article just recently after somebody at a conference mentioned that Dawkin’s supported Biblical reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible

In particular this quote stood out to me; “religious education as a part of literary culture.” Is this what I want for religious education? I’m not sure at this point.

I think there will have to be an element of my teaching during which I approach the Bible as literacy and use the skills needed to read and comprehend to help enhance my students’ understanding of English. However, I will try to factor in their need to understand the cultural context as well as the theological in hope that I can still get them engaging with these texts academically.

I think that the Bible has great potential for EAL students and could actually help them more with their understanding of literacy (analogy, metaphor, etc.). I just need to find the most suitable way of transmitting this to them.

So essentially, I don’t have the answer to this yet but as my journey begins as the RE leader in my school and as I start to get to know my students better I will post more about whether or not my plans are working in practice.

Ideas welcome!

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