Avoiding the perils of the annual RE field trip

Linda Gray
2nd February 2017 at 14:55

Subject Genius, Linda Gray, Avoiding the perils of the annual RE field trip

The annual field trip. Not much in RE teaching is likely to create such a response. A response of anticipation and excitement from the pupils at the thought of leaving the school gates for an hour or more. A response of fear and opposition from some parents who fear this is the first step in a process of indoctrination and radicalisation of their child. Finally, a response from the teacher of wondering if it is all worth it and wouldn’t it be easier just to photocopy some worksheets and stay in school.

I am a believer in the value of the RE field trip and have organised and led these in each of the schools I have worked in.

In my first school we took Year 7s out for one hour, during their RE lesson, walked them round the corner to the local Anglican Church and met the local vicar who would give an engaging and accessible talk to the pupils. This was very smooth and hassle-free. Whilst in the same school we also delivered the slightly more ambitious trip for GCSE pupils to a stunning local Mandir which was purpose built in a traditional Indian style. The first year the trip ran relatively smoothly with an engaging speaker and the pupils learnt lots, the biggest trauma this year was the pupils’ nervousness regarding the issue of prashad, they understood that it could cause offense to refuse but were concerned regarding what they would be given. A collective sigh of relief followed the distribution of Penguin biscuits and Walkers crisps – no 14 year old would refuse chocolate biscuits and crisps and all received them with genuine gratitude. The success of this trip lulled me into a false sense of security for the following year. This year we encountered perils 1 & 2 of the RE field trip.

Peril 1. The parent who refuses permission

Despite the fact that his daughter was completing a GCSE RE course, of which 50% was a study of Hinduism, one Muslim father refused permission for his daughter to visit the Mandir and there was no convincing him. This did not hold back his daughter who produced an outstanding piece of coursework which not only described, but evoked the atmosphere of a Mandir. When I questioned her on how she had produced such a descriptive and evocative account without being on the trip she responded that she had based her coursework on the many Bollywood movies which she had watched which included scenes set in Mandirs.

Subject Genius, Linda Gray, Avoiding the perils of the annual RE field trip

Peril 2. The boring, or incomprehensible speaker

This year the speaker spoke heavily accented English, so much so that one Sikh pupil from an Indian family leaned in to me and whispered “Miss, I’m not being funny but if I can’t understand him what chance have the white girls got.”

Peril 3. Running over time

In my second school we embarked on the somewhat ambitious idea of taking all the Year 7s to the local Gurdwara. The reason this was ambitious was that they would go in a relay fashion, one group would go down in the school minibus and they would have their talk, then go back to school, at which point the minibus would collect the next group and bus them down. All went smoothly till it came time for group 1 to return to school, at this point they were enjoying the Langar meal and a polite comment to the effect that they needed to get back to school as the other group were waiting to come down was met with a polite request to allow them to eat. Aware of the importance of sewa and langar in Sikhism I swallowed my obsessive punctuality and tried not to visualise group 2 standing outside the school waiting for the minibus.

In my third school I set out to tackle three places of worship in one day and complete a comparison. We set about to visit the Roman Catholic Church up the road from the school, a protestant church and the local Masjid. As the local Masjid was a converted building and had very limited space we had to take the year group in smaller groups. This school was in the Caribbean and this trip required the private hire of the school buses and the collection of a small fee to cover the bus fare from each pupil. I knew that some of the pupils were from very impoverished backgrounds and was concerned that some pupils may miss what I felt was an important educational opportunity due to financial limitations. In the end my fears were laid aside – the draw of being out of school and getting lunch at the local burger restaurant was too strong and all children returned their permission slips and bus fares. Unfortunately, though we did experience peril 2, and the danger of doing multiple visits in one day is that it becomes so much more obvious that the Roman Catholic priest boring speaker is boring when he is visited immediately after or before the engaging and relevant youth pastor of the protestant church who was big on audience participation.

Having successfully visited three places of worship in a day, in my current school I decided to ‘go big or go home’. Year 6 here complete a comparative study of places of worship so what better to bring it to life than with a field trip. As the nearest places of worship, other than churches, are in the nearest city which is a one hour drive down a pretty rubbish road (I teach in rural Kenya), it seemed like a good idea to cram as much into one day as possible, Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, a Mandir, a Gurdwara and a Masjid. The planning for this trip was the most interesting. As only one of the places of worship responded to an email enquiry I found myself, on one day at the end of the summer holiday, turning up at the cathedrals, mandir and masjids and asking if I could bring a school trip. The Anglican Cathedral had security at the gate (not unusual in Kenya) who wanted to know who I wanted to speak to – I didn’t know. Maybe I should just have said ‘God’, as it does make you wonder about someone who just wants to pray in the Cathedral between services. The first masjid I arrived at initially had no-one available to speak to me, when I returned at the time stated I realised it was actually namaz time, the Imam was very helpful and referred me to another Imam at another masjid. The pandit at the Mandir is a non-English speaker who was translated for by his daughter. On the day of the visit he called in an English speaking Hindu who was very good with the children. This trip introduced me to perils 3 and 4.

Peril 4. The non-English speaking pandit or imam

When I tried to confirm the visit on the phone a few days before arriving with 60 ten to eleven-year-olds I eventually gave up and passed the phone to the school secretary with the words: “He doesn’t speak good English, can you try in swahilli?”, she tried and then returned the phone to me saying: “He doesn’t speak good swahilli either,” I drafted in the school’s recruitment officer, who’s Indian who called in Hindi. For this year’s trip, the recruitment officer has left the school so I had to recruit one of our Year 7s who is from an Indian family and speaks Hindi.

Peril 5. The apathetic place of worship

When I tried to organise this trip the Gurdwara was the only place which responded to my email, they met with me and agreed to the trip. On the day of the trip our guide didn’t show so I had to talk the children through the Gurdwara myself. This year our guides didn’t show at either the Gurdwara, Mandir or the Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Peril 6. Avoiding acts of worship

Whilst we want our pupils to experience a real place of worship we have to remember that these places are used for worship and that most worshippers do not want to experience a school field trip. Trying to create an itinerary which visits 4 places of worship ( I dropped the Anglican Cathedral from the day on the second year) in one day and works around namaz at the masjid, mass at the Cathedral and the fact the Mandir is only open till 12 is quite a challenge though one we have managed so far.

Subject Genius, Linda Gray, Avoiding the perils of the annual RE field trip

How to minimise the perils of the RE field trip:

Peril 1. The parent who refuses permission

This one is in everything you say and do. If the children are engaged and fascinated by what you do in your lessons they’ll likely want to participate in the trips and will do their utmost to convince their parents to let them participate. Speaking to parents either in person or by phone will give you a chance to hear their concerns and to allay their fears.

Peril 2. The boring speaker

Peril 4. The non-English speaking pandit or imam

Peril 5. The apathetic place of worship

Unfortunately, unless you have visited the place previously and know who will be speaking to you, there’s always a very real possibility that you will experience the boring speaker, the non- English speaker or that no speaker at all will be there to meet you. Prep your pupils before so that they have questions which they want to ask, also create a work booklet for them to complete during the day. I prefer open-ended questions. Such as, how do you feel in this place? Draw something you find interesting? What can you smell or hear? This way you can always suggest to the boring speaker that the pupils be given some time to complete their booklets.

Peril 3. Running over time

It is very difficult to accurately gauge the time needed the first time you run a trip. Being stuck in a place where no speaker has shown up and the children are bored can be just as much a headache for the teacher as an engaging speaker who has the rapt attention of the pupils while the teacher anxiously looks at their watch, knowing that they need to move on to another place or return to school. Always allow yourself more time than you think you will need and let each speaker know, in advance of the visit and also upon arrival what time you need to leave. Make a note of how much time you spent in each place and whether it was enough, too much or too little and use this to inform planning for next year’s itinerary.

Subject Genius, Linda Gray, Avoiding the perils of the annual RE field trip

Peril 6. Avoiding acts of worship

Start planning early and be flexible. Consider where you are most likely to come up against an act of worship, probably the masjid with namaz 5 times a day, and try to schedule those in your itinerary first. Then work the places of worship where you’re less likely to encounter worship around them till you have timings and an itinerary that works.

RE field trips are worth it – they bring our pupils into a direct experience with religion in a real-life experience and in my opinion are worth us as teachers facing these perils and any others which appear along the way. 

 

 

Linda Gray is Head of RS at St Andrew's Prep School in Kenya.

Comments