Are we doin' any acting today?" Tina asks. When I feel energetic enough to organise imaginative lessons, Tina really likes religious education. Special needs students such as her can do RE if they don't have to struggle with difficult texts as well as abstract ideas. That is not to say that literacy is not important, but a lack of basic literacy skills should not exclude students from learning about religious beliefs and practices, nor from reflecting on their significance.
The National Society's special needs fellowship for 1999-2000 gives me one day a week to develop resources and ideas for raising standards at key stage 3. By the end of the year I will have had the chance to try them out in different schools and published four schemes of work and assessment ideas.
Good RE lessons are often lively, always thoughtful and imaginative, and occasionally sad. Students are engaged in a search for answers to difficult questions: Why do Christians pray to God? Does it work? What do Hindus believe happens when we die? Does that mean I need to behave myself?
The working title of my first unit is "Will it be worth it when I get there?" It looks at the idea of pilgrimage. Using large sheets with interlocking circles marked "tourism" and "pilgrimage", groups of students are expected to sort through piles of different pictures - the Western Wall, the Ka'ba and a rather orthodox looking building that turns out to be a Disneyland castle - and place them appropriately on the diagram. The idea is to explore the similarities and differences between religious and other journeys.
Then we embark on a four-week travel brochure project. I give the class a task sheet which explains that they work for a travel firm specialising in pilgrimages. Their instructions are to prepare detailed itineraries.
In an ideal world we would all go on a school trip to experience pilgrimage at first hand, as I have done with GCSE groups to Walsingham and Canterbury, but CD-Roms and Internet sites can help bring the wider world to life in the classroom. Videos, posters and books are further sources of information and a number of people connected with the school have been on pilgrimage - useful for interviews.
Differentiation is crucial to the success of this task in all ability teaching groups. The most able students are encouraged to develop their own ideas and format for the brochure. Open-ended tasks within a clear framework of expectations allow extended and detailed research; this is excellent preparation for GCSE. Middle-ability students need more guidance, but not so much as to stifle originality.
This is also important for lower-ability students, who are given a structure with ideas to process. With luck, most of the class is working independently and I can be with a different pair of students every 15 minutes to help them plan their work. We negotiate our way through the task, but I need to be clear what is most important to learn from the brochure exercise and I suggest a variety of ways in which information can be presented. It's important to be positive and for everybody to produce something of their own.
But Tina still won't get to do any acting, unless I change the task for her. Perhaps she could make a video. We could prepare flash cards as an auto cue, and I could assess Tina on the strength of her knowledge and understanding expressed orally. I can video this as evidence, and she can keep a copy of her achievement. Now who will lend me the camera?
Janet Orchard is head of humanitiesat Central Foundation girls' school in Bow, east London