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Teacher as author;Religious education;Interview;Joe Jenkins;Features and arts

Joe Jenkins started teaching religious education in 1978, and he now works part-time at Hereford sixth form college. His books include the popular 'Contemporary Moral Issues' for GCSE, and 'Introducing Moral Issues' for key stage 3 (both published by Heinemann). 'Ethics and Religion' (Heinemann) for AS and A-level was published earlier this year.

I was always aware that many teachers and students questioned the relevance of religious education in modern society. But it is the job of the RE teacher to explain why the subject is so important: to show it has a role to play in politics and current affairs and has been a shaping force in history, as well as addressing the big questions that young people ask, like what it means to be human and why am I here. I think RE has the potential to be the most radical subject.

As a young teacher I sent off book ideas to publishers. When GCSEs started, I found there was tremendous scope to explore issues such as the international arms trade, racism, homosexuality, crime and punishment - which previous RE books hadn't really dealt with. Sue Walton at Heinemann liked my synopsis for a GCSE book, and in 1987 I published Contemporary Moral Issues, which has done very well.

I've tried to have an open-minded approach in my teaching and writing, striving to create a community of inquiry in the classroom, developing skills like discussion, listening, reflection and good judgment.

RE has developed considerably over the past 20 years, and my books seemed to catch a new mood among RE teachers about human rights and justice. The 1980s was quite an oppressive period in schools, with Clause 28 and the FalklandsMalvinas war; repression of the trade unions; an escalation of the arms trade and the threat of nuclear war. There was a climate where what was happening in the outside world wasn't thought to be applicable to schools.

My writing came out of a desire to introduce these kinds of issues, to open students' minds to alternative views. I published a book called Christianity in 1989 which was revised in 1995, trying to emphasise its spiritual as well as its externalistic side, and Introducing Moral Issues, Ethics and Religion, published in 1993, is partly concerned with ethical theory - utilitarianism, practical ethics and so on - but behind that is a striving for deeper meaning. If RE is to have any value it has to help students find meaning.

I also collaborated with the Palestinian professor Suheil Bushrui on a biography of the author of The Prophet, called Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet published by One World, which is used by American undergraduates; it is quite an academic book, particularly when exploring the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

It's been very important for me to work with people from other faiths. I have been involved with a project called "Beat the Border", with Yusuf Mahmoud, director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, taking African and Indian musicians into schools in Gloucestershire to increase student awareness of other cultures through the arts.

At a sixth-form conference on ethics and religion that I organised recently in London, it was the music and poetry of the artists there that really caught the students' attention, although there were some very good speakers. I'd like to see the arts playing an increasing role in education.

Joe Jenkins was talking to Diana Hinds.

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