Mark Williamson welcomes a primary series that examines the six major faiths
LIVING RELIGIONS SERIES
Edited by Chris Richards
By Ruth Holmwood
CHRISTIANITY (Part 1)
By Chris Richards
CHRISTIANITY (Part 2)
By Ruth Holmwood
By Dilip Kadodwala
By Frances Le Pla
By Maureen Harris
By Chris Richards
Teacher's Books Pounds 7.95 each
Poster Packs Pounds 16 each
A predictably depressing picture of RE in primary schools has been painted once again, depicting teachers with little confidence and expertise, and suffering from a lack of time and resources.
These were the findings of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's analysis of the annual reports of local standing advisory councils. Standards in most schools are also weak and uneven, according to the Office for Standards in Education.
In these circumstances Nelson's impressive Living Religions course will be welcomed. When the publishers describe Living Religions as "complete" they do so with ample justification. The course covers the six major world faiths and is based on SCAA's model syllabus guidelines of 1994.
Each unit or topic offers core activities for the average, extension activities for those of higher ability or those who are slightly older and "a more basic approach" for those of lower than average ability or slightly younger children. Few RE texts, particularly for the primary age range, can rival Living Religions' teaching strategies.
Ten units are provided for each faith with the exception of Christianity which is covered in books for the 4-7 and 7-11 age groups.
The books are intended for the teacher rather than the pupil. The principles underlying the approach are grounded in best primary practice with the teacher given the opportunity to select and adapt within a structured programme. This is no straitjacket, but the timing of each activity and the attention to detail provide a lot of support in what, for many, is a difficult area.
Although each unit is planned for about two hours, the programme should be used as a basis rather than as a substitute for detailed short-term planning. Perhaps this should be stated rather than assumed. Although almost every unit provides for group work, the size of the posters and the nature of the activities make whole class teaching possible.
The clarity of the instructions in the teacher's books is matched by the cues provided on the posters.
The professional approach to the structuring of the material is also reflected in the guidance notes. Teachers are advised to ensure that pupils are in a receptive state of mind before being exposed to a picture of a sad boy; the image is used as a starting point to explore Buddhist teaching on suffering.
On a lighter note, the illustration of Islamic calligraphy can be used to raise pupils' attitudes to handwriting. The discussion of the Sikh practice of cremation is approached sensitively and positively - "Why do you think people have funerals? (So they can mourn and say goodbye properly.)" The posters are powerful. Their role is to stimulate discussion and provide a starting point for many activities. The result is experiential RE with children discussing, role playing, designing and making, and working with one another. Pupils will enjoy the creative tasks.
One based on the Hindu morning prayer is appealing. Children discuss words to begin the day and develop these as poems or prayers which are written on yellow strips of paper and displayed to represent the rising sun on a wall. After an introduction to the gurdwara through video or even a visit, it is suggested that after a distinctive assembly the children are given a drink and a biscuit instead of carrying on with normal lessons. They can then be reminded of the langar and the opportunity that Sikhs take to relax and talk to one another after worship.
The activity sheets allow pupils to record what they have learned. Some activities are identified as assessment opportunities. Where there is cutting and pasting (as in making a Bible bookshelf or designing an ID card), it is done within a clear context; each unit reflects a theme such as prayer and worship or the family and is designed to implement specific aims which set out what children should know, understand and can do.
One of the strengths of this course is the degree to which the aims of each unit provide challenging and assessable learning objectives in a subject in which much thinking on assessment is tentative.
It is good to see the art of storytelling given such prominence in a modern RE text. Each book has stories on key events that illustrate important beliefs. Many, such as the Last Supper and the story of Baisakhi, do both. Some, such as Papa Panov (Christianity Part 2) and the monkeys and the hunter (Buddhism) are beautifully crafted and should be as enjoyable for the teacher to read as for the pupils to listen to. Given the inexhaustible resources of Judaism, it is surprising that the only stories used relate to Abraham, Moses and the Exodus.
The course is as comprehensive an exploration of the world's major religions as it would be possible to construct for this age group and its visual format and activities will have a great impact on primary schools. Here is support for the unqualified and motivation for the unwilling and, for all concerned with the teaching of RE to young children, a much-needed antidote to depression.
Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and religious education in the London Borough of Hounslow