Victoria Neumark explores some teaching solutions to the 'difficult questions'
We all know about "learning about" religion. But how do we "learn from" it, in our secular and multifaith age? In an ordinary corner of Leicester, one school has developed fruitful ways to grasp the core of world faiths, ways that are enjoyable for pupils and positive for the school.
In a corner of the room a red candle glows. Everyone is quiet, thinking. Where do they go when they need to be alone, to think? Rejan says: "I try to fit in the wardrobe but it doesn't work so I go in the shed." For Mohan it is "a special place in the back of the garden by the stream". Others are quiet. Some things are too private to share.
The candle flickers in the breeze from an open window. Fiona Moss, RE co-ordinator and Year 6 teacher at Coleman primary school in Leicester, smiles at her class. "Do you remember," she asks, "how Winnie the Pooh had a thoughtful spot?" Heads nod. "I think we all need a thoughtful spot. And the Buddha had one too. It was under the Bo tree." As the lesson goes on, Mrs Moss interweaves the episodes of the Buddha's discovery of the four sights with questions for the children: "Can you remember when you found out that we don't go on for ever? Has anyone got an old relative? What are they like? What do you think it is like for them? Why do you think it upset the Buddha so much to find out that people get ill, old, poor and die?" The children are engrossed. Fiona Moss has a quiet voice, she speaks calmly. But a few children are rubbing their eyes when the talk turns to why people have to die.
Mrs Moss writes "Your difficult questions" up on the board. The questions, all of them big ones, come thick and fast. What is life all about? Why did God come into this world? Why were we born? Why do some people have bodies that are wrong? Why am I me? How do you live life? If there was no football what would I be interested in? Neatly side-stepping the football question ("It's hard to imagine, isn't it?"), Fiona Moss writes her own difficult question up on the board. "Why did my friend's baby have to die?" Her question is a poignant and brave one to share with a class of 10 and 11-year-olds, because Mrs Moss is eight months pregnant. The children bombard her with their own queries about her question and she replies: "My own religion did help me, but it hasn't given me an answer. We all have to look for our own answers."
One boy is especially troubled: "I think about death a lot. When will I die?" Mrs Moss is careful with her answer: "A lot of people think about that a lot of the time." This leads on to the next part of the lesson, writing your own hard questions and answers in groups. She writes up a template based on the Buddha's Four Noble Truths: Human Life is Suffering (Diagnosis).
People create suffering because they are afraid to let go of their feelings (Explanation).
If people try not to hold on to what they like nor avoid the things that cause pain, suffering will cease (Cure).
The Noble Eightfold Path is that which helps people let go and eventually leads to the end of suffering (Treatment).
Meantime, with Year 2, Karen Stuart is working on "making your own Hindu Mandir" - the children are trying to recreate the atmosphere of the temple. Coleman school is 30 per cent Muslim, 25 per cent Hindu, 25 per cent Sikh, mainly from south Asian background with the rest a mixture of white secular and agnostic. RE, says Fiona Moss, is "great for defusing ethnic tension". This may be a bit idealistic - the Tree of Hope the children have made for the entrance foyer bears quite a few messages of hope for "no more bullying" - but the children in Mrs Stuart's class are nodding along with her as she says: "We've got lots of Hindu people here so if we get stuck they can help us out." With remarks like: "They ring the bell twice or three times a day to pray" and quick recognition of the Om sign, the class shows good "learning about" religion. Today, though, they will be "learning from" it.
To foster the process, Karen Stuart has brought her own precious things along. She says: "Some people might think things are precious and other people might think 'yuk'. But this is my daughter's ornament, which she bought me with her own money - her first present, and this is my son's teddy that he had when he was little. It reminds me of special, quiet times." Karen Stuart looks round the solemn circle of children. "I wouldn't part with this," she says, "if you gave me a million pounds." A subdued gasp is followed quickly by sharing of treasures. A necklace with a special bead: "I used to have bad dreams," says Vaishali, "and my mum bought me this and I don't have bad dreams any more." A shell, a special toy, a peacock to recall the peacocks in Grandma's garden, a ring, an ornament - all are duly acknowledged. The children then sit at tables to draw their shrine object and write about why it is precious to them.
Karen Stuart says this term's RE is not just about the forms of worship but about what happens inside worshippers. It is a transition. These Year 2 children are not abashed at the big ideas, but simply suck their pencils and get on with it.
Back in Year 6, the compositions are moving and thoughtful. Kina and Jessica have pondered mortality and population (as did the 17th-century sage Malthus): "Many people would like to live forever, with too many people who would soon feel like dying because there was no space left to live in". Max and Kiri are succinct: "What is life about? I think life is a test of emotion."
Fiona Moss says: "Teaching children here is a joy. Religion is important to them. You start from a point where they have some knowledge and they see how it can be important." She points to last term's project, Words of Wisdom, which is displayed on the walls. Why is RE important? asks the poster. The answers speak of the vitality of RE teaching at Coleman, where, says Mrs Moss, despite the pressures of the national curriculum, "We still grab them and get outside if there's snow. You want that sense of wonder."
Each year has its own careful scheme of work which mixes "learning about" and "learning from" - keeping teachers involved as well as the children. There are displays in the foyer about the Pillars of Islam, dance and drama performances for all the major festivals from Christmas to Vaisakhi, art projects on angels or the struggle between light and dark, and parents come in to talk about customs and prepare special foods with the pupils. Religion is exciting and ever present. But why does Year 6 enjoy RE? "You get to learn about other religions and say your own opinions," is one explanation. "It is a chance to get together and talk," is another. And another: "There is no right and wrong answer."