Awe and wonder;Values

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh asks how schools can foster spirituality at the turn of the millennium.

The end of a century and of a millennium seems to be an appropriate time to con-sider the spiritual dimension of our lives, to reflect upon the values and beliefs which we bring to the things we do and to our relationships with other people. After all, we already recognise that the rhythm of each year has its own sense of spirituality, evoked by the way that it mirrors the rhythm of our lives.

Consciously or unconsciously we transmit this rhythm of the passing year to our children in school, through our own moods, through the literature we choose, through the themes of our assemblies and the songs we sing. Hear, for example, children singing with understanding Peggy Blakeley and Don Harper's gently textured Autumn assembly song: "Look for signs that summer's doneWinter's drawing near.Watch the changing colours comeTurning of the year." With a little thought and preparation, these connections can be even more explicitly evoked.

An example of how teachers and children have thought about the turning of the millennium is seen in the results of a recent competition run by the Christian Education Movement in the magazine RE Today. Children were asked to express their feelings about the millennium in artwork and words, and entries produced some deeply thoughtful responses.

There appears, for example, to have been little hankering after more and better technology. What our children want, it seems, is a peaceful world, with poverty left behind and a greater sense of community. Gemma Ainsworth of Hunslet St Mary's primary in Leeds is concerned for the disappearing natural world: "If plants and animals did not live on the earth, there would be no people."

And a group of girls from James Allen's school in Dulwich, south east London, feel that: "The Millennium should be a time to think about how we treat others and how we want to be treated in return." Such projects show us that children are ready to think these thoughts. If we are to help them further, a priority may be to help them recapture the gift of silence, to give them the chance to just think for a while.

Religious leaders often mention this, conscious perhaps that schools - like other modern institutions - are busy places filled with movement and chatter.

Reverend Father Deiniol of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who takes school assemblies, says: "Everything is so frantic. It's very important to cultivate in young people an inner silence." Part of the problem, perhaps, is that as adults we are a little afraid of silence, and we are reluctant to stop and look inside ourselves. Children, suggests Father Deiniol, have not yet reached that point.

"They are instinctive," he says. "They have a spiritual dimension which is easily cultivated, but which they lose because of the influence of society. But children like to talk about prayer and have an ease about prayer and spirituality."

That kind of reflective moment (and whether or not it is prayer is a decision for each individual) can easily be introduced into assembly, or at an agreed time during the day in the family atmosphere of the classroom. It will be welcome amid the pre-Christmas rush.

Importantly, though, we need to recognise that silence and reflection on their own may not be good enough. As Lat Blaylock, professional officer to the Professional Council for Religious Education puts it: "Reflection is a set of skills - if you want a scary thought, I suspect that Hitler was probably a reflective person."

The answer is to provide some signposts. For many people, and for some schools, religion - replete as all faiths are with stories and moral messages - will do that. Outside the religious context, though, a time of reflection can be preceded by a story, by music, by straightforward talk about what the school stands for.

"Schools need to make space for the values that lie behind what they do," says Lat Blaylock. If reflection is a set of skills, it follows that children can become better at it. Lat Blaylock talks of working for greater depth to our reflection and for an improved ability to find general meanings in the experiences that we reflect upon. He looks also for "increased awareness - being aware not just of what goes on inside me, but also of what others might be feeling or experiencing."

Reflection, whenever possible, ought to be preceded and followed by discussion, and perhaps also by writing, art, or drama. However, before we get over-enthusiastic about quiet reflection, Lat Blaylock strikes a note of caution. Spirituality, he points out, may involve reflection but it is not synonymous with it. "I reject the idea that spirituality is only inner - it's what's between human beings. There's an ethical dimension, a challenge."

He quotes the philosopher Kant: "Two things fill the mind with ever growing awe and wonder - the starry sky above and the moral law within." Thus, he goes on, "It's also a spiritual moment when someone responds to a charitable appeal - a bit of self-sacrifice instead of selfishness." This ought to strike a chord with primary schools, just about every one of which has unselfishness and consideration for others somewhere in its set of values, though time to address such matters unhurriedly with groups of children is at a premium.

For many schools the answer is "circle time". By definition this uses up valuable teaching time, but teachers usually reckon it to be an investment that pays off in improved attitudes and a more comfortable community.

Circle time is often thought of as giving children a chance to be heard. Equally important, though, it makes children listen to the feelings of others, and then, led by the teacher, think about their response to what they have heard. Whether it is used regularly or selectively, it can be a life-changing experience for some children, who may be given a way forward from grief, bullying, hidden fears about work, or a spiral of bad behaviour.

Children also come together at lunch-time just as, at Christmas and other festivals, such as the Jewish Passover holiday, there is sometimes a special meal. The link between sharing food and spirituality is well recognised in the organised religions.

Father Deiniol points out that it is often a theme of religious art. "In a famous icon of the Holy Trinity by the Russian painter Rublyov," he says, "we see three angels sitting at a table eating a sacral meal. The table has room for four, and the fourth is each of us."

Similarly, Indarjit Singh, editor of the Sikh Messenger, reminds us that sharing food together is an important expression of the Sikh religion. "When Sikhism was founded in India there was a strong caste system and the shadow of the lower caste was said to pollute the food," he says.

"Because of Guru Nanak's teaching that God is not interested in our labels, but how we live, men, women and children in Sikhism join in the preparation and serving of food."

All of this can be in the minds of children and teachers as they approach their special meals and parties. To stand up before the children as they gather for their Christmas lunch, for example, and to remind them of its power as a symbol of unselfishness and community - and also to remind them that there are hungry people in the world - is once again to provide a spiritual dimension to an already enjoyable event.

The real aim, though, is not just to inject a dose of spirituality into the cracks, but to develop a constant awareness of the need for reflection about values, and of Lat Blaylock's reminder of the ethical challenge in our relationships. So, though it is right to use writing, art and drama as a starting point for reflection, it may be more significant to look from the other direction. For instance, the urgency of the literacy hour might be given greater depth by a deliberately programmed time of quiet reflection about the values and relationships in what we read and write. There is a pointer here to how spirituality can become part of the curriculum rather than just added to it.

It has to be said, though, that before there can be deep consideration of ethical values in the classroom, we may need to look at relationships in the staffroom. It is not easy to see how children can be led into any exploration of spirituality if the adults leading them are angry, discontented or ill at ease with themselves or each other. To use circle time with teachers, for instance, calls for courage, but there are schools where it happens.

RE Today is published by the Christian Education Movement, which takes a more multi-faith approach than its title implies, Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 1GW.

A good discussion of many of these points is found in Clive Beck's Better Schools; A Value Perspective (Falmer Press 1990). Out of print now, it may be available in education libraries.

The doyenne of circle time is Jenny Mosley. Her website, including many Circle Time ideas, Her most recent book is More Quality Circle Time (LDA, pound;19.95)

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