Centre stage in the theatre of learning

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
Sue Phillips describes a radical approach that uses music and displays to enablemixed-ability pupils to 'make sense' of religion

Over the past few years, RE at Bognor Regis community college has been through a radical change; gone are the traditional tables and chairs of most classrooms. Instead, my colleague Julie Woodward and I have created "theatres of learning".

We work with pupils in a circle. The chairs are set out around central displays. Some of these cover the entire floor space. Through the five senses, they represent whatever the class is learning about. The displays are created from fabric, artefacts, pictures, flowers, plants and scented candles. Sand, water and musical instruments are also used.

We got the idea from visiting our local primary schools as part of our family liaison group and our infant and junior schools on campus (ours is a split-site school with 1,7500 pupils). It made me aware of how rich and stimulating an environment our younger children work in - something that gets neglected in the secondary phase. I wondered whether our pupils might find some of our new methods babyish, but they have responded with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm.

As appropriate, the whole classroom becomes a temple, synagogue, church or gurdwara, as pupils take part in full scale re-enactments of worship and rites of passage. When Year 7 were looking at cave paintings as part of studying early religion, the circle had to make room for a "cave". Here, pupils could go and sit or make their own handprints on the walls.

We try to enable the pupils to enter into the experience of the tradition we are studying and to relate the spirituality of those people to their own. As a trained counsellor working on a voluntary basis with pupils after school, I think that what we are doing, in essence, is making religion make sense.

Music from all over the world and all periods of time and style is used to add atmosphere to re-enactments, reflective lessons and the exploration of moral issues. We have a significant number of pupils with special needs; these may be to do with learning, behaviour or disability. We also have plenty of very able pupils who enjoy the intellectual challenge of these lessons. Introducing topics in this way enables everyone to participate on an equal basis in a mixed-ability setting. The activity is not predetermined by how well pupils can read or write, or how confident they are at speaking out. This style of teaching enables pupils to acces memory and understanding using their preferred learning style, whether it is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

The "enactive" lessons are followed up at GCSE with a complete learning package. Pupils use study booklets for each topic with extension tasks. Cloze procedure exercises, vocabulary sheets and flashcards help the least able. All pupils record their progress in regular exam practice against target grades based on their prior attainment.

At key stage 3, pupils write an activity record after enactive lessons. These describe the experience and what they learned from it, and record any questions they might be left with. They also work from study booklets that they can use at home with help from their parents.

Julie Woodward is developing writing frames to support each topic as part of the school's literacy project. She says: "We have got a lot to do to develop the best possible written outcome from these lessons for each pupil, which we can then assess against national curriculum levels. This will be our project for next year."

I have been teaching these methods of learning to groups of PGCE students in my classroom as part of my work with the University College Chichester PGCE programme, and have written an article on experiential learning in the Shap Journal of World Religions (2000 edition). Julie and I now feel confident enough to begin sharing our experience with others.

The first of a series of day courses on experiential learning in RE will take place in my classroom on June 30, developed in discussion with West Sussex RE adviser Nigel Bloodworth. The hope is that as teachers take part in the activities and enjoy the atmosphere, they will be inspired to adapt some of the features for their own lessons.

Julie, a qualified teacher who trained with me, is now setting off to travel with her family. "I've discovered my own spirituality through lessons like this," she says, "and now want to go and see the cultures I've been teaching about." She will be keeping in touch with the pupils through e-mail while she is in India and Thailand.

The department is going on-line as part of RETRI - RE Teachers Recruitment, in September, where details of the department and photographs of work in action can be seen by visiting the website: www.retri.org.uk.

Sue Phillips is head of RE and Julie Woodward is an NQT at Bognor Regis community college, West Sussex. Details of courses in experiential RE can be obtained from the school, tel: 01243 864401

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