Religious education seems to have developed some sort of stigma, so that when RE or, more particularly, "religion" is mentioned, you almost immediately expect to be either bored stiff, or lectured to about "morals" and "right and wrong" and "God and stuff". Not surprisingly, when confronted with the awesome task of teaching it, you can find yourself becoming distinctly edgy, especially when you consider who you will be teaching - it scares the life out of me just thinking about it. Why do we do it? Or, more pointedly, why do we have to do it?
RE is about going "back to basics": human-being basics. It is about developing that special quality that makes us distinct from cats and dogs, a recognition that we are "different" in the animal world. It is about giving children tools for life, to help build balance, security and personal responsibility. It allows and helps us to look at everything in many different ways, and to recognise how good it all can be.
RE's fulfilment is in people at one with themselves, happy in their being, conscious of who they are and what others are. Approaching RE through story provides the kind of building blocks on which more explicit religious ideas can be set. Stories can be used as a spring-board for interesting, exciting and relevant RE in the classroom because: stories can convey the most difficult concepts in an accessible way - a way that children can return to time and time again; story develops and nourishes the imaginative, inner world of the child, which is vital if that child is to function wholly and contentedly; and a story can provide the language for the images and patterns of life.
The picture book Heaven by Nicholas Allan (Red Fox) describes the dialogue between Lily and her dog Dill as he packs his suitcase to go toheaven. Their affectionate argument culminates in a contrast between Dill's idea of heaven (juicy bones and lamp-posts) and Lily's (chocolate and fairgrounds). Year 6 children - who might be thought too old for a picture book - love the chance to explore their own experiences and speculations about what happens after death, using their own artwork, story-writing, poems and good old-fashioned arguing.
For younger groups, Zilya's Secret Plan by Ulrich Shaffer (out of print, in libraries) looks at a little girl's valiant attempt to protect the wild life of a valley from vandals. When the adults ignore her, she has no recourse but to take the animals into hiding. She will only bring them back when they promise to take better care. With its obvious links to the environment, the story is a natural for art work and drama. Sometimes children go off in pairs to discuss the meanings and then report back to the whole class.
Stories like these are a way of exploring how truth may be hidden in fiction, how true things can be shown in story. There is a knock-on effect. You can find yourself asking big questions, even discussing big issues and sharing your own thoughts and ideas, with enthusiasm. Just like the children.
* Some more book suggestions: Frog in Love by Max Velthuijs (Andersen Press): "A frog can't be in love with a duck," they said. But were they right? The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. With its theme of re-discovering the hidden good in life, this one is very suitable for Easter and the spring festivals.
Kirsty Charnley teaches at the Blessed Sacrament RC Primary School Ribbleton, Preston. Her interest in this mode of story telling, one of the ways in which Scripture works, was fostered by a term's research at St Martin's, Lancaster sponsored by the Farmington Institute, Oxford under its Millennium Award scheme, tel: 01865 271 965