Blue-skinned Krishna and elephant-headed Ganesh are at home in a Chelmsford primary school. Victoria Neumark reports.
Teaching children multicultural approaches to RE can be quite challenging when you don't have the human resources to draw on," says Nikki White, RE co-ordinator at Danbury Park Primary School, Chelmsford. Yet the classrooms of this school, which has a predominantly white intake and stands in spacious grounds in a leafy village, glow with images from other places and cultures. A Year 6 classroom features three batiks of Creation stories worldwide and Nikki White's own Year 34 class have made a wall-hanging of the Hindu Lord Krishna.
"I like Krishna and the butter thief," declares eight-year-old Jessica. In this story, Krishna steals butter, blames it on another, is discovered, scolded and forgiven. Having discussed the nature and attributes of Krishna - his blue skin, and how the festival of Holi celebrates his playfulness - the class talk about why Krishna's mother forgave him and how they might feel about doing wrong and forgiving, interweaving learning about and learning from other faiths. Olivia, aged 8, says: "I like Krishna having blue skin. He is blue because that is the colour of the sky and people can feel him all around them."
Jessica adds: "Holi is fun because children throw dye at their teachers and people have water fights."
Extending the lesson into literacy, the class write stories about what similar pranks Krishna might have got up to. Then they work on the batik wall-hanging, choosing hot pinks, yellows, purples and blues, "Indian colours", bordering it with individual tie-dyes, also in vibrant south Asian hues. "The more teaching styles and more areas of curriculum I can get involved in RE the better," says Nikki White.
Another lesson focuses on the Hindu god Ganesh. Parvati, goddess of compassion, gave birth to Ganesh while his father Siva, lord of creation and destruction, was away. When Siva returned, he found the baby guarding its mother while she bathed. Ganesh refused him admittance and so Siva cut off his head. When he learned the victim was his own son, he went into the forest vowing to replace the head with that of the first living creature he found, which was an elephant.
"First we looked at posters and pictures of the deity and talked about why he might have the elephant head, the broken tusk, the four arms, the big belly. Why does he ride on a rat, and sit on a throne with a crown? What is he holding in his hand?" Reading the story, Nikki White pauses at key points to get the pupils to predict and advise.
The class split into groups representing Ganesh, Siva and Parvati. Each has to discuss and write down their character's feelings. Then they regroup and the whole class constructs an outline of the story based on everyone's feelings.
"I get them to use the information in the religious story to learn about themselves and see how it can be valuable to them," says Nikki White.
To explore the moral dimension of Ganesh's story, the class takes a scenario where their parents had saved up to give them an expensive toy but then denied them some other request. If the child then breaks the toy in a fit of rage, what can be done?
She asks them to consider how they feel when they have done something wrong, how they try to make up, how their friends and family react."
The children's responses range from: "I would hide" to "I would feel very upset and I would really regret what I have done. I think I would have learned my lesson and never break any of my toys again."
Matthew is firm: "I'd go to the shop and buy them another one from my own money," and Jessica vows, "I'd give them my pocket money back."
"This is why RE is so important," says Nikki White. "I am asking them in these scenarios to use their thinking skills and to explore emotions. They verbalise and hear others verbalise and they develop. Giving them the factual information is valuable and has to be done, but education, specially RE, has to be about self-knowledge."