RE from the heart
It's an RE lesson in my special school and amid laughter, my sixth formers are carrying each other's schoolbags across the room and some are heavy. It seems a mundane activity but later we will move to the more challenging idea of what it means to carry someone in life. Each member of the class has general learning difficulties including speech and language problems. Some are autistic.
We look at Footprints in the Sand, a famous, rather sentimental poem in which the narrator is carried by God through the most difficult times of his life. The class then receives a template with two sets of footprints. Inside one, they write what they need help and support to overcome. For many, it is the fear of moving on to college and leaving school. In the other, they write what carries them through their difficulties in life.
Joanne writes "food and watching TV" as well as naming a support assistant she confides in and who helps her "when I am worried or upset". The finished footprints serve as a tribute to some adults who have helped in their transition to adult life.
I have always believed that my pupils' difficulties can elevate them to understanding more challenging ideas in RE. They have an affinity with what it means to struggle and suffer loss. This is why they find Buddhism fascinating, as it centres on the concept of life as suffering. They are also drawn to figures such as Jesus, who died on the cross, Saint Bernadette, the French saint who had asthma and Gandhi, who was prepared to give up his life to create a better world. This has shaped the way I teach the subject.
Redbridge local authority's agreed syllabus for religious education supports me in my work. Instead of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's two attainment targets of "learning about" and "learning from" religion, Redbridge has defined RE as "exploring and responding to religion and human experience".
This means that our pupils' life journeys are central to RE. When I plan a scheme of work, I always look for the points of connection that will make a bridge between my pupils' lives and the religious theme. I have recently started exploring Jainism, the ancient Indian religion, and knew straight away that the concept of "ahimsa" non-violence would touch pupils in my class.
In a special school, facts and information about religion can have little resonance with the pupils' lives or experiences. The exact year that Guru Nanak was born does not mean a lot to them one pupil described it as "millions of years ago" but she still could talk movingly about the "love, care and giving" that the guru showed to his followers. This is why I've always talked about developing an "RE of the heart"
Anne Krisman is head of RE at Little Heath Foundation School in Romford, Essex.