The simplicity of email has helped an award-winning REteacher combat prejudice and increase her pupils' understanding of religions. Jack Kenny reports.
When, if ever, is violence justified?" asks Julia Ipgrave of her Year 5 class. "If you are living in a dictatorship and have a bad ruler who is killing people, can you use violence to kill him? If a gunman is pointing a gun at your mother would it be right to kill him? Is it right? Is it wrong?" She asks the pupils to devise some general principles. They look at strands of the argument and eventually open emails from their partners across the city - some of which are shared with the rest of the class.
Along with writing a reply, each child is asked to think of ways of posing Julia Ipgrave's question to their email partner, using an example to make their point clear. This introduces a topic and initiates debate.
The teacher moves around the classroom discussing the project with those who are stuck or unsure. Once the email is finished and checked it has to be approved before it can be transmitted.
The "Interfaith Dialogue By Email" project has been running for four years and what it lacks in technical sophistication it makes up for in curriculum impact. Julia Ipgrave is one of the founders and architects.
In an earlier lesson (the project runs with each class for a year), she taught some basic email skills. "Email can help children develop communication, literacy and thinking skills," she says. "Teachers can encourage them with phrases that help organise their thinking."
These prompts give structure and purpose to lessons and will work on any email project (see panel).
Uplands Junior School, where Julia Ipgrave teaches, is in the centre of Leicester and has predominantly Muslim students. Its partner schools in the project are St Thomas Catholic More Primary School, across the city, and West Rise Junior School in East Sussex.
She says the project aims to: "Increase the understanding of each other's beliefs and religion; increase respect for diversity and respect for other backgrounds and culture, and break the barriers of ignorance and prejudice.
"It is about finding out about other beliefs through asking questions; through dialogue exploring beliefs rather than reading it in a book."
The lesson appears simple and the technology required is basic enough to be available in most schools. The project, which helped Julia Ipgrave become joint runner-up in the innovation and change category of this year's ICT in Practice Awards, run by Becta, is like an iceberg - one-eighth clearly visible and seven-eighths under water. The part you can see is only an element of what has gone on to bring the lesson about. Any work between two schools requires detailed planning and it is in this area that Julia Ipgrave has worked hard. Email projects can easily degenerate into aimless chat if they are not well planned.
The project that initially started with just two schools has grown to include nine schools in Leicester and eight in East Sussex.
"Occasionally you hear a child saying something negative about another faith and you can say, 'Your email friend belongs to that faith and they are not like that'," she says. "It makes them think more. That is one justification."
A child in one of the project schools remarked: "We have learned that other schools have a lot of different religions. We have also learned that people are different, but that doesn't mean we should tease them. We should respect everyone because they are our brothers and sisters."
That was exactly the sort of response appreciated by the judging panel at the ICT in Practice Awards. One judge remarked that the simplicity of email could deliver powerful outcomes. Another said: "This project is very important at the present time when increasing understanding across religious boundaries is vital to the future of this country."
This unusual RE site was developed at The Nobel School in Stevenage. As part of its studies in RE it has developed a school garden that features designs, trees and flowers that characterise the six major world religions.
However, the site is more than a tour of the garden, it contains some of the best and most unusual RE links.
The term "noosphere" comes from the priest Teilhard de Chardin - a French Jesuit paleontologist. We have a stratosphere, a biosphere and an atmosphere. Teilhard de Chardin believed in the merging of human minds into a single "noosphere" or "mind sphere" ("noos" is Greek for mind). He believed that this giant mental network would surround the Earth to control the planet's resources. Some believe the internet might be the start of this.
Liz Byrne, head of RE at Nobel says: "While organisations like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace inspire young people to care for dolphins, whales, pandas and the rainforest, we can help them in more down to earth ways, through the creation of a school garden or making room for wonder within a balanced school curriculum. In so doing, we will add to opportunities for spiritual experience and will ensure that young people hold, sustain and cherish the things of Earth, as most of us did, tenderly, when we were young."
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE BY EMAIL - HOW IT WORKS
Principles. The teachers engaged in the project agreed the following principles for inter-faith dialogue by email: Interpersonal
Children must sense they are writing to "real people".
Through the use of ICT pupils will be able to communicate with each other using short questions responses.
Developing communication skills
Children will have to express their ideas with clarity.
Each child's starting point in dialogue will be equally valued, whatever their religious identity.
Children should communicate what they think, believe and do, rather than repeating what they have been taught.
Expressing ideas and learning about the ideas of others ensures children reflect on their beliefs and values.
When children see parallels between their own and their partner's thinking they should be encouraged to say.
Children need to consider their dialogue partner's ideas and not dismiss them.
If they encounter an idea they do not agree with, children should be encouraged to say so and explain why.
Through dialogue, it is hoped new meanings will emerge; that children will be engaged in issues concerning theology and ethics.
Prompts for email Clarification
When you said... what did you mean?
I didn't understand what you meant by... could you explain?
What do you mean by...?
What do you think about...?
If... would you think the same?
Does that mean you also think...?
Is that the same as...?
Do you think it would be the same if...?
I would like to know your ideas about...
I like the idea....
My ideas about... are very similar to yours.
I agree... when you say...
I think... too.
I agree with you about... but I don't think....
You said..., but I think....
Don't you think... but if... lI can't agree with... because...
If you say... then that means....
Some project stagesPersonal introductions
The children were paired off with an email partner at the link school and began with a self-introduction about interests and hobbies.
Describing religious backgrounds and beliefs
Pupils' descriptions of the activities surrounding religious celebrations formed a natural introduction to communication about their faith traditions.
The content of the emails was based on RE exercises worked on in the classroom as part of curriculum delivery. These looked at key questions, case studies, ethical and theological issues.
Buddhism www.dharmathecat.com Describes itself as:
"Philosophy with Fur! Cartoons that blend humour and spirituality - on the rocky path to nirvana with a Buddhist cat, a novice monk and a mouse hell-bent on cheese. Offers Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, spiritual development, personal stories, articles and anecdotes about coping with life..."Christianitywww.ship-of-fools.comSelf-titled "The Magazine of Christian Unrest" it certainly has a unique style that will annoy some and enrapture others.Islam www.islam.orgWide-ranging site with information that offers insight into current affairs as they affect the Islamic world.
Hinduism www.hindu.org A good site where teachers can find materials on this religion.
Sikhism http:sikhs.orgtopics.htm The philosophy and scripture are dealt with in some detail. A site for teachers. Rastafarianism www.bobmarley.comlifeThis may be not a religion, according to some people, but it is a belief system and some of the tenets are explained on this site. Atheists and agnosticswww.agnostic.org Unbelievers express what they think about religion and faith. Sites like this are essential in a world where tolerance can be rare.Stockport Education Service's National Curriculum Resources - REwww.stockportmbc.gov.ukcurriculumrere.htmThis no-nonsense site is packed with information across the key stages. You can even find out how to integrate ICT into your lessons. It's essential reading.
The RE Site www.theresite.org.ukA worthy site that describes itself as the starting point for RE on the internet.Amnesty International www.amnesty.org.ukIn Nigeria in January 2004, Amina Lawal will be executed by stoning. The site looks at this and other world ethical issues.Oxfamwww.oxfam.org.ukcoolplanet"On these pages you will find all the support you need to make global issues come alive in the classroom."
It's all completed in an effective way.Evolutionhttp:library.thinkquest.orgC004367home.shtmlBased around the ideas of evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, who is not a believer. The site offers some ideas about how creation could have occurred without the aid of a supreme being.