Teacher as author;Religious Education;Interview;Janet Orchard

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Janet Orchard is head of humanities at Central Foundation Girls' School in Tower Hamlets, east London. She is one of the authors of the Religion in Focus series for GCSE, published by John Murray. 'Christianity in Today's World' was published last year; 'Islam' is due out in September and 'Judaism' will follow.

The idea of a book arose about five years ago when I was one of five RE teachers advising the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority about the new short course RE syllabuses for GCSE students. I met an editor from John Murray, who asked if I would write something to go with the short courses. I didn't want to do it on my own, so I approached the other four teachers and we did it together.

It takes longer writing as a group - we've been working on the books for about four years - but the advantage is that you can pool ideas and strengths. Being an RE teacher can be very lonely, as you tend to be in very small departments, so to have this network of really good people to work with has been very valuable. Writing the books has helped my classroom practice, too, and I've tried ideas out on my students - who were more than willing to tell me what they thought.

Our approach has been to explore human development and moral issues in much more depth than some RE textbooks. We've used case studies to look at faiths as lived by real people, at the way their behaviour sometimes deviates from the tenets of a faith and the conflicts they face.

Writing about Islam has been much more challenging than writing about Christianity. I've been teaching RE for 11 years, so I'm quite experienced in teaching about other faiths and 65 per cent of my present pupils are Muslim. But when it comes to writing a book for a wider audience, you feel more of an outsider writing about faiths other than your own, and you are much more aware of possible criticism. We've used Muslim and Jewish consultants, and we've tried to get the balance right between a useful educational perspective and being faithful to a tradition.

I have learned from writing that it's very easy to criticise other people's books and quite humbling to try to do it yourself. In the long term it has been fun to do, but in the short term it wasn't, giving up summer holidays to write. The proceeds from the series are going into my "fun fund" - to make up for the lack of fun while writing.

Review, page 20

Janet Orchard was talking to Diana Hinds

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