That's the spirit

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
Throw some feeling into organising your next assembly,urges Mark Poulter. The rewards are too good to miss

It is your turn to take assembly again. Heart begins to pound and mind to race. The collective act of worship rests with you. What can you come up with? Maybe the half-sung hymn from last week? Or perhaps a book from the resource room holds the answer? A minute's quiet reflection reminds you that 100 Quick Assembly Stories is not really your idea of a spiritual effort.

Slotted in between the hustle and bustle of "real" classroom lessons, there is a danger that assembly ends up as a few mumbled prayers or a contrived tale to illustrate a moral point, all designed to satisfy the Government's requirements for a spiritual education. Add to that a fair degree of apathy towards RE on the part of some teachers and you can soon see how spirituality has become a notoriously difficult area to deal with. Few people seem sure what it means to be spiritual, let alone how to go about teaching it to children.

And yet the Government demands that schools provide their pupils with a "spiritual" education, complete with awe, wonder and an awareness of issues beyond their everyday existence.

What is "spirituality"? Even some of our eminent Church leaders appear uncertain and OFSTED inspectors appear to grapple uneasily with their evidence and judgments about a school's provision. Is it as straightforward as showing your pupils the way the sunlight catches the icy playground on a winter morning, as one inspector suggested?

Perhaps it is something deeper. Questions of heaven and earth, "where I am and what I am doing here?", are almost impossible to assess in today's test-driven culture.

Whatever your definition, forward planning and a cross-curricular theme can help raise children's awareness of issues that cannot be seen or touched and yet remain essential to their development as rounded human beings.

I discovered an eclectic mixture of music and dance, mime and British Sign Language to be unusual, effective and moving. This combination with a multisensory approach helps children to understand the meaning of more difficult words and concepts, and to create a still and quiet atmosphere where they can reflect on life and their own beliefs.

The children in my class have just performed a dance to show the meaning of Pentecost, a Christian feast to celebrate the time when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus.

The music contained some difficult vocabulary but, with the guidance of a colleague who knows sign language, these Year 3 children were able to learn the appropriate signs. At the same time, they gained an insight into communication and sharing spirituality.

Soon they appreciated the meaning of words such as "sovereignty" (the sign is to make a crown shape on your head with one hand), "surrendered" (hold up hands as if giving up in battle), and "intimacy" (close ists, cross arms and pull them to your chest).

The children used coloured banners and ribbons as part of their own response to the music and, with some adult help, were able to compose a simple but powerful dance to illustrate the Holy Spirit symbols of fire, wind and water. The dance was performed in class first, then at a prayer service Year 4 and, finally, at a whole-school assembly in front of the other children and staff. Both participants and observers agreed they had enjoyed the project and learned something worthwhile. More importantly, we had taken the children's spiritual development that step further and satisfied the need for a collective act of worship on at least three separate occasions.

When using dance with children, consider:

* take care about the scripture, story or piece of music you choose to use;

* spend some time reflecting on the meaning yourself;

* teach each stage step-by-step, perhaps by beginning with the chorus of the hymn and adding more parts later;

* use the children to teach signs to other pupils in your class or the wider school community as this reinforces their learning, gives them ownership of the project and inspires confidence in the performance;

* give children a chance to add their own interpretations and movements to develop both their thinking skills and spiritual awareness;

* take a cross-curricular approach as, by showing children links with other areas of learning, they will begin to appreciate how a spiritual dimension permeates every area of the curriculum.

Our next project is to teach children the signs to the Lord's Prayer, words that can be difficult for young children to understand when said in isolation.

We have already used signing at Christmas time to accompany carols and show that "Emmanuel" (index finger of each hand pointing upwards, arms outstretched and used to make a circle before bringing both fists to the chest) means "God is with us".

Another occasion for dance or mime is harvest time. There are many stories and parables in the Bible on this theme and it is easy to find appropriate hymns, songs or even classical music to accompany the movements.

Although projects such as these require thought and planning, the potential benefits of a cross-curricular approach are vast. Children have a far better understanding of the stories and messages given to them as part of RE and, at the same time, find the singing, acting, mime and dance immensely enjoyable.

If you need further persuasion, pause and take time for a short reflection of your own. The next time your heart starts to thump at the mention of taking your turn to organise assembly it could be because you remember the last time your pupils shared a special spiritual moment with you.

Mark Poulter is a writer and currently teaches a Year 3 class at St Peter's Catholic primary school, Romford, where he is also RE co-ordinator

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