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Virtual revelations

Gerald Haigh shows how the internet and CD-Roms are opening doors to places of worship

Your local agreed syllabus for RE says that you should teach your classes about places of worship. So you line your class up outside the nearest Anglican church, tell them to behave, and file them in. The priest is there, glad of the interest, and he helps you point out the main features - the symbolic positioning of the font near the door, the altar placed centrally at the front, demonstrating the key role of the sacraments.

All RE teachers have done it, and it's fine as far as it goes - the children make notes, probably filling in a prepared worksheet, and they'll do good work back at school. Later on, if you can, you'll visit another kind of Christian church, then a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a synagogue. Each of these buildings, heavy with symbolism both in layout and contents, has a story to tell about the faith of the people who worship there.

But what's missing are those very worshippers. You don't see the closed eyes and outstretched arms of the evangelical Christian congregation, or experience the theatricality of the Catholic mass, or hear the continuous background of chanting and music in the gurdwara.

You have peopled the church from your memory and imagination, as has the priest who's showing you. But the children haven't. How could they? It's likely that few of them are worshippers. So what they see is an empty building. As far as they're concerned, they're visiting a museum, and that's how they're reacting to it.

You could, of course, take your class to a service - it's a super thing to do if you can arrange it, but it's difficult on a regular basis, and you won't find it easy to do a commentary on what's going on.

This is where ICT comes into its own. With the aid of the computer and good software, a child can explore a church or a temple, see it filled with people, listen to their voices, hear the music and the chants - and importantly, go back, unpressured by the need to get on, and have a longer look at any bit that seems particularly interesting.

Helen Gallagher, head of RE at the 1,900 pupil Dinnington Comprehensive School, Rotherham, confesses to not knowing much about the technical aspects of ICT - but as an experienced teacher she knows what works for her pupils, and that's made her an enthusiast for using the computer network in her lessons. As well as taking children to visit churches and temples, she also makes extensive use of CD-Rom.

"We cover the Rotherham agreed syllabus," she says. "In Year 8, in the first term we look at Islam, then Sikhism in the second term and Christianity in the summer term."

The unit on Christianity is divided into three - the church itself (as a building and a community), rites of passage and festivals. At one lesson a week, this leaves a lot to cover in a short time, and so for the three lessons that are available to study the church, Helen Gallagher depends heavily on Christians: The Life of a Local Church - a CD-Rom developed by a former teacher in her department.

This is packed with images shot in a Sheffield church, not just of the building but of services of all kinds - communion, marriage, confirmation, baptism, Christmas, various Easter events. (There's even a funeral, the only "staged" service, although it was done "as real" with the co-operation of the vicar and the undertaker.) Also on the CD-Rom are numerous questionnaires, worksheets and other supporting resources.

"I start by explaining the assessment task," she says. "Then they'll produce a guide that serves the needs of the faith community and they'll write a detailed guided tour - a booklet that somebody might buy."

The pupils produce this over three weeks, gathering information by using the CD-Rom and making notes. Much of the writing up is done for homework, or in the schools' open learning area where there is access to the network at lunchtime and after school.

For their work on the CD-Rom, Mrs Gallagher books the school's computer suite which has enough terminals for a class to share one between two.

"There's such a lot on the CD," she says, "I'm essentially making sure they are handling a manageable amount of information. Sometimes their enthusiasm runs away and I may just have to say, 'You've probably got enough now, you can do some writing up.' " Stopping enthusiasts in their tracks doesn't always sit easily with teachers, but so rich are the sources of information available on the web or CD-Rom that knowing how to direct learners without losing motivation is becoming an important skill.

"It would be good if they could just follow up on anything that caught their interest, but we do have to bear in mind the syllabus and our assessment scheme. It's good that the resource is flexible enough to fit in with what we want to do," says Mrs Gallagher.

The quality of learning in these lessons, and of the finished work, is very high - assessments demonstrate that pupils learn more than if they had visited the church.

"They can see the church full, that it's a fellowship of people of all ages, and they often comment that they feel they are actually there," says Mrs Gallagher.

The biggest advantage, she believes, is that a pupil can revisit an area or an event if they want to.

She says the RE department at Dinnington has always tried to be at the forefront of ICT developments in the school. "We encourage our pupils to word process their work and to look at the RE websites we display on a list in our classrooms," she says.

Now she's eager to move forward by producing a website and making greater use of internet facilities.

She expects, too, to be in the vanguard of developments in the rest of the school. "We're going to have interactive whiteboards and sets of laptops in the classrooms to provide even more opportunities.

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