Wouldn’t it be good if pupils in school RE classes - even if they were just 4, 6 or 8 years old - began to understand Christian concepts about God, Jesus and the people of God in their own way? Wouldn’t it be good if, instead of forgetting isolated facts several times over and getting bored with the parable of the good Samaritan, children in RE thought for themselves about the nature of the ‘good news’ that Christians believe? Wouldn’t it be good if there was a programme of study for Christianity in school RE that was thoughtful, creative, challenging and inspiring?
This kind of spiritual ambition lay behind the work of a consortium of funders, writers and educationalists who worked from 2014 to 2016 to develop Understanding Christianity, a major new resource for schools of all kinds to use in RE. The Church of England was one partner, but the project was not only created for use in church schools but in community schools of all types, including academies and free schools.
The dream of the project was to make a once-in-a-generation step upwards in supporting excellent learning about Christianity in school RE. An early decision was to use eight key concepts: God, creation, fall, people of God, incarnation, salvation, gospel and the kingdom of God. The work is based on helping children and young people to understand key texts from the Bible, see how Christians use these texts and then find out how Christians act on what they find in these Bible texts. Pupils then go on to explore ways in which the learning might connect to their own world view, beliefs or ways of living. There is a strong focus on the biblical narrative, the ‘big story’ of the Bible, as well as on the impact of these big ideas in Christian communities all over the world today.
The conceptual art frieze on the previous page shows how pupils have made sense of the big story of the Bible in seven concepts - creation, fall, people of God, incarnation, gospel, salvation and kingdom of God.
But why should you explore RE if you’re not already involved? Here are some key reasons:
- It is a natural context for thoughtful reasoning, debate and exploration of the Christian faith. It is a great space to have deep conversations and to offer your own insights as well as giving space for students to reflect on their own. You can listen to students give their perspectives and take time not just to teach and share your story and perspective, but to sit back and learn from your students. It allows depth and time that assemblies simply don’t go near.
- RE lessons can lead to rich creative development (drama, poetry, music, film, art), beginning with a big question or topic and engaging other subjects to adopt a cross-curricular approach which has many benefits across the school.
- It can help you become established in the school, make connections and develop relationships with school staff. It is good to work alongside different departments in a school and having regular input to a subject such as RE can open different opportunities for you. It may also lead to partnerships between your church or other community projects you might be part of.
There are some things to be aware of as you become part of a school’s RE provision. Students may come to see you as more of a teacher which can present some barriers in your relational work with them. Make it clear with students at the start of each session you run in school who you are, why you are taking their lesson and invite them to come and find you later to talk more if they would like to. This sets you apart from teaching staff.
Behaviour management is key to a lesson or activity going well. It should not be your sole responsibility to manage behaviour. Of course, you should be promoting positive behaviour through your teaching style which will hopefully minimise problems, but you need to make sure teaching staff are present during any activities or lessons you are leading as part of the curriculum.
Listen and get to know RE staff before offering to give input and support in this area. It is good to take time to understand the school’s approach, priorities and gaps. Introducing a topic or curriculum approach such as Understanding Christianity will be heard and received more fruitfully in the context of an established relationship.
What relevance does Understanding Christianity have to those who visit schools from the Christian community? Three things matter. Firstly, Christian visitors to schools often want to contribute Christian perspectives to RE classes, and teachers often welcome them as ‘insider voices’ adding richness and texture to RE learning. If you recognise yourself there, then find out about Understanding Christianity and talk to your school RE colleagues about how you can help. This article is a very swift introduction, but there is more to discover. Visit understandingchristianity.org.uk.
Secondly, as teachers of RE in both primary and secondary schools are getting trained in this project, consider whether someone from your schools’ work and children’s or youth work team should take the training too - local details are on the website.
Thirdly, as an RE adviser and a Christian, I too often find that Christians in churches have a rather slender grasp of the theology and overview of their own Bible. Would it be good to brush up on your own ability to communicate the Bible’s ‘big story’ and how it is connected with Christian community life today, and with those who learn about Christianity in schools, but are not Christians?
And what do the pupils do? The classroom frieze in the photo was created by 9-11-year-olds from St Michael’s, Bishop’s Stortford. Evidence, perhaps, of the welcome learning power of RE to enable children to see what matters in Christianity, and how beliefs, Bible text and Christian community might have something to do with them. The frieze shows a creative interpretation of the children’s own ideas about the big concepts of Christianity, connecting them to their own lives in the texts they have written below the pictures.
Here is an example from Understanding Christianity which works with both year six children in primary schools, and with year seven students in secondary school classrooms. The method of the whole project - ‘text, impact, connections’ - is clearly seen here.
What does God hate? (Proverbs 6:16-19)
Ask the class if God hates anything. Does God hate murders, lying, stealing and greed? Can they connect this idea to the Ten Commandments? Tell them there are two quotes from the Bible about what God hates.
Read Proverbs 6:16-19 (the text). Work out what each of the seven things listed really mean. In groups list them and come up with an example of each one in action.
Discuss this question: is it true that in the Bible, God hates evil actions, but loves people, even when they go wrong? That’s what Christians believe. Create or dramatise seven scenarios in which the seven things God hates occur. What happens next? Is anyone hurt by these kinds of behaviour? What are the seven opposites of the things God hates? Create scenarios showing these. Is the Christian idea of God about ‘a God of second chances’? Then consider the impact of thinking about what God hates: ask pupils to consider the life of a well-known Christian person. In what ways has this person worked against the ‘seven things God hates’, and in favour of their opposites?
Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross can have a huge impact; teach pupils about what happened after Nazi bombers destroyed the Cathedral in Coventry in 1940. The very next day the provost had written ‘Father forgive’ on the charred altar. From that start many global reconciliation projects have flowed. Find out about some examples.
Use the Coventry Cathedral website to explore examples of forgiveness. There are excellent examples of the art and architecture to explore. Pupils might work in groups on five different examples and report to the class. Teach pupils that forgiveness by God is the starting point for Christianity, and promoting a more forgiving world is one Christian response to God’s love and holiness.
Raise and consider questions about forgiveness to make connections: what is easy to forgive? What is hard to forgive? Why? You might give groups six scenarios where forgiveness is need to rank and sort, then ask them two write two more.
The use of the apparently strange question, ‘what does God hate?’ works well as a way in to thinking about what it means to claim, as Christians do, that God is both holy and full of love. Try this lesson. Surprise yourself!
Find out more about the Understanding Christianity resource here.