Summer, a time to reflect
20 August, 2019, Sam McKavanagh
A time to reflect
I’m sat writing this in a trendy coffee bar, where I’m intimidated into ordering the only drink name that I recognise, it is already deep into the summer holidays (although the weather outside would make you think otherwise), which means that I don’t mind watching the world go by and making it look that I’m working on some profound prose – a look which I think I’ve perfected well.
This summer I’ve been able to switch off more than ever, I slipped seamlessly from a long and full on term, to a relaxing and culturally enriching time travelling in Germany (a beautiful country which despite my numerous visits, I have still failed to grasp the language). Now despite having around half the holiday left, I knew that I needed to start getting my brain back into gear, something which took an adventurous leap into a coffee which I couldn’t pronounce and hadn’t tried before.
As a sat watching the rain fall outside and the seemingly mammoth task of what I needed to prepare for the coming school year (having recently been appointed as a Head of Department – the RE:Online practical checklist has been a real help with this https://www.reonline.org.uk/leading-re/a-practical-checklist/) I started to firstly think back to what I had already tried to do in the year gone by. I’ve thought about curriculum design a lot in the past, normally whilst completely caught up in the hustle and bustle of teaching and the chaos of school life – which isn’t always a situation conducive to innovation in the classroom.
Not one to shy away from a weather metaphor, as the weather started to clear so did my mind and the fog that hung over my thoughts started to shift, giving me much needed clearance on the path that I knew I needed to take.
A wider focus
Too often my focus has been too narrow, focussing on just the aims and purposes of the subject itself, but I’ve rarely looked at the wider picture of what RE can build on from other subjects, or equally as important, what other subjects desperately need from RE.
For example, we have often explored topics such as the Holocaust without due regard to when this has been studied in History, conversely in History they study the Reformation without consulting us on what prior knowledge they may have acquired from their RE lessons. Similarly, we look at ethical issues such as abortion without considering what knowledge they may have from science and in their science lessons they approach the ethical side of genetic testing without seeing which philosophical skills they have developed in their RE lessons.
In my previous blogs I’ve tried to explore the nature and direction of what I am trying to achieve in my subject for the students that I teach, but my focus has been too narrow, if I want pupils to really enjoy and excel in the subject, then I need to look beyond the subject itself – to see what other subjects offer to RE and what RE offers to them – this I believe will be central to rooting RE at the core of the curriculum, as no other subject has the power and overlap to do this.
This isn’t to say that I want RE to run as a course to purely compliment other subjects, I want to develop a real passion for the subject with my students. However, I also want to make better use of the material that is studied and learned in other subjects as well as showing students the wider importance and appeal of the subject itself.
For this stage I had to hurry home (partly because of the rain, partly because I was on a roll) in search of the biggest piece of paper that I could find. I started by mapping out all of the topics that I want and need students to study. My initial draft looked just at topic headings, then with a different colour I went through and started fleshing out the details, what do I actually want students to learn in those topics, with a third colour I went through and added in the areas of my curriculum that linked, with a fourth I went and wrote in curriculum links that I knew already existed. Now, at this point I’ve hit a stumbling block – there is so much of the curriculum that I’m completely unaware of.
In English for example, I know that they look at poems, plays (at least one is bound to be Shakespeare) and different novels. Which ones they look at, however, I’m completely at a loss. But there are bound to be invaluable links that are just waiting to be built upon, but as of yet are completely hidden within the curriculum that we are building.
Whilst I can start building my new curriculum around what I already know, there will still be a lot of work and collaboration amongst departments that will need to happen across the next academic year to ensure that a genuinely coherent and supported curriculum is offered to our students.
A new direction
I believe that having the curriculum mapped out in a really explicit way, with the links and progressions between skills and content is essential, not only for teaching, but also for pupils to be aware of. If we are trying to help them to navigate their way through a complex, and often confusing, curriculum then the least we can do is provide them with a road-map of how we go from A-B.
As a example of what our new Y7 will be studying:
– What influences us?
– Should we follow rules?
– Moral maze
– When disaster strikes
– Religion in the media
– Philosophical thinking
Now, there are six topics, but these do not correspond to the fact that there are six terms in the school year. These topics introduce pupils to a range of disciplines – theology, ethics and philosophy – tackling ideas in a more thematic way. For example, the ‘When disaster strikes’ topic will look at natural events and how Christians would be influenced by their beliefs to act in charitable ways to help those in need.
In many ways this reflects aspects of the GCSE exams, but is also driven by feedback that came from student voice sessions that I ran with current A-Level, GCSE and KS3 students – those who had picked the subject and those that hadn’t. Now, this might sound like I’ve just gone for topics that are the ‘fun’ ones in an attempt to win over the pupils, but I’ve mapped out all of the requirements from the locally agreed syllabus to ensure that the curriculum we are offering is completely compliant. I’ve also ensured that it equips students with the full knowledge that we would want them to have. The religion in the media topic, for example, looks at issues such as offence whether through portrayal of Christianity in comedies, or the misrepresentation of Islam and terrorism.
The coming year
The next year is going to be a steep learning curve, I’ll be starting my sixth year teaching and it will be my first as a Head of Department – I’ve been developing schemes of work for my whole teaching career, but with the new changes from Ofsted it feels like a whole different responsibility altogether.
There will also be non-specialists teaching the subject, meaning that the resources and training that I need to provide will need to work to ensure that the lessons taught remain engaging and relevant.
I will also be making a big push on the subject, not only in terms of visibility across the school, but with families at home and also in terms of further career opportunities. I have a set of the brilliant posters produced by RE:Online and will be doing as much as possible to raise the profile of the subject and challenge the parental misconceptions of what we learn in the subject – for example, each topic will have a homework task which involves working with a parent/guardian.
Without a doubt there is a big task ahead, but it will also be enjoyable and rewarding. Hopefully my next few blogs will be detailing the successes that I am having – but also the challenges that I face.