Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

The last day of half term: business as usual. I always start the day off with a reading 'session' (somehow can't bring myself to call it a lesson) and that Friday was no exception. Continuing with our reading of Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary' and with a focus on linking non-fiction with fiction, I had prepared a text about Judaism.

The skills focus that lesson was scanning the text for answers. The children underlined what they thought would be key words in the questions and, before being allowed to read the text thoroughly ("Sir, what does 'thoroughly' mean?"), had to answer 7 simple retrieval questions about Judaism. They were then allowed to read the text properly to check their answers. A pretty useful exercise. 

I also asked the children to write down three new facts they had learned whilst reading. Sometimes I require them to write down three questions the text makes them ask instead. Either way, it certainly promotes deeper engagement with the text and is an approach that is encouraged for 'EAL' learners (most of the children in my class are 'categorised' as such).

That engagement became apparent when the children began to ask me (font of all knowledge, obviously) questions about what they had read. The text had mentioned Abraham as a figure whom the Jewish people could trace their heritage back to - one boy asked who Abraham was. Thankfully my Old Testament  knowledge isn't too shabby (I am currently reading through Genesis, so that helped) and I was able to give a bit of background information. 

At some point during my explanation (possibly when I (intentionally) mentioned Abraham's first son Ishmael) light bulbs began to blink on - a look of realisation crossed several children's faces. You see, my class - who, bar one pupil (who happened to be absent that day) are from a Muslim background - began to put two and two together: the Abraham of the Torah and the Bible is the Islamic prophet Ibrahim and Ishmael is Ismael, patriarch of Islam! They also recognised the name of Isaac, Abraham's second son, to be one and the same as prophet Ishaq. Although the conversation was entirely unplanned, these were the links that, once the discussion had begun, I hoped they'd make.

So there I was, a Christian, teaching a reading lesson to a class of children from a Muslim background using a text about Judasim, and getting more interest and engagement than any RE lesson I've ever taught before. Without explicitly pushing it at all I could tell some children began to understand the three faiths more as they recognised for themselves the commonalities that exist in their shared heritage. Children were becoming, due to learning about the three faiths in this context, more empathetic.

Not content with one story from Jewish history they then asked about Moses (who has been mentioned as the founder of Judaism). Some of them had seen the film 'The Prince of Egypt' so we're able to contribute; others of them were thrilled to be hearing about the events of Moses' life for the first time ("Oh, so that's why we call it a Moses basket!"). Some children immediately made connections between pharaoh's treatment of the Hebrews and Hitler's treatment of the Jews, and even Trump's very recent 'Muslim ban'. This, as I'm sure you can imagine, was music to my ears: our school deliberately aims to engage children in these issues through the books and texts we read, so - job done!

If by then I wasn't sure that they had engaged fully with the text and the basics of Judaism, all was confirmed with the third main question: "Why's it called the Star of David? Who's David?" Cue the third Jewish history story of the morning - from shepherd boy to king of Israel (via giant slaying episode).

And then we actually got round to reading 'Hitler's Canary'. We read of Rabbi Marcus Melchior and his warning to the Danish Jews and saw his picture in a recent BBC news article. We heard of how the Christians and Jews worked together to remove the Jewish artefacts  from the synagogue so that they wouldn't be destroyed by the Nazis and we all understood very clearly that due to the shared heritage both parties would be interested in preserving these items - that and the fact that religious harmony was in full effect. Just as I had hoped, the reading of the non-fiction text enhanced  their reading of the novel and their understanding of the historical events it is based on. 

We then revelled in the fact that, by working together, Jewish and non-Jewish, the Danes managed to disappear 7000 Jews so effectively that the Nazis actually claimed that it was they who had disappeared them. The children in my class had total empathy having spent the previous 30 minutes being totally engaged in the best RE lesson I've ever taught.

So, and very briefly, a message: a reading lesson is the perfect opportunity to teach any lesson you want. Indeed, any lesson is the perfect opportunity to reinforce and use reading skills. Simple. But just prepare for it to be so much more than just another lesson.

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