After the fortnight I spent with a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth, I am now running virtually the same spirituality programme in a secondary school in the city. This is a church school, but I have not modified the programme to make it explicitly Christian. I have retained the open and accessible ethos of my last placement. By spirituality I mean ‘relational consciousness’ – a term coined in David Hay and Rebecca Nye’s ‘The Spirit of the Child’. On the basis of their research into the spirituality of children, they defined spirituality as a deep cognition of our relation to ourselves, to others, to the world and to the ‘transcendent’. I have said that before on this blog but it bears repeating so that you, dear reader, may know what it is I mean when I am talking about spirituality.
In brief, my programme is as follows:
EVERY DAY: Brief meditation derived from Ignatian prayer but stripped of explicit Christian reference, sensing the body, awareness of sounds around, breathing in and out. Sharing stone group – children in a circle may share a brief reflection on the experience they have just had. No other children may comment either within or outside the group.
DAY ONE: Getting to know you
DAY TWO: Matroyska doll – who we are inside and out. Movement to music. Body sculptures in pairs
DAY THREE: Necker cube & EC Escher pictures –opening our visual perception
DAY FOUR: Andy Goldsworthy nature art – reording our world to reveal its inherent beauty
DAY ONE: Seafront ‘pilgrimage’ with stops for King Cnut story, pebble mosaic-making, decorating a stone and building a cairn
DAY TWO: Small group pebble mosaics
DAY THREE: Whole group pebble mosaic
DAY FOUR: Footprints story told in Godly Play style but stripped of explicitly religious content, whole group feet printing picture
I run the above sessions in one period of the school day. As much as possible I am around for the rest of the school day to build relationships with the children in the class. I am mainly assisting them with their regular work.
I have completed my first week in this secondary school. It has been impossible for me to reflect on this experience without reference to my previous primary school placement. Comparing and contrasting has proved useful for my own thinking and so I am to some degree presenting it in those terms. I recognise, though, that this may introduce some distortions that may not have appeared had I started here rather than there.
I have received a warm welcome in this school. The staff who work with the children in year 7 have been very friendly. So have the children. There has been some cheekiness, of course, but they have responded to me positively and, in their way, respectfully. When I have needed to be firm in order to regain their attention they have responded appropriately. And they have been happy to receive my help and attention in the classroom. Other children around the school have been happy to exchange greetings too in a genuine way. Other staff have been happy to chat to me, and have made me feel very welcome. To hear some people in the city speak about this school, you’d think you were going to be entering a warzone. But though there are some real challenges here, I have found it a good place to be.
The age group I am working with is not disimilar in age. Previously I was working with a combined year 5/6 class. Now I am working with a year 7 class. They are largely from the same area and so the social profile of the children is identical. This includes a higher than average proportion of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, a first language other than english and learning difficulties. This school operates a unit for year 7 children that is like a primary school in that the children spend much of their day with the same teacher in the same classroom. Other teachers come to the classroom to teach some subjects and some lessons are taught in different parts of the school, for instance PE, geography and drama. So mostly, as in the previous school, I have been working with the children (as I have accompanied them during their regular curriculum sessions) in the same space. But I have moved about with them too. Working with an older year group that was more acclimatised to the secondary system would be quite a different experience and could be worth pursuing at a future stage.
How big a group?
Where previously I was working with a single group that constituted one class, though they included children from two year groups, I am now working with a smaller group taken from the class. Selecting a smaller group has been a practical necessity as it was apparent from the first day that the day trip in week two would not be conducted with a teacher (as previously) but with a learning support assistant (LSA). We therefore needed to keep the group small. I was also keen that, after a long walk on that day, we should collect the children in the school minibus and not make them walk back to school. It’s good that the walking should stretch the children but my previous experience suggested that the walk back was probably a bit too much of a stretch for some children. The minibus seats 17. So with the driver and an LSA (I could walk back) the group for the pilgrimage could not be larger than 15 children. In order that the programme should make some sense and that each session could build on what had gone before, I have been working with the children who will accompany me on the trip out plus the reserves for my sessions.
Just the nice ones?
It appears that the group that has been chosen to work with me has been selected on the basis of behaviour. To an extent then, it appears that the opportunity to work with me constitutes a reward for good behaviour. This, of course, has made for an easier time for me than might otherwise have been the case. But I must confess to being disappointed on behalf of the more challenging members of the class. Of course, this is a matter for the school, and it may have been a very different experience for everyone concerned had I been given a different group to work with. I have been slightly uncomfortable with the potential issues around equality of opportunity (though I understand that overall, these things balance out) but also with the possible implication that spirituality is reserved for well-behaved children when actually it may be that those more challenging children have more to gain from a programme designed to stimulate their relational consciousness.
The class as community
It has been hugely encouraging to see the degree to which the children in the group I’m working with take care of each other and are very at home with the diversity in the class, to the extent that it is not really noticeable. This class functions to a good degree as a community where everyone seems to be valued for who they are. Of course there is banter and sometimes individual children become the object of their peers derision or hostility. That’s true in any school. But there is a sense of being ‘in it together’ that does stand out here compared to, say, my own children’s school. This is something I would point to as an indicator that spirituality, at least in respect of consciousness of the other and the existence of community, is very much alive and well among these children.
The staffroom as community
By contrast, the staff room here feels very different to the staff room of the previous school. That’s not to say that there is any atmosphere or tension that I have detected. it’s simply that a lot of the time it feels deserted in comparison to the primary school when I was there. Breaktimes and lunchtimes were a time when it seemed the staff as a community, a family even, gathered together to share their stories and their humour. All this over food and drink. I have not found a similar sense of a community gathering here. With my researcher’s hat on, I think it would be interesting to probe that a bit further. With my ‘guest who knows nothing’ hat on, I think that might appear a bit upstartish. It may be that there are smaller groups of staff gathering in different places, but I regret that the ‘in it together’ feeling I saw in the class was not so apparent to me in the staff room. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. it just means I haven’t seen it yet.
The school as an institution
The primary school where I completed my last placement was a very well-organised institution. Everyone seemed to know that I was coming and why I was there. It may well be true that a secondary school is a very different operation and that means that it is more difficult to run or needs to be run in a different way. But it does seem to operate more ‘loosely’ than the primary school I worked with. The first thing that struck me was that where previously I had been clearly told I would not be left to work alone with any children, I have regularly done so here. In fact, on my first morning, I was asked to supervise a group of boys changing for a swimming lesson. I did, but I’m not sure I should have.
And we actually missed my first session on day two (and so ran a double session on day three) because both I and the classroom teacher were expecting the other to ask the selected children to join the activity. That’s not entirely the school’s fault and I am skating on very thin ice if I make remarks about organisation!
How have the children responded?
In terms of the children’s response, they have actually responded better to the meditation than in the previous school and perhaps ever so slightly less well to the art based activities. That latter point is really quite marginal, and the children have all repeatedly expressed how much they are enjoying the art activities. I think it may well be that I am not leading those sessions as effectively as I may have done last time round, though of course, where I have been working on my own, I have needed to manage behaviour without intervention from a teacher. That’s fine, I can do that. It’s just a bit different to last time around. They have not, so far, been so comfortable with the group sharing exercise, though they have frequently expressed their gratitude for my presence and the activities I have been running.
Teaching and learning
I have seen some excellent teaching while I have been here too. The regular class teacher has led some whole class sessions that have managed to keep the attention of most of the children, most of the time, that’s despite some occasionally disruptive behaviour from one or two. I was privileged to sit in on a geography lesson with a very engaging and dynamic teacher. And how I wish my own secondary school education might have included drama as a distinct subject rather than as an add-on to English literature. The children have an excellent facility and an engaging teacher who managed to draw out some cracking work from these children.
On a final note, I have very quickly got used to being called ‘Father Mark’ – not because I have airs and graces; I was quite happy to be called Mark – but because it seems appropriate in a school where the regular staff are addressed as sir or miss. I think my relationship with the children is different but they do need to be able to maintain (for the school’s sake, not mine) a proper degree of respect for adults. So Father Mark is both properly formal and informal in this setting. I don’t think I’ll be insisting on it anywhere else though. Come to that, I won’t be insisting on it here. It’s what the children want to call me and that’s all right with me!
[This post has been cleared by one of the school’s assistant headteachers.]