A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!

Finding sanctuary in a tower block

6 12 2009

Two weeks into our great adventure, it’s time to bring you all out there in blogland up to date.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’ll tell you.

On Sunday, 22nd November, 2009, the tiny congregation meeting in the parish church building in the Church of England parish of St Luke, Southsea, said goodbye to that building. In a special service, we moved around the building, stopping at various points — the main entrance, the font, etc. At each ‘station’ we marked some feature or character of the church’s life, symbolised by the piece of church furniture at which we were stopping. We committed ourselves to carry that aspect of our common life forward into our new future.

Why did we do that? Because from then on, we would be ceasing to hold our 11 a.m. Sunday service in the church building. Instead, we have since been gathering in the community room attached to one of the nearby tower blocks. But it’s not just a matter of geography. We haven’t moved our Sunday service of Anglican liturgical worship. We’ve ended it.

The time for the intentionally Christian community’s worship is now on a Tuesday evening as part of our home group. Each week we share a meal, a Eucharist and prayer and engagement with the Bible in my home.

On Sundays, now, between 10 a.m. and midday, we open what we’re calling the Sunday Sanctuary.

We provide breakfast and refreshments all morning and some sort of craft-based activity. Alongside that, there’s one or two light, reflective activities on offer. We’ve been describing it as a family drop-in in the publicity material. Is that what it’s been?

In the first week, six people we hadn’t met before came: a brother and sister, a child who came with one of our members who lives in the block, and three young teenage boys. So all of our guests were children, without their parents. This isn’t what we were aiming for but it is, to a degree, what we expected. We have tried to avoid becoming a child-minding service by insisting that children below secondary school age should be accompanied by a parent, another adult or an older sibling.

In the second week, we had nine guests, three of whom we had seen the week before. The brother and sister returned and brought their younger brother with them. One of the teenage boys from last week returned and brought a friend with him. One of our members who lives in the block brought a different child with them this week and in the second half of the morning a mum and her two children joined us. I hope, dear reader, you can understand that when I say that we were encouraged by the presence of this family (at our family drop-in) it doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment with, or devaluing of, our other guests. We have been encouraged and pleased to meet, serve and share with all those we’ve met. But meeting this family this week has suggested that our ‘model’ might just work; it might be the right one.

Already, we have experienced a steep learning curve. I anticipate that our Tuesday night gatherings will include some lively conversations from now on. The first surprise was that people are staying all morning. In fact this week, we had a job on our hands dissuading two people from coming in before we opened at 10. That job lasted for nearly 50 minutes. We had been working on the assumption that people might come for 30 or 45 minutes and then go. One or two craft activities can sustain that but not if people are there for 2 hours. So we are rapidly having to think about creating a broader range of things for people to do. This requires more work from us, which presents its own challenge for a community where there is not an evenness of either commitment or capacity.

Some of those we’re engaging with have somewhat chaotic lives. Just being able to provide some decent nutrition and some positive adult contact and attention is more, I suspect than some are regularly getting. That all presents its own challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are so many sensitivities here that it’s difficult to say too much more. It might sound as if all these reflections are practical, rather than spiritual. But at the forefront of our minds is the need to ensure that all we do is intentionally spiritual. It would be easy in lots of ways to respond to our challenges by resorting to entertainment. Just (as we’re frequently asked) to get the pool table and other games out. But we aren’t a youth club or a kids’ club. We’re a church operating a family drop in. We’re not about forcing anything on anyone. Everything is optional. But everything we offer comes from who we are.

That’s the unique contribution we bring: ourselves and our faith. That’s not an imposition, I believe, it’s a positive gift. It motivates us to love each and every person and to believe in everyone we meet. Other people find different motivations and end up in the same place. But this is our motivation. So faith has a positive contribution to make to the extent that it provokes us as a community to draw alongside people living in this difficult locality.

But I’m also excited about the positive contribution that finding faith can make for each person we meet. Faith brings positive transformation. What I’m trying to say is that if people discover faith for themselves through this, that is an outcome I would celebrate. (I think it’s at least as likely that those of us who consider ourselves to have faith already will rediscover faith.)

The difference between what we’re doing here and a regular church service is that we’re not expecting people to come to us and do what we do without space for question or doubt or just exploration in conversation. The activities we offer share some of the things that we have found meaningful. They invite others to imaginatively enter into that world of meaning — to ‘try it on for size’. But we will always respect people’s freedom and if people find themselves taking a different point of view, it will not affect our welcome of them.

Getting all arty-farty

9 11 2009

anomie1The day I came back from the consultation in Salisbury, my colleague Alex and I went to see an avant garde theatre production at the New Theatre Royal in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘Anomie’ combined music, dance and video to weave together the narratives of alienated individuals living in an urban environment. It was presented by Precarious – a company from… actually I don’t know where they’re from. But they seem to have generated some interest at the Edinburgh festival with this one-act piece.

The first surprise was the theatre itself. Though Alex and I had spoken with the theatre director about our work in the city and explored possible connections, I hadn’t been before. I think it’s a great venue with a real intimate feel to it. It struck me as a place with a lot of potential, though I’m not sure I can say for what. I can just kind of imagine doing… stuff… there… I’ll let you know if anything more concrete occurs to me.

The second surprise was the performance itself. I really expected to like the mix of multimedia and dance. It was well done and imaginative but I think it was actually at its strongest when it was just the movement. And that applies to the speech in the piece too. The words reminded me of artist’s statements I’d heard – artists statements I’d written – at art college. Just trying a bit too hard to be meaningful. Again, the scenes where the movement was allowed to speak for itself were the strongest.

I think they’d invested quite a lot of effort in the intellectual content. There were layers of symbolism that I think I was supposed to engage with at a cerebral level. But trying to figure all that out got in the way. When I abandoned that mental effort and just allowed it to engage me at a more visceral level, I got much more into the performance. I think some of that content crept back in, but in a more subconscious way.

The narrative strands were drawn together in such a way at the end that I think I became more consciously aware of them retrospectively than I had been during the show. That struck me as an interesting metaphor for our own lives – individually and collectively. Do we only find narrative integrity in retrospect? Or is this something we can experience or expect along the way?

I would have liked to have seen it with my wife, Barbara. She’s less pretentious than me. I would have been interested to see whether she would have loved it or whether she would have thought it was all a bit affected. For me, it was both. I haven’t seen much dance in my time, but I think the human body in movement is one of the most profoundly poetic art forms. But there was a sense in which this was trying a bit too hard. It had the feel of a student piece that hadn’t been edited enough to find a pure and profound voice. A work in progress/development, rather than something finished. But then maybe that’s more appropriate for a postmodern audience. Maybe that gives the audience to be part of the performance, to continue to form and process the ideas-in-formation that we’ve encountered.

It has set me thinking about liturgy for postmodern worshippers/spiritual explorers. Alternative worship that I experienced or that I have been involved in creating has that sense of trying too hard, of throwing too much in, of words that are stretching for profundity. But maybe again, that’s okay, because in its failure and its self-indulgence it opens up a space for those engaging with it to find their own voice…

…or am I now trying too hard?! 😉

Alex suggested that my Sunday night conversations could be enriched if the people taking part were sharing experiences together in this sort of arts space. I have to say it set the juices a-flowing. Watch this space…

Surprised by joy (and chicken kebabs)

16 07 2009

1066287_barbecueTonight as I was preparing a meal, I experienced a moment of sheer joy and connectedness. What was going on? This was the second time that day I had cooked the same meal. Earlier, my kids, who had been moaning as they saw their herb-covered chicken kebabs going into the oven, actually tucked into what I finally lay before them and then followed it up by eating loads of fruit. I couldn’t quite believe it. My little junk food junkies were eating real food. And loving it. It’s like the usual order of the universe had been inverted for some short period. It was a real Doctor Who moment. (Doctor Who and not Torchwood because if it had been Torchwood they would probably have instantaneously combusted immediately after eating their healthy supper.)

So that was the first thing that contributed. Second, José González’s Heartbeats was playing on the CD player. I challenge anyone to feel bad listening to that track. But this was something more than just feeling good. This was a moment of being overtaken by joy. Not just happiness or contentment. Joy. What’s the difference? It wasn’t just about a happy feeling. It was about feeling that everything is connected and that everything is pure gift.

It hit me when I was chopping tomatoes for the salad that Barbara and I would share with our dinner guest – a colleague from Barbara’s school who is shortly to leave for a new job in Spain. So there was a sense of being able to provide for the people I love – first the kids and then Barbara and to be able to sustain and support her in a relationship that matters to her (and so to me).

And then there was the beautiful redness and fullness of the tomatoes I was chopping. Just the goodness of these gifts in front of me. Chopping them felt like a ritual action (in a good way). It was like an act of worship or thanksgiving to prepare them. It was fulfilling in itself but I was also anticipating that greater fulfilment to come when I would eat these tomatoes and I would experience their taste as well as the resistance of their physical presence against the action of my knife. I’m starting to sound a bit mad now. But this is honestly how I felt. It took me by surprise because I am physically very tired and not quite 100% well I suspect but I was just aware of feeling really great.

And there was also the thought that I was doing something both profoundly and simply creative. I was taking the stuff of the earth and reshaping it in a way such that others could enjoy and experience it. It was a moment of artistic expression. [This must sound so pretentious!]

The sad thing was I thought how rarely such an experience happens in the context of Christian worship. It made me think that Christian worship might offer more of this sort of experience if it gets more basic and grounded in these sorts of real, everyday human experience. It reminded me how preparing and sharing meals has been central to my thinking in the past and on occasion more recently. Before I was ordained, I remember saying to someone once that I wanted to be remembered as the ‘cooking curate’. I have just this week started cooking again after months (years?) of just heating stuff from the supermarket. This whole (quite freaky) experience has reminded me that this might be a real feature of my vocation and what I think human community and the faith community might be all about.

What if an atheist approves?

26 06 2009

Last week I caught up with one of my closest and longest-standing friends. We met for lunch at his house and I enjoyed his fantastic cooking in his fantastic garden. It’s always a bitter sweet experience for me meeting this friend. In lots of ways we are very alike — personality, interests, politics, taste in music, values and sense of humour. That’s all save for one regard. He is a convinced atheist. I am a Christian priest. That has actually made our friendship hugely valuable. I am the priest I am today thanks to working with this man for over eight years and reshaping my faith in the face of his robust yet compassionate questioning. It was quite a crucible!

So it’s not bitter sweet because I’m harbouring some disappointment or resentment about his convictions not being the same as mine. It’s bitter sweet because sometimes as I travel to meet up with him, I am slightly anxious about what it’s going to be like when we talk about my work.

I needn’t be. He’s always gracious and gentle, though sometimes I can tell that he’s working quite hard to refrain from explaining why I am a mentalist!

He can kind of cope with what I do all the while I pursue my quaint delusion in a way that doesn’t get in anybody else’s face. So maybe I was a little more anxious than normal as my mission work has really started to bear fruit and I am definitely getting in people’s faces.

But when I explained about the open spirituality work I’ve been doing in schools and even about the more creative worship we’ve been engaged in as a congregation alongside the people of Somers Town he seemed to be genuinely intrigued — approving even.

‘That all sounds really good to me,’ he said.

I think the idea of encouraging deeper reflection on life through hands-on engagement with visual and material art was something he could connect with and see value in, even if it is motivated by religious impulses that he thinks are bonkers.

So if what I’m doing is inoffensive to an atheist, does that mean there’s a problem with what I’m doing. I guess that for some of you that’s an issue. But for me it’s not. For two reasons. First because this particular atheist is a thoughtful friend whose judgement I value. Second because if people are required to adopt a religious conviction that they find problematic before they can access the sessions I run or the worship of our community, how will they ever be able to find the space to reassess their view of that religious conviction?

Spiritual children. What have I learnt?

2 06 2009

Time is a very valuable commodity in the life of a school. There is a full agenda for limited time. That means that one needs to be focused and prepared. There’s not space in a school day for expansive time or lots of open exploration. You need to know what you want to get from the time you’ve assigned to an activity and a clear strategy to achieve it. To some degree that mediates against spiritual work which is about slowing things down and creating space for open exploration. But it is possible to engage in some worthwhile activity if you are very clear about what you’re doing and how much time you’re giving to each element – and in this setting that has to be minutes.

Stillness and silence are very much part of the spiritual tradition that I most connect with and, it seems to me without doing any proper research on the subject, are the aspects of Christian spirituality that are resurgent at present. It occurred to me, again without any real empirical basis for this assertion, that this might be the very thing that is lacking in many of these children’s lives.

Actually I think it’s the thing that is most lacking for most of us in the (post)modern world. This is the point that is made in the episode of ‘What about me?’ titled ‘Bombardment’. [This is a film made by 1 Giant Leap (Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman) as they travelled the world making some amazing collaborative music and mixing it up with all kinds of life/spiritual comment from a whole variety of spiritual or philosophical backgrounds.] The impression that build in this episode is that it’s very difficult to find a still centre in the midst of the manic noise of our world. That’s down to the constant media bombardment we find ourselves subject to.

Many of these children are subject to the additional ‘noise’ of difficult home situations as well as media/cultural noise. The other aspect that contributors to this episode picked up on was that there is also the internal ‘noise’ of our own minds that makes it even more difficult to find peace. That inner noise is, I suspect, not disconnected from the noise without for some of these children. they will have internalised some of the noise of their home situations.

Moments of passivity were especially challenging for these children. But not so universally or unrelentingly challenging that it wasn’t worthwhile. For some of them, the inner noise was very evident in these moments. It would break into the learning environment and disturb the individual child and inevitably their peers. But there were some moments where it seemed to click for a group I was working with – whether the whole class or a smaller set of children. This suggests to me that it is worthwhile to persevere with providing these opportunities even if children will not be consistently take advantage of them. The discouragement of the times when it doesn’t work (probably more often than it does, but not overwhelmingly so) is worth it for the golden moments when it does and the children find some moments of peace.

More consistently ‘successful’ was the hands-on creative work. I was concerned before I began that some of the more physically inclined children – and I guess I was thinking that there might be some gender bias in that distinction – would not like the more ‘arty’ aspects of what we were doing. Perhaps because it was more physically expansive than the usual cut/stick/colour craft activity that might be more familiar in church settings, it did engage those children. In fact, it engaged them very well. Where children moved their bodies and their hands in gathering and handling materials and making artefacts beyond the usual proportions of a ‘picture space’ (ie: A4 paper) there was a real depth of engagement. Moving out of the usual working environment (the day pilgrimage and making the footprints picture in the green area outside the classroom) or changing the usual working environment (pushing the tables back, making a mess) also helped children to engage.

Interestingly, there was one activity that was very much about colouring in on an A4 sheet that also gripped the children. That was the follow-up work on A4 worksheets that followed the ‘Necker Cube’ presentation. Though here again, we had moved out of the usual classroom to a different room. It also was challenging to visual perception, if not even disorientating and this too perhaps meant it required a level of concentration that stimulated the children’s interest.

Theories about learning styles are not uncontroversial, but to borrow that language, these activities did seem to allow those who might be classed ‘kinesthetic learners’ to flourish in a way that more academic work did not, so obviously. That said, though, there were very few children who were actually disengaged by these activities.

According to David Hay, spirituality can be defined as ‘relational consciousness’. That immediately suggests a connection between individuals that is well developed in a spiritually ‘healthy’ person or community. It was part of my aim to encourage and foster that level of connection in the time I had with the children I was working with. But as well as interpersonal connectedness, there is also a good degree of intrapersonal connectedness that is a feature of a healthy spirit. Spiritually healthy people will have a well developed sense of self-worth, self-knowledge and self-appreciation. In fact it is difficult to empathise with others (an essential feature of community) if we do not empathise with ourselves. The Christian tradition recognises this in the second-half of the summary of the law that Jesus uses: love your neighbour as yourself. Implicit in that calling is a recognition that we need to love ourselves if we are to love others.

So much of the programme I developed was designed to stimulate both of these aspects of the children’s spirituality. There were moments of individual working as well as moments of collaborative working. Some children with socialisation challenges found the collaborative working difficult, but this difficulty did appear to diminish over the course of the two weeks. A good number of the children coped well with working with others from the outset. Physical constraints of working space meant some children felt excluded by more dominant children. Others were self-excluding, wanting to do their own thing and sometimes feeling that their ideas were not being recognised.

It was interesting that if the class was divided into smaller groups within the same space, a competitive tendency emerged. I’m not against competition per se, but our individualistic/tribal culture means that competitiveness is the default and it’s not always a healthy or sporting sort of competition. It’s more often about a hostility to the other. Tribalism creeps in very easily. For some of the whole class activities, for instance and especially the whole class mosaic activity, there was a sense of shared identity and solidarity that was achieved without definition over against another.

One aspect of relational consciousness that my programme addressed a little less effectively perhaps was the sense of connection with ‘the transcendent’. This is perhaps because this is the aspect of spirituality that is most contentious and where it draws closest to what has traditionally been understood as the religious realm. For the non-religious or for non-theistic religions, the transcendent is perhaps a little harder to describe than in those traditions where it is identified with deity. Awe and wonder might capture some of what the experience is like, whether people want to define that in terms of relating to a god or gods. Quite often it is encountered in the face of the natural world and especially in reflecting on the awesome power of natural forces or the barely comprehensible time or spatial scales involved in events at both the biggest and tiniest levels of the universe.

I touched on this in some of the reflection I offered especially on the beach pilgrimage day, but this often involved just me talking with the children (sort of) listening. These moments suffered from the same problems as the sermon does in church settings – it’s just not a very effective teaching method. I need to give some more thought to how a programme such as this could more effectively stimulate this aspect of the children’s spirituality.

[This post has been cleared with the headteacher.]

We are collective

2 06 2009

My final couple of days at a primary school in the heart of Portsmouth were just hugely enjoyable. As usual there was literacy and numeracy work in the morning of Thursday 7th May. It was great to be around to help some children with their work. They were writing an account of their day on the beach. It was encouraging to see that they had good recall of the events of the day. That suggested it had been an experience that they had enjoyed and counted as worthwhile. I helped one or two with their spelling as they wrote these accounts. Next time somebody asks me how to spell the name of the king who acted out turning back the tide, though, I will use the longer spelling. The four letter spelling isn’t so good to use for a generation familiar with French Connection UK’s branding! 😉

In the afternoon, after some more regular curriculum work, we began my session with the whole class participating in the meditation activity. Sat in a circle on the floor, they really entered into it again as they had on the first occasion. There was much less disruption and the children seemed genuinely quietened by taking part.

We followed this with the whole class making a pebble mosaic in a large tray of sand. Part of the activity was about agreeing what the design should be. I got them talking in pairs and then offering suggestions which we refined by a process of voting to get a final plan. They chose to make the centrepiece of their design, the name of their class. This suggested to me that they placed a high value on who they were together and to represent their shared experience through the past couple of weeks and especially the pilgrimage on Tuesday.

There was a real spirit of co-operation in the making of the mosaic and a sense of pride in the final result. When one child accidentally damaged it later on, there was lots of fussing over the mosaic and a repair was carefully effected. There were some moments of frustration for one or two who didn’t get to participate as they wanted, but there wasn’t the same wholesale withdrawal as there had been on the beach just a couple of days previously. Everyone played their part. One or two of the children who find more academic work more challenging really shone in this activity.

The next day I spent some of the morning working with three of the year 6 pupils. We were working out what thought or speech bubbles we wanted to add to the photographs the teacher had taken during the beach pilgrimage day. Of course (like any of us) they looked for the photos of themselves first, but it a real delight to be alongside these children as they tried to put themselves inside someone else’s head. It was all done with a great deal of humour, of course.

The session I’d planned for the afternoon started with a version of the well-known ‘Footprints’ story. I used a story box to help the children enter into the story in their imaginations and I told it in quite a meditative way – that is, I presented it slowly with lots of pauses and ‘I wonder…’ moments to encourage the children to listen in a meditative/reflective way. This is similar to the ‘Godly Play’ approach that has been developed as a way of encouraging and releasing children’s spirituality in Christian circles. However in both my method of storytelling and in the content of the story, I stripped out any religious references. I used the story to encourage the children to think about who it is that ‘carries’ them through life’s more challenging moments.

This had been a part of my programme that the headteacher of the school had asked me to approach particularly carefully, so that the children were not drawn unconsciously into a religious event. This seemed fair enough to me. Actually, given the approach I was taking, I wholly agreed with the need for care. I don’t sense that there is an absolute resistence to religiously derived stories being heard in this school. But the children would need to know from the outset what they were being presented with. It would actually be dishonest – a subterfuge – to have led the children gently into something that turned out to be religious without making that clear from the start. There would have been no opportunity for those who wanted to, to opt out.

I did give the children the option to share in a ‘sharing circle’ who it was that they thought carries them. I did make it absolutely clear that it was a perfectly legitimate response not to share, to offer the group their silence instead. Some initially took that option, but when they had heard others share, they mostly asked for the ‘sharing stone’ to come back to them so that they could share. It was family and friends for all of the children. I had intended not to participate in this sharing time, but several of the children asked me to. In the original version of this story it is ‘the Lord’ who has carried the dreamer who sees his life played back alongside his footprints along the beach. Perhaps I am conditioned by my knowledge of the original story, but I genuinely do have a sense of being ‘carried’ by God through life’s troubles. The headteacher had assured me that she didn’t want to close down any religious interpretations offered by the children. But it is quite a different matter for me as an adult in a position of responsibility, if not leadership, within that setting to offer my own reflection. It carries a different weight – not in terms of its validity, but in terms of its potential to influence open, young minds. It was part of the ‘deal’ with this school that I would be very careful when entering this sort of territory. As the children had all already offered their interpretations, I did feel that there was some scope for sharing something from my own (religiously-formed) experience. But I was wary of explicitly affirming the reality of Deity, so I said it was my faith that carried me. That seemed to me to be real and honest without making a religious assertion at a sensitive moment. There may be moments in the future where making religious assertions (couched in the language of ‘this is what I believe’) may be appropriate, but this wasn’t one of them.

We followed the story with each child making a picture on sandpaper that involved making ‘footprints’ with the heel of their hand and a finger tip dipped in poster paints. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the children’s engagement with this activity was joyous. This felt like a moment of celebration and that was carried through into the final activity where we all went outside and made real footprints in various colours on a large sheet of paper. Everyone got really messy and a little bit over-excited but the party atmosphere didn’t lead the class to get out of hand (or should that be foot?). They just loved it. So did I. Joy abounded. This was a moment that I would describe as deeply and profoundly spiritual. It repeated that pendulum swing that I had been taking the children through in each activity between valuing themselves as an individual and finding their place as part of the collective. Just like the mosaic picture, there was a sense that we were finding our identity as a group in this activity. I don’t know yet how lasting that effect might be for these children. I hope I will have a chance to see as I spend a bit more time with this class in the coming weeks.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]


6 05 2009

What a range of opportunities I’m having. I’m so grateful to the head of this school and the teacher of the class I’m working with for just allowing me to hang around.

This morning I was privileged to be in the classroom while two interview candidates conducted a lesson. Why am I thinking that’s a big deal? There is a sort of standing presumption that I’ll be around for stuff, but I know how it is sometimes when you haven’t put all the things in the diary together and seen all the implications. Well, I know how it is sometimes because I’m a sieve head. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe everyone else looks at their diary and sees how it all fits together or doesn’t and acts accordingly. I, on the other hand, tend to work the implications of diary clashes as they’re actually happening!

Anyway, I asked if I’d be in the way. I don’t think this is the sort of place where people would have been shy of saying ‘yes’ if they thought I would. What was encouraging was that it suggests to me that this school was happy to present itself to these new people as a place where they might find me. Probably nobody thought it through to that extent, but at least nobody thought my presence was anything other than a natural part of what people might find here. It’s another expression of the welcome I’ve received here, I think.

I worked with some children today that I haven’t spent so much time with before, again in response to their invitation. It was a good and different experience to work with some more confident and able children. It felt, to be honest, less of a struggle and more like I was helping these children to unearth the ideas that were already within.

One of the children with complex emotional issues was back in the classroom today after a temporary exclusion. This was in response to an incident last week. I mentioned it here, so there’s no need to go into more detail. It was really good to see this child in a much more settle frame of mind and responding well to me and the cover supervisor who was looking after the class between interview teachers.

Later in the morning I was able to provide some close support for one of the academically less able children. Again, there was a specific request from this child for my help. It will be obvious to the teacher marking this work that there was a degree of ‘feeding’ but as much as possible, I tried to help this child develop and express their own ideas. This child seemed genuinely pleased to have produced some good work that I think he might not have been able to produce independently. I can’t speak for the child, but I found this time hugely rewarding. It made me wonder whether there wouldn’t be a bit of a sense of frustration for a classroom teacher because time pressures make it difficult to offer this sort of close support on anything other than a very infrequent basis. I wonder how much scope there is for encouraging appropriate adults to come and offer support alongside the teachers and learning support assistants.

In the lunch break, the cover supervisor expressed his gratitude for my help in the class. Again I was genuinely touched that my presence was not just tolerated but could be welcomed too, by another member of staff who had not been directly involved in agreeing this placement. I also spoke with one of the interviewees and a member of the governing body who was interviewing the candidates with the headteacher.

The governor asked a very insightful question about how I was coping with and responding to the diversity of the school. I was able to reassure her that I was committed to inclusion and that I had worked hard to make the input I was bringing accessible to children of all faiths and none. ‘I am not here to preach,’ I said. Indeed as I commented, my presence would not have been welcome if I were.

In the afternoon, there was another PE lesson with a rugby coach from the University. Once again, this gave an opportunity for some children to shine who might not so much in the classroom work. It was really encouraging to see one of the children who is at times disengaged be drawn into this activity and to share some moments of celebration with him – high fives after passing the ball.

Finally, this afternoon, came the time for the activity I had planned for today. I had each table group in the classroom making a small black and white pebble mosaic in wet sand. I hoped that this would work in two ways. Firstly it would help the children to reflect on yesterday’s trip out in a differently creative way. They have started working on a piece of writing. This gave them a chance to respond by making a piece of visual art. Secondly I thought that the collaborative working would lead the children to reflect on how they relate to each other.

To be honest, I think they loved this activity. I took them through some thinking steps, getting them to think about what sort of design they would like to make as individuals, then in pairs and finally in table groups. Reaching agreement about the design was a prerequisite for actually beginning to make their artwork. This did encourage some genuine collaborative work for some groups that have found it difficult to get on with each other during my time with them. This continued on into the process of making their artworks too.

Initially, as I had asked them to think about a significant moment in yesterday’s ‘pilgrimage’, there was a lot of mention of lunch. Their hunger after a long walk and a later than usual lunch break was clearly a significant experience. But I was pleased to see in the work finally produced that there was a range of moments from yesterday reflected.

This has been a busy day. Demanding in a different day from yesterday. The interviewees’ teaching demonstrations had made for a full programme. The day was a bit of a dash from one thing to another, but that is life in this school. There’s a lot to squeeze in. Every five minutes counts. It’s made me think about my use of time and my personal effectiveness again. I can on occasion run out of steam after getting one significant thing done in a day. School requires so much more of these children and their teachers and those helping them that I feel a bit pathetic in comparison!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

Turning back the tide

5 05 2009

cnut_small1Today was the day that I have been working towards and to which the activities on the remaining days refer. This was, if you like, the climax of my two week’s work and presence in the school.

Except that it wasn’t in the school. It was along the seafront at Eastney and along to Southsea.

Today was the ‘pilgrimage’ day. Pilgrimage is maybe a problematic word to use – it has distinct religious connotations. But I think like the word ‘retreat’ it belongs to so many faith traditions that it can belong to all and none. It was the word I used in my proposal for this time with the school and it didn’t seem to cause an issue at that stage. So it was a word I used with the children. As I said to them, it often involves traveling to a sacred or special site, but in almost every tradition, it’s the journey that’s important not the destination.

So it was today. The destination – it’s impossible to say this without sounding like a comedy hippy – was ourselves (and our relationship with each other and the world).

I know that there are children in this city that have never been to the sea. I don’t know if there were any in that category in this class until this term. Their topic this term is water and they have already been on one trip to the other end of the seafront to look at the geography of the Solent. And I know there is a plan for them to go again later in the term. And in a sense it doesn’t matter. Though it was in my mind, I wasn’t suggesting this trip simply in order to address a particular deprivation.

In the Rapid Parish Development workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, we were asked about the places we loved to visit. The seafront came up on nearly everyone’s list. It is a significant place for all sorts of reasons. People go there for family time, for fun and for exercise. None of those things are disconnected from spirituality – far from it. But there’s also a sense in which the seashore is a place of more obviously spiritual experience. The sea offers an encounter with all the moods of nature from calm beauty to awesome, destructive power. It’s one of the places where one can encounter a big expanse; both of sea and sky. It’s a place to find peace and an encounter with the sublime – a place where we can reflect on our place in the universe; a place where paradoxically, because we are faced with our insignificance in space and time, we can find value in ourselves. My hope for this trip was that I could create the space where the children and we adults accompanying them might touch some of that. I didn’t want to force that on anyone. And, anyway, how could I?

So the first part of the experience for them was a long, long walk. All the way from the heart of the city to Eastney, right down beyond the caravan park. They were tired and began asking lots of ‘are we there yet?’ questions, but I think it was good to take them on a walk that was beyond ‘utility’ (into futility?!). We could have stopped when we arrived at the sea front and done all the activities in one place, but I thought it would be valuable to enter into an experience of ‘journey’ as that is such an important metaphor for our growth, learning and spiritual development. There was something too about pushing ourselves on, keeping going beyond what is immediately comfortable to see if we could find value in doing so.

We arrived at the spot I’d pre-arranged with the class teacher for our first ‘station’. I think some of the immediate novelty of my presence in the classroom has worn off a bit and the attention is proving a little more challenging to draw together. Today, of course, was already a very new environment with lots of different views and materials from their usual learning space, so some of it could reasonably be put down to excitement.

EXCURSUS: excitement.

I nearly put ‘over-’excitement there but why shouldn’t children experience and express excitement? It’s one of the paradoxes of the school environment I think. The people I’ve met who work at this school all genuinely like children and enjoy their company. They want them to flourish as themselves and to enjoy their time at school and the new experiences and knowledge they’re encountering. Part of children’s natural response is excitement. Children are inherently enthusiastic people when stimulated in a way that engages their interests. But school isn’t a playground. There is an agenda. A big part of that agenda is set by outside bodies – the government for the most part. Sometimes that means that school makes huge demands of children’s intellect and for some of the subject matter there’s not always a big pay-off in terms of its being hugely stimulating. My perspective, after a few days in this school and somewhat longer married to a teacher, is that there is a degree of prescriptiveness, not only in what has to be taught, but how it has to be taught. That can stifle the creativity of teachers and make it difficult for them to make the learning as exciting as it could be if teachers had more freedom. And there’s a nagging thought in my mind that this is actually their (the children’s) time. Nobody is paying them. The rewards for doing the hard work could be so deferred as to make them irrelevant to these children. That’s not to say their achievements – no, not just their achievements – their efforts aren’t celebrated because they are. 

The agenda, as I hear it in the media, is to equip children for adulthood and most especially for the world of work. But what about their lives now? What about them getting the best out of life as the people they are now, not just the people they will become? I haven’t got an answer to that. But after a few days in this school there’s this little ache of grief in me that these children (my children too) are having to give up something of their childhood for the sake of what the adult world demands of them. What we demand of them. I don’t blame these teachers; the staff of this school. I’m deeply concerned as I write this, that any of them reading this understand that this is not a criticism of them. It’s more of a philosophical – actually I’d say spiritual – question about our society’s understanding of and relationship to childhood. The adults I have met in this school are dedicated to these children, to their education, yes, but also to these young people in their care for who they are right now too. I suspect that the little ache of grief is in their hearts too – not just for those whose lives outside school are  difficult lives but those whose lives are just fine too.

It’s possible to make too much of that, of course. In any other setting where one is working with children, their excitement does need to be managed. They are wont to get over-excited. They cannot be wholly relied upon to make good choices about behaviour that would endanger them or others around them. They need a degree of guidance and structure. They need boundaries in order to feel safe. Often for those in chaotic home settings, the boundaries that school provide, much as they might want to test them, kick against them, do offer some real sense of security.

Anyway, that’s a digression, though an important one that I needed to give space to.

Back to our day on the beach. After arriving at our first stop at Eastney, I recounted the well known episode in the life of King Cnut (as told by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century) using some props and getting a child to play the part of Cnut (without actually getting them wet!). He set his throne by the shore and pretended to command the tide to halt. When his robes were soaked by the waves Cnut leapt backwards and said ‘Let everyone know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a cross and never wore it again. The point I drew out from the story is that human beings are not able to control everything and that there are some forces of nature that are just bigger than us.

Then we went and threw stones into the sea. Mostly for the sheer joy of it. I showed some who didn’t know how to throw a skimmer. This is the sort of useless skill children absolutely need to learn! It was a source of joy for us all, I think, to spend those few minutes skimming stones across the sea. We did reflect on how our stones made absolutely no difference to the sea and its relentless interaction with the land. I talked the children through the enormous lengths of time involved in the processes of erosion and the cycle from solid rock to sand and back again. Attention was wandering a bit again, but I think some of them at least connected with the sense of awe and wonder I was trying to convey through this and through asking about how many stones there might be on the beach and relating that to the number of people in the world. I asked them to choose a stone to represent themselves and remarked that each of them, like each of their stones is unique and precious. Finally I spoke about how none of the stones has become what it is on its own, but that each has helped to shape the others. I then suggested that we too are shaped by the people we bump up against and that we shape others too.

There was a lot of me talking in that first activity. I wonder whether some of that might have been better interspersed with the other activities, but I think they coped as well as they were going to at any point in the day with that sort of input. And it wasn’t devoid of hands on content, we skimmed stones and chose stones and lots of them also picked up other things that interested them: shells mostly.

By this time, it was apparent that making them wait until after the next activity to have lunch (as had been the plan) wasn’t going to work. It was already very nearly their usual lunch break time and they were expressing their need for food! So we walked on to the planned lunch stop. It was a salient reminder for me, if I needed one, that providing for children’s basic everyday needs must be a priority. That’s true of itself and it’s true if you want them to do anything that makes demands on their brains! This is stuff I know from my own children too. I’ve learnt to spot when they are hungry from very obvious changes in mood or behaviour.

After lunch, we headed down to the beach to make some pebble pictures. I divided the class into two groups and got them to collect two different shades of stones in the two buckets I had brought. Then I asked each group to collaborate on making a picture. Overall the children seemed to really engage well with this and enjoy the activity. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of each group. There were one or two who didn’t participate at all in either group. Others who took issue with the way things were progressing in the group, drew aside and did their own thing. Others still seemed more prepared to argue their case in the group. With a little prompting they also divided their labour. At this point some of those who had found themselves on the margin while the creative work was dominated by a smaller group, found they could have a renewed involvement and seemed to revel in the responsibility. I think some self-excluded and others did get pushed out to the margins by the larger group because their involvement was more disruptive. Partly that came about because the size of the pictures they were producing meant there were only so many children that could fit around the artwork. There were two children who hadn’t reintegrated with their group who produced their own artwork using the sand on the beach and stones and shell fragments. One of those was particularly fine and I have just realised that we didn’t record it photographically as we did for the group artworks. Perhaps it’s right that we didn’t because it would be inappopriate to celebrate non-participation in a required group activity, but it was an especially gratifying piece of work because this particular child finds much of the classroom work very challenging.

We then walked on further and stopped on the beach on the western side of South Parade Pier. Here I invited the children to use their non visual senses to take in the experience of being on the beach for a moment. They  have found some of the more meditative work a bit difficult so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they all, almost, were happy to do this without much silliness. I asked them to take out the stone they had chosen a couple of hours before and to think about how they would feel about leaving it behind to represent their individual mark on the world. I asked them to decorate their stone with the paints we had brought and then to do just that: to leave it behind on the beach. While half the class started on that, the other half built a cairn as a way of marking their presence as a group. The children seemed very engaged by both activities. They entered into them without protest. Members of each half of the class expressed disappointment about having to swap to the other activity because, it seemed they were really engaged with what they were doing.

Time was running short by this point, so we began the walk back, stopping for a toilet break. The children’s behaviour was pretty good all day and despite there being the usual challenges with sustaining attention at some points, my impression was that they were engaging well and enjoying what we were doing. I didn’t provide the same sort of opportunities for reflective feedback as I have on other days. I hadn’t planned to because of the pressure of time. So I don’t know how much of this has really gone in. I look forward to seeing over the next couple of days with some of the reflective activities I’ve planned what response I might get.

It was a good day. Once again, I was proud of the children.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

Auguries of innocence

1 05 2009

Interestingly, but not surprisingly to me, the previous Ofsted report on the school scored the extent of learners’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and the extent to which learners make a positive contribution to the community in the ‘good’ category. When the head and I first explored the idea of spirituality and where our common ground might be (basically that we’re talking about all of the categories listed immediately above), she thought that the school was strong in those areas. My experience is that it is. That’s what led me to question in a previous post what it is that I might bring that is not already happening. Nothing was the answer I came to. But my presence I think has been worthwhile in recognising, highlighting and celebrating this aspect of the school’s life.

Maybe that’s reflected too in the work of the artist we looked at as part of the activity I led today. Andy Goldsworthy is a scottish landscape artist and photographer whose work, I think, invites its audience to pay greater attention to what is already there in the natural environment. This it seems to me is an expression of what visual art, at its best, can achieve. My own training as an artist was especially focused on drawing. Drawing, unlike more finished artwork, is, above all, about really seeing. It offers a way of looking that gets the artist beyond the mind’s symbolic register of objects in the world to the truth of their form in space. When you start looking like that, it’s breathtaking. It’s so powerful that it would be overwhelming to see like that all the time. (Actually, if you’ve ever read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, it seems that this is what it’s like for some people with Asperger Syndrome.) The world is full of wonder and is absolutely amazing when you truly look, in its most mundane details. And it’s a spiritual experience. This is what William Blake was reflecting in his ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Goldsworthy goes a step further by communicating this artistic vision. through transforming the natural environment with natural materials, he reveals the inherent wonder and beauty in both the environment and the materials he finds and uses there.

This is a wonderful metaphor for my experience at this school. The spirituality work I have been doing and my refections in this blog haven’t been about bringing something that isn’t there. It has been about communicating the joy and wonder of what is already there. This is a rich environment for an artist, poet or any reflective person. All of life’s light and shade is here, but, oh, there are wonders! This is tune too with the approach of the Rapid Parish Development programme that St Luke’s church is engaged with. It’s about celebrating what’s already there. I think all of these things really come together in a very powerful way within this school that is also about celebrating the light and life within this community, wherever it is to be found.

And I think these children are getting it. To an extent their default is to kick against the system they’re in. So getting them to engage with anything, even though you think it might be a lot of fun for them is a challenge. Today, as previously, one group in particular struggled with the meditation.

I thought it would be good to do this work in the school grounds. The class teacher suggested one of the play areas outside that is very popular and would provide a rich source of found objects alongside the pebbles, shells and driftwood I brought with me. There was quite some excitement about working with in this area. The opening meditation was not just a struggle, it was almost impossible. It’s one of those things that only works if everyone joins in. Some members were downright uncooperative and the learning support assistant and I had quite a job on our hands just keeping the group in the area we had gone to outside. Others were also disruptive but on a lower level. So today, the meditation really, if I’m honest, didn’t work. Maybe they got something from it. But really it‘s about stilling ourselves inside and it didn’t seem to have that effect today. Of course I can’t tell what was going on inside for these children and it may be that even sharing the aspiration to approach the work that followed from a ‘stilled’ place helped them into it.

Because both the groups we worked with responded beautifully to the invitation to try out making their own ‘Goldsworthies’. Not only did they produce some really beautiful sculptures but also they collaborated well in pairs or trios. I think the non-verbal communication came to the fore here. There was some talking but also a lot of quiet. I think the children were intuitively reading off each other’s intentions and responding to each other’s contributions to the shared artwork. 

I wonder whether the fantastic musical assemblies in this school that I described in a previous post have been a training ground for this collaborative, non-verbal way of working. The children appeared genuinely proud of their own work, appreciative of others’ but also not so precious about it that they couldn’t break down their creations at the end of the session.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]