Cirque d’humanité

8 06 2010

Am I a weirdo? Does anyone else feel moved, almost to tears, when watching a circus? I remember watching the main show at the Millennium Dome (now the O2) and weeping.

I think it was something then about the sheer beauty of it. The Moscow State Circus on Pompey’s Southsea Common didn’t quite have that same quality. But it was breathtaking at some points. I think what moves me is the humanity. Human potential is on show in the most awe-inspiring way.

The performers are like superheroes. The feats they perform are phenomenal. And yet. They are clearly human beings. They aren’t superheroes. They sometimes get it wrong. And there are moments where you can just tell they’re as unsure they’re going to pull it off as the audience members are. Or at least this one is. These are ordinary people who have been willing to work tirelessly to develop their strength, stamina, suppleness, balance and co-ordination to a very high degree.

Some of these things will be on display in the beautiful game over the next few weeks, of course. But though I love football and I’m really looking forward to the World Cup, I don’t remember being moved to tears by the sheer humanity of the display. There are tears when you support England. But they’re not for that.

Maybe it’s because I know that football players are paid obscene amounts of money. It’s as if the humanity and passion of it is sullied to a large degree by filthy lucre. I don’t doubt these circus performers would like to be rich. But I’m pretty sure they’re not. They’re travellers. People of the road. There’s something about the fragility of the economics of a circus and the performers who work in it that makes the humanity of it all the more poignant.

They’re a small community, living and journeying together and doing things with their bodies that you wouldn’t think possible. But possible they are. And so they communicate something to me of the beauty of human potential. (Dance often has the same effect on me.) They inspire and confirm the thought that each and every person I meet is amazing and has the potential to do amazing things.

It inspires me to disbelieve the things I know children in some of the schools I work in say about themselves or have said to them (not by the schools but by the wider culture). They feel that they’re no good. They’re not. The enormity of their potential makes me weep.

And yes, I am cast from that same human stuff. So I too am encouraged to strive to be more than my last post suggested I thought I can be.

I probably have booked a place in pseud’s corner with all that, but to be honest, I don’t care. I’m happy to be thought pretentious. Whether this makes sense to anyone else or not, I don’t think I can stop myself from shedding the odd tear at the circus. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns, etc.

New Year’s resolutions

10 01 2010

It’s amazing how often a break from work gives you the opportunity to think more clearly about work. So it was in the Christmas break for me. I took the week after Christmas off.

I was in the shower… actually it’s remarkable how often these soughts of moments (epiphanies?) occur in that small cubicle. I’m not a utility showerer. That bathroom is a bit of a retreat for me. I do often catch myself sort of on pause — you could call it daydreaming — while the water streams over me. Anyway it was one of those moments. It occurred to me that if I am to stand any chance of completing my MA dissertation by the 11th May deadline, I really can’t afford to take on any new projects.

And I did have some plans forming.

I was planning a sort of rolling guerrilla happening for Lent. I had it in mind to make a kind of portable sacred space with a shed on pram wheels — it would be part soapbox go-cart, part outbuilding and part mobile confessional. The plan forming in my mind was that that I would tow the thing around the city centre behind my bike. It would pop up each week in unexpected places, like the Guildhall Square, the train station concourse, in front of the law courts, on the footbridge by the university halls of residence and the car park of the city centre academy school.

As I write now, I’m still gripped by the romance of the idea. It would be fun. It might generate a buzz. It would be arresting. (Actually without the right permissions in place, I might be arrested!) It’s a good idea (even if I do say so myself). I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

So too would I if I managed to create some sort of weekly drop in – dare I say sanctuary – kind of sacred space in the city centre academy school. It’s a great moment as the academy establishes itself. It could work. It’s a good idea. I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

But any satisfaction I experienced would be inevitably spoilt by the constant nagging feeling that something else significant I had already committed myself to was being left behind. Namely, my unwritten MA dissertation.

Now my own personal satisfaction isn’t the final arbiter of what I should and shouldn’t do. But that’s not to say it doesn’t come into it at all. Of course it does. I’m a human being. I can’t honestly pray the prayer for generosity of St Ignatius of Loyola. Can you? And St Ignatius himself, describing the process of discerning God’s will talks about doing what brings you consolation and not doing what brings desolation. Again, that’s a much deeper question than what brings satisfaction or dissatisfaction. But neither is it wholly divorced from all that.

What seems clear to me is that there are moments when you have to say no to good ideas – other people’s or your own. You have to leave aside things it would be really good to do, at the moment that might seem in some ways the best moment to do them, because you simply don’t have the capacity to take anything else on without giving up on commitments you’ve already made.

That’s what I, with some degree of regret, am resolved to do in the first part of this year. It’s tough for a pioneer – a natural initiator – to move into a holding pattern. But the MA dissertation has to be my primary project if it’s not to be abandoned altogether.

The pilgrims progress

12 06 2009

Tuesday 9th June. Today I took a group of year 7 children for a day’s ‘pilgrimage’ along the seafront from Eastney to South Parade Pier. I had been assigned a group of 15 children but on the day only 13 had returned permission slips. Having thought I would have only one LSA (learning support assistant) to accompany me, I actually had two on the day. On one or two occasions in the sessions where I have been working alone with the group I have found it difficult to ensure that everyone is as engaged as I would like them to be. Teachers have to manage larger groups on their own all the time, of course, so I feel a bit pathetic admitting that. But I was relieved that I had the extra help taking a group outside the school.

The initial walk down to the spot at Eastney I had selected beforehand took about an hour and 20 minutes. These children, being slightly older than those at the primary school where I ran this programme before, were not asking so much ‘are we there yet?’ But they did ask it, nonetheless. On a pilgrimage it is the experience of making the journey that is as least as important as the destination. So I wanted the journey to be significant for the children, to take them beyond a ‘utility’ walk that was just about getting to somewhere we needed to go. I think they got that, perhaps more than the last group to go on this trip. Getting to the lunch break was a lot more significant for the younger ones last time round!

This group responded well to the King Cnut story and the reflections that followed. After skimming some stones, I asked them all to choose a pebble that they would carry with them to symbolise themselves. I talked them through the incredibly long processes of erosion that created their pebble and would turn the pebbles into sand and then back into rock again and talked about the number of stones on the beach as a way of trying to comprehend the world’s human population. (Basically if it is correct that there are about 600,000,000 stones on the beach, then there are approximately ten times as many people on the earth as there are stones on Southsea beach.) This seemed to be as profound a reflection for the adults accompanying the children as for the children themselves.

After a further walk, the next stop was lunch. I asked the children to think about where their food had come from and the range of people who had contributed to them having food to eat.

IMG_0179After our lunch stop, I divided the group into two and got them to sort black and white stones into buckets and then collaborate on a monchrome pebble picture. They didn’t find this quite so easy, but I think they were actually running out of steam a bit by now. They found it a bit difficult to stay on task and not to just get distracted by what they wanted to look at. But eventually with a bit of cajoling, enough of them concentrated on the pebble pictures to produce two quite nice designs. We left them on the pavement for passers-by to enjoy.

After an ice-cream stop (having checked their medical forms for allergies!), we moved on to our final stop where we decorated our stones and left them on the beach in a small cairn. This was interrupted at the beginning by the children finding a pigeon in the water that was obviously in serious difficulty. In order to stop them handling it (and catching who knows what) I had to rescue it myself. The children were very appreciative of my rescue efforts as the pigeon’s plight had concerned them. Whether this was an indicator of pre-existing compassion or of elevated fellow-feeling following our day’s reflections, I wouldn’t like to say! The day ended when the school’s minibus driver collected us for the trip back to school.

It seemed to me that the activities on this day did affect both the children and the adults accompanying them. The discussions I had with individual members of the party as we walked along suggested to me that they were chewing it all over in their minds and reflecting on themselves and their place in the world and especially their unique value as a human being.

They also had fun! They were appreciative and expressed the desire for similar trips with me in the future. I’m sure this will be the beginning of a relationship with the school, not its end. So they, and I, may get their wish.

[This post has been cleared with one of the school’s assistant headteachers.]

Going up to big school

12 06 2009

IMG_0148After 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.


The programme.
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.

Social background
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!

IMG_0186How 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.

Father Mark
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.]

Back to school

9 06 2009

I’m currently in the midst of another placement in a school running a creative spirituality programme. This time it’s a secondary school in the centre of Portsmouth. I’ll update you all on that once I’ve written it up and cleared the posts with the school’s deputy headteacher.

What sort of opportunity?

2 06 2009

My job in these first couple of years is to explore opportunities for engagement and to find a focus for future work. So what have I been able to identify out of this placement with a primary school in the heart of Portsmouth?

I think we’ve been able to open up new understanding and conversation through working together. I believe I have struck up a particularly good working relationship with the headteacher. She has expressed her wish that we build on this relationship and that I continue to participate in the life of the school. I was also particularly touched by the deputy headteacher’s expression of regret as I said goodbye on the last day of my placement. She said: ‘I’ve got used to having you around. You’ve become another face on the team.’

There are well established ways that clergy relate to local schools like leading assemblies and sitting on governing bodies. I am specifically tasked with finding new ways for the Church to engage so in one sense, these well trod paths are to be avoided. But if the logic for adopting a similar approach was strong, I don’t think I’d be looking to do something different just for the sake of it. My wife thinks I’m good at leading assemblies and has encouraged me to look at this possibility. I don’t rule it out but I think the time I’ve already spent in the school has demonstrated that there’s huge value to be derived all round from working in a more sustained way with smaller groups.

Why small groups?
They provide opportunities to build real relationships with individual pupils and members of staff and to respond to personality and need, not the ‘middle ground’ of the whole school. It gives space to each child‘s personal response in a more focused way than they get by just getting to put their hand up in an assembly.

Why not join the governing body?
Again, I don’t rule it out. It would change the basis of my relationship with the headteacher and the school. It could introduce an element of authority/power that I think it has been helpful to divest myself of. It has put me in the place of needing to influence through building relationships rather than privilege. I would not want to lose that. It’s a guiding principle of my work in Somers Town and the City Centre.

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

Spiritual school. What have I learnt?

2 06 2009

Taking a stance of critical solidarity, what is that I might want to reflect back to this school about its spirituality?

A conversation with the headteacher before my placement began suggested that in course of the last Ofsted inspection a comment was made, in relation to assemblies mainly, as I recall, that spiritual content was a bit thin. It’s been my reflection that spirituality across the curriculum is strong, if we define spirituality as relational consciousness. The school does well on both ends of that pendulum swing between individual self-worth and communal life.

Where, specifically, have I seen that?

  • a PSHE lesson that was dealing with the concept of loss. Individual reflection on real, personal experience was encouraged and an environment was created where that quite often raw experience could be shared. Some quite delicate feelings were uncovered in that session. I believe that uncovering will have helped those children in their grieving process. These emotions so often go unacknowledged. Children were able to acknowledge their loss, their feelings about that loss and so, I think, to own their feelings. This fostered a greater sense of self-relationality and a more compassionate community.
  • assembly: non-verbal communication, communal celebration and expression were much in evidence. This was very much a community moment.
  • inclusion policy. The school’s strapline that this is a place where every individual is valued holds true where the rubber hits the road: in the way it deals with its most challenging pupils. Resources of time, personnel and management attention are given over in large measure to taking every possible step to keep the most troubled children engaged in their education and the school community. This communicates a sense of being valued to those children whose sense of themselves is often very damaged. It also ensured that this community has some real grit and a level of reality that might not be present in a school that more readily resorts to exclusion.
  • positive affirmation. One of the phrases I heard most often in the school was: ‘Well done. You made the right choice.’ The children appeared to respond with genuine pleasure to such affirmations. This will surely help children in the process of developing their values as individuals and as part of a community with clear values and effective boundaries.

Are there any areas of weakness?

One thing I didn’t see so much (and this reflects some of the difficulty I encountered in devising my programme) was evidence of spirituality as consciousness of our relation to the transcendent, reflected in that sense of awe and wonder that people of all faiths and none report as part of their deepest experience.

One thing to say immediately, is, just because I didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

As I said above, because this can touch on areas of experience where religions want to make affirmations about the nature of reality, this can be the most contentious aspect of relational consciousness (spirituality). People can encounter it through science and the arts. But it is too clearly part of religious experience. In order to protect the multicultural life of a school or community such as this, it might be that, as part of an effort to avoid privileging one particular faith, the sharing of religious experience is somewhat subdued.

How might consciousness of the transcendent be developed?

It might be that the multicultural life of the school might find a better expression in dialogue and mutual appreciation that goes beyond tolerance to a sense of celebration, embrace and valuing. Issues around the experience of faith are potentially more divisive than objective learning about religious doctrines or practice. It takes the discussion into the realm of what it means to have faith (or not) and what it means to have a deep consciousness of the transcendent.

It would be possible for an RE curriculum to include people of faith sharing their experience of what it’s like – reflecting on their internal life not just their external actions. That of course presumes that the internal aspect is significant for all faith traditions. It ain’t necessarily so!

Christianity, as part of the historic fabric of this nation, would surely need to be part of any such dialogue. But it might be difficult for it to appear anything other than a historical curiosity given that it might be hard to identify pupils who would be willing to describe themselves as practising Christians.

There are discussions under way about a visit to one of the parish church buildings that would be quite experiential in style, not in the sense of children being unwittingly being led into religious experience but in terms of a multisensory way of learning about Christian worship.

There is a curriculum requirement for collective worship to be part of a school’s daily/weekly programme. The assemblies I witnessed were strong on the individual/communal aspects of relational consciousness. It might be possible to build on that platform to explore how greater opportunities for collective worship might be developed.

Collective worship is not the same as corporate worship such as you might find in a church or mosque. In corporate worship, everyone shares the same focus – the ‘object’ of worship is, broadly speaking, the same for all the participants. Collective worship means that all the participants are simultaneously focusing on their own unique ‘object’ of worship. The latter is actually much more difficult to achieve. It’s about creating space. Christian priests are trained as liturgists so are much more inclined to treat assemblies as if they are corporate worship rather than collective worship unless they are alive to the distinction.

To the extent that I am, it may be that I could offer the school some assistance in planning the termly/yearly programme for assemblies. Similarly I could, at a later stage, offer some help to the school to develop and recognise spirituality in a more intentional way across the curriculum.

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