Reflective Essay on Religion

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Religion Assignment

This essay contains various reflections on my personal religious experience here at Marino Institute of Education in my first year of the B. ED course as well as some of my opinions and thoughts on assigned college readings.

Through writing this essay, it has allowed me to reflect on my religious education so far in my nineteen years of life and I can now proudly say that I know what sort of religious education teacher that I want to become thanks to the work of the legendary Gerry O’Connell. Gerry has opened my eyes and the eyes of many to how religion should be taught in the primary school classroom and how we as student teachers can change the future of teaching religion in primary schools.

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RE & The RE Teacher

On our first day in the religion lecture, Gerry introduced us to the religion course in a unique and different way. He shared some funny jokes and was very relaxed which I did not expect as I presumed all college lectures were very strict and stern. However, Gerry took a different approach and was very interactive with the whole year. The first topic that we were introduced to was ‘RE and the RE teacher’. I found this topic to be an ideal topic to start off with as throughout the lectures Gerry continued to ask us extremely important questions about our future teaching careers. Questions such as ‘What are teachers like?’ and ‘What kind of teacher have you decided to be?’ made me think long and hard about my future as a primary school teacher and what type of teacher that I want to become. I wrote all my thoughts and answers in my journal which Gerry recommended doing and I found this to be very helpful as I know that I can look back at it in a few years’ time even when I am on my first-year placement. I remember leaving the first lecture still not fully sure what to expect over the next year, but I did know for certain that I would look at Religion and how I would teach it to the children in a completely different way than simply following an Alive-O book page by page. Throughout the lectures on this topic, Gerry showed us many videos, one being a talk by Taylor Mali called ‘What Do Teachers Make?’. I found this video very enjoyable and inspiring as it reminded me that I am not interested in the financial element of teaching but the enjoyment and rewarding feeling that I get from it. “The most fundamental factor in effective RE, as in the effective teaching of any other subject, is the teacher”. (Watson and Thompson 2007). I found this quote from one of Gerry’s assigned readings to be very motivating as it reminded me that for my students to be enthusiastic during a lesson, so is the teacher. I must educate myself about the topic that I am teaching whether it is religion or not, so I can connect with my students on a deeper and more meaningful level.

Spirituality of the Person, the Child, and the Teacher

The second RE topic was ‘Spirituality of the Person, the Child, and the Teacher’. One lecture that really stood out to me was when Gerry showed us a TED Talk by Rita Pierson. To say that this video was inspiring would be an understatement. She talked about the importance of relationships in the classroom and how “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”. This video was so inspiring that I found myself thinking about it every time I was in the classroom. I ensured that every interaction that I had with a child was a positive and enjoyable experience as I know that I want my students to learn from me, and to be inspired by me and the content that I deliver. Throughout these lectures, I realized the importance of the spirituality of the teacher as it ensures a deeper and more meaningful connection with your students and the subject being taught. When reading one of the articles ‘Can Spirituality Transform Our World’ it made me question the relationship between religion and spirituality and how they are somewhat different. I realized that spirituality focuses on your inner self and is more open to interpretation while religion is more structured as well as following someone else’s rules or guidelines. In Gerry’s lectures, he gave us lots of advice when it came to encountering children’s spirituality. Some that stuck in my mind and that I wrote in my journal were to ‘say less and hear more’ and to ‘value and enjoy the unusual and spontaneous’. This reminded me of the idea that spirituality is open to many ideas and opinions and to expect the unexpected when it comes to a child’s opinion on the topic. I found Gerry’s advice to be extremely helpful for my preparation for placement and my future teaching career.

Compassion and Mindfulness

One of my favorite topics that Gerry explored was ‘Compassion and Mindfulness’. I have always had an interest in mindfulness and it gives me great pleasure to say that I think Gerry has a great interest too. Gerry started this topic by focusing on compassion and introduced us to it by watching a video called ‘The Charter of Compassion’. Throughout this two-minute-long video, I couldn’t help myself but think about the teaching profession. We “work tirelessly” and “honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody with absolute justice, equity, and respect”. These are just some of the quotes from the video that instantly reminded me of teachers and how we were all extremely compassionate human beings. As well as that we discussed as a class the 12 steps to a compassionate life suggested by Karen Armstrong, - Learn about compassion, look at your own world, compassion for yourself, empathy, mindfulness, action, how little we know, how should we speak to one another, concern for everybody, knowledge, recognition and finally love your enemies. I found it extremely interesting how everyone interpreted the steps differently and how there were various opinions about what each of the steps meant to them. One of the main aspects of Gerry’s lectures was the concept of meditation and mindfulness. Currently a very relevant topic in the primary school classroom I thought that getting us to participate in meditation allowed us to understand how useful it can be to relax and appreciate the world around us. I think that participating in meditation, slowing down, and living in the moment can allow children to clear their heads and feel at ease before continuing into the day. Using meditation as a transition between lessons or simply as an activity to relax and appreciate the moment with the children throughout the day is something I took from the lectures. The one lecture that really stood out to me was when Gerry turned off the lights and played the song ‘Patience’. The whole year sat in silence, closed their eyes and simply relaxed for roughly five minutes. I found this extremely helpful as it allowed us to unwind and forget about our busy and hectic days as well as an idea that I could use in the classroom. Gerry also gave us access to multiple mindfulness exercises on Moodle which I read through and I now know that I will be using many of them not just in my religion lessons but throughout my day in the classroom with my students.

Morality and Ethics

Gerry then introduced us to the topic of Morality and Ethics. I really enjoyed this topic as it completely changed my perspective on teaching. In one of Gerry’s lectures, we discussed Emmanuel Levinas's idea of school mottos. Rather than being selfish and having a motto such as ‘To Be the Best That I Can Be’, I learned that we should instill the idea that we all need to work together and look out for each other, not just think about ourselves. Mottos such as ‘To Be for Others’ would be more suitable to promote this idea of unity and togetherness. I have now realised that we shouldn’t be teaching children to achieve individually but fostering an inclusive approach, still ensuring that they achieve academically and socially too. As well as that we of course need to teach our students the difference between right and wrong, and Gerry offered many ideas in his lectures on how to go about it. He had many suggestions such as following the curriculum, small group work, and storytelling. From my experience in Gerry’s lectures, I think it’s fair to say that he enjoys storytelling and is exceptional at it. He demonstrated not only a great understanding of how to tell a story but also to keep us all engaged with the session. I think using story-telling as a tool to teach Religion, can be very effective in the classroom, especially when teaching about morality and ethics. By reading a story based on this topic children can explore the differences between right and wrong and can even discuss their opinions in small groups. As mentioned by Roth and Thomas (2013) using stories and picture books can stimulate spiritual conversations among the children and allow for a greater understanding of the topic. As well as that we discussed as a class that the teacher will not always be there in every situation to tell the child if something is right or wrong, meaning it is important for us as teachers to teach them to be able to know for themselves.

The Context of RE in Ireland & Further Afield

One of the very first questions that Gerry asked us on this topic was ‘Do we remember our first introduction to world religions?’. I can honestly say that I had to think long and hard about this as I do not remember learning about world religions in primary school. However, I vividly remember rote learning each major religion in secondary school for the scary and daunting Junior Certificate exam. This made me realize that we as primary school teachers don’t place enough emphasis on this subject which I believe is wrong as I think all students should be exposed to the different religions across the world from a young age as the person, they are sitting beside could be part of a different religion. Gerry offered some great advice in relation to introducing world religions into the classroom. Ideas such as bringing in artifacts and inviting guest speakers were just some suggestions that stuck in my head. From Gerry’s lectures on this topic, I realized the importance of teaching children about world religions so they can learn about the various cultures that people belong to and their different beliefs. By educating our students on world religions they will have a deeper understanding of the lives of those around them such as their own peers and classmates. It will allow for a more welcoming and understanding society where everybody is accepted and respected no matter what their beliefs or values are.

World Religions

In all my years in education, I had never really learned about other religions and I didn’t feel the need to until I went to Gerry’s lectures. He explored many different religions but with a completely different approach than I imagined. He taught us that it is simply not enough to know a few facts and information about a religion like key terms and festivals but to try to understand how Jews, Muslims etc see the world around them. I yet again saw teaching religion in a completely different way. Rather than throwing a few facts and pictures on a PowerPoint, I now realize that I need to be more creative but sensitive when teaching world religions. By educating myself properly on different religions I can deliver better content to my class by inviting guest speakers in from other world religions to speak to students and tell them how they see the world. In one memorable lecture, Gerry gave us a quote. “For it cannot be stressed often enough that there can be: No peace among the nations, without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions, without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions, without investigation of the foundations of the religions.” (Küng,1992). This thought-provoking quote really stuck with me and reassured me about my views and opinions about world religions. Although I mentioned that there’s more to teaching world religions than some fun facts, Gerry did share some information on the many religions. He enlightened us on the many festivals such as Hanukah, Shabbat, and Eid Al Fitr. Some of these festivals I had never even heard of before, so I felt very happy about myself walking out of these many lectures and being more informed about the various religions across the world. I am now a lot more content knowing that I am educated about these religions and I look forward to teaching them in my future career.

RE Programmes, Pedagogies and Methodologies

During these lectures on this topic, Gerry introduced us to many different types of methodologies that we can use in the classroom. I was of course drawn to his storytelling yet again as he is truly amazing at it. One lecture that instantly comes to my mind is when he used sand to tell a story. His great use of resources instilled the idea that they are so important in the classroom as I believe the children will be more engaged and interested in the story. I thought the method by which Gerry went about telling the story was very interesting. He did not jump right into the story or even in fact tell us that he was about to tell a story. He simply just set up a rug with sand on it. This created a sense of wonder amongst us and our whole class was silent and watching waiting to see what he would do next. Lockett (2009) writes that “Storytelling allows students to share common interests and improve social skills through conversation and play. It creates an environment that caters to maximum learning by engaging the students and making the learning process more fun and captivating”. I really enjoyed how Gerry used his fantastic story-telling ability to teach us about important topics such as morality etc and I now know that I will bring these ideas into my classroom in the future.

As well that Gerry also showed us many different RE programs available for primary school teachers. He showed us various programs such as ‘Grow in Love’, ‘Goodness Me, Goodness You’ and of course the famous ‘Alive-O’ book which many us remember only doing in primary school. Before these lectures, I wasn’t aware of the many programs available to teachers and how certain schools use certain programs. For example, ‘Grow in Love’ in Catholic schools and ‘Follow Me’ in Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian schools. At the end of this topic, Gerry kindly showed our year an example of a religion lesson plan which I found very helpful as they are slightly different from other lesson plans in different subjects. I am now more confident in terms of my school placement when teaching religion and writing my lessons. I feel as though I have an abundance of ideas and different methodologies that I can use in the primary school classroom thanks to the help of Gerry.

Teaching RE on School Placement

As I have already mentioned before, Gerry introduced us to the various RE programs that are available to primary school teachers. I quickly found out that on my school placement, I will be using the ‘Grow in Love’ program which Gerry spent a lot of time talking about (as many of us are using this program), showing us multiple lesson plans that are included in the program. I personally was not familiar with the program as when I was in primary school, we used the ‘Alive-O’ program however, Gerry went through the program to ensure we all knew about it before placement. I learned that the program's pedagogical approach is, let’s look, let’s learn, let’s live. The “Let’s Look” section, involves the children looking into an aspect of the world around them keeping religion in mind. This part of the lesson encourages children to be alert and aware of the various things that are going on around them. “Let’s Learn” refers to using drama, music, poetry, and visual arts. This requires the teacher to take the children’s ages and stages of maturity and development into consideration before planning this part of the lesson. The final stage of the program is “Let’s Live” In this section, I personally believe this is where the lesson comes to life as the children can take what they have learned in the lesson just taught and try to in their own ways apply it to their life’s, making the lesson worthwhile and valuable. I learned that there are many stories included in the ‘Grow in Love’ program and I believe this is where I will try and adapt Gerry’s excellent storytelling skills. His slow, calm, and methodical way of telling a story really inspired me and completely changed the way I tell stories to young children. He always seemed to maintain a calm and peaceful atmosphere and I truly believe this way of telling a story was fantastic and inspiring.

To conclude, I think it is fair to say that I did not expect my religious education here in Marino to be this fun and enjoyable. Looking back at all these reflections, it is obvious that I took a lot from Gerry’s interesting and strange lectures but most importantly I had lots of fun. Gerry’s lectures taught me that you can teach religion in so many ways, each as different and interesting as the next. I can also say that I now know exactly what type of religious education teacher that I want to become and that I hope to become

Reference List

    1. Lockett, Jordan S.; Jones, Rose B. (2009). Why Tell Stories? Kappa Delta Pi Record, v45 n4 p176-178.
    2. Brenda Watson and Penny Thompson. (2007). The Effective Teaching of Religious Education.
    3. King, U. (2011). Can Spirituality Transform Our World? Journal for the Study of Spirituality.1(1), (17-34)
    4. Lesley Roth & Trudelle Thomas (2013) Spirit books: promoting conversation with picture books, International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 18:4, 351-368
    5. Küng, H. Judaism: The Religious Situation of Our Time, London: SCM, 1992, p. xxii
    6. Lecture Notes 2018/2019
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