A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Leeds Prayer Spaces in Schools conference. I chose to talk about the power of stories. Why? Because stories are fundamental to our understanding of the world and they are the way we find a meaningful place in it.
I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people around. I’ve not only spent much of my life teaching, I’ve also spent most of that time, as a teacher of English and music, immersed in stories. What could be better than introducing students to other people’s stories through literature and music, and then helping them to tell their own stories in words and sound? It really doesn’t get any better: I was storifying in a range of media long, long before the power of stories was realised.
So imagine my delight this week when I came across the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values’ report ‘Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy Through Stories’. The Foreword begins:
‘Only human beings can tell stories. And only human beings can pass them along. To communicate what matters most, we share great narratives from literature, as well as stories from our own lives. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 216) argues that our lives are so deeply narrative that we can only answer the question: ‘What am I to do [with my life]?’ If we can answer the question: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
Stories are fun. Stories motivate. Stories spark imagination. They help us to form knowledge; to make sense of our daily experiences and our memories. Stories are where we dream. But above all, stories are universal and it’s through their universality that we build relationships, understanding what it means to be human and learning how to live well with others.
As a Christian and a teacher, this has a particular resonance and it’s one that needs to be understood by all those who clamour for schools and colleges to be secular, neutral spaces. Apart from the fact that neutrality is impossible (everybody believes something), my faith is integral to my story. It informs my understanding of the world around me. It shapes who I am. I can no more leave my faith in the car park when I go into a school than I can leave my personality.
When Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board separated children from their daemons, creativity, intelligence and will were reduced; sometimes even obliterated. And so it is with the content of people’s stories. You cannot separate people from any part of their unique story and still retain whole, vibrant, creative people.
An article in The Conversation this week examined the increasingly vehement debate about religion and secularism, while a group of parents, with the backing of the British Humanist Association, is going to court to get humanism included in the RE syllabus. What this actually says is that we have become unwilling to listen to each other’s stories and as a result, we no longer have the necessary vocabulary to discuss them. So how can we make sense of what is happening in our schools, our communities, our society and our world when belief plays such a significant role in its events?
I would suggest that we could do so through stories. We live in a pluralist society, so no one story should dictate social orthodoxy. We should learn to respect each other’s stories and the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them. Christians and other people of faith are often accused of indoctrination and proselytisation as a means of trying to separate them from their stories in the public square. Why?
It’s in the values that we all share that our stories overlap and offer hope of a better future. Maybe one reason why faith schools are so successful in nurturing rounded humans is because those values aren’t just discussed. They are worked out in practice, in the messy business of everyday living in community. And in doing so, those values become virtues.
So instead of trying to impose a singular, secular ideology, why not find common ground in the nurturing of those virtues that we all share, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. When that happens, nobody will need to silence those with whom they don’t agree. We won’t need an Equalities Act to enforce by statute what we are currently unable to do by individual will – respect each other regardless. Just because.
I am Christian. Please respect my story. It defines me. Trying to silence me is to limit my ability to flourish as a fellow human. In return, I will respect your story as fundamental to your identity as we work together to give hope for the future to the students we teach.
People describe the value of singing in all sorts of ways – mood enhancing, energising, a way of increasing feelings of well being, and a vehicle for developing self confidence are just a few of them. Group singing brings people together and fosters a sense of community. You can laugh, you can have fun and you can learn new skills in a safe environment. Just watch any of Gareth Malone’s ‘The Choir’ series to see all of this, and much more, in action. Singing is a physical, emotional, cultural, social and spiritual experience. And as Ella Fitzgerald said, the only thing better than singing is more singing.
So how exciting would it be for your school, your community and your church to be brought together through singing? That’s exactly what iSingPOP offers. Part of the Christian charity Innervation Trust, iSingPOP is a Primary school singing project that uses the entire school to produce its very own pop CD. Children spend 4 days learning and recording the songs, then perform them a week later to the entire community at a concert hosted by the local church.
All iSingPOP tutors are experienced in working with children. They will offer a structured experience during which children learn not only lyrics and actions, but also singing techniques, performance skills and dance routines. Lyrics, which are written from a Christian perspective, are full of positive content that help children grow in friendship, hope, peace and compassion. They cover important subjects like love, prayer, respect, role models, social justice and forgiveness. You can check out some song previews here.
The experience will include 3 days of tutor led music teaching during which children will learn the songs; an exciting recording session using a sound engineer and a mobile recording studio; the dress rehearsal and whole school concert with full PA and equipment provided, and finally the opportunity to purchase your own school CD.
Download the Schools Pack to find out more, including a detailed breakdown of costs and timings. But the benefits don’t stop there. The availability of backing tracks allows schools and churches to continue singing the songs and talking about their messages long after tutors and the mobile studio have packed up and moved on.
I recently spent a couple of days with some amazing people from iSingPOP. Their enthusiasm, their commitment and their sheer energy (even at the end of an exhausting week) were infectious: to say that I was really excited by the potential of iSingPOP at several levels is an understatement. But don’t just take my word for it – check out their feedback comments from schools, parents, churches and various Diocesan Boards of Education.
Never mind about Britain’s Got Talent or The Voice. Become part of your own, much better, iSingPOP experience – better because it will be yours, an experience that children, families and the church community will never forget.
What is Prayer Spaces in Schools?
It’s a project of 24-7 Prayer which is accountable to 24-7 Prayer’s oversight team and Trustees. It’s a resource hub to support, resource and encourage the rapidly growing network of prayer space practitioners who run prayer or reflective spiritual spaces in schools. A small team manages the website, encourages the sharing of resources, supports local networks and training workshops, and keeps the prayer space community connected.
What is a prayer space?
Prayer spaces enable children and young people, whether or not they have a faith, to explore the big questions relating to their identity and the purpose, meaning and experiences of their lives. A prayer space usually pops up in a classroom or similar space for a few days. Activities encourage those who are taking part to reflect on issues such as forgiveness, injustice and thankfulness. Some schools bring classes to a prayer space for a lesson, while other schools offer the opportunity as a voluntary time and space for personal and spiritual reflection.
The website is the best place to start exploring what prayer spaces are and how they are organised – it includes an excellent section on Values and a video in which chaplains, students and staff explain how a prayer space can support spiritual life.
How have students responded to prayer spaces?
With great enthusiasm! They comment on the peace, the stillness and the chance to reflect. They sometimes surprise themselves by their reflections and the realisation of how many different ways there are to pray. They are willing to be vulnerable and honest with themselves and often children want to take their parents to the prayer space, too, so that they can share in the experience. Above all, they value the personal time and the safe emotional space that is so lacking in other areas of their lives.
Are Heads and staff happy to host a prayer space?
Feedback from heads and teachers is overwhelmingly positive. They talk about the quality of the interaction between adults and children, the opportunity for children to find a voice, the value in bringing the school community together in a shared experience and the benefit of time to be still and reflect. Some staff have noticed the difference it is making to individual pupils and several schools have benefited so much that they want to create a permanent prayer space.
The contribution to the RE and PSHE curricula (RME and Health and Wellbeing in Scotland) is valued by teachers, parents and governors of all faiths and none as activities are in line with government guidelines and meet the statutory requirement to support the spiritual, moral and social development of pupils.
Can anyone run a prayer space?
Yes, if you want to serve your local school community and contribute to the spiritual and pastoral development of students. Talking to a local support network would be a good idea if you want to know more. Check out the Getting Started page of the website and read some of the stories to get a feel for how prayer spaces work.
So how would I go about starting one?
Prayer spaces work best when they are part of the ongoing spiritual and pastoral life of a school, so if you want to start a prayer space, you need to think about any relationships that already exist – maybe your church with a local school, or you with staff or governors. To facilitate a prayer space, you will need to meet with someone in the school who has responsibility either for RE or school leadership. That’s where any connections you, or your church or youth worker have with a school comes in. When you have arranged a meeting, check out the Serving the School Community section of the Prayer Spaces website, which gives you detailed information about what to take to an initial meeting and what to talk about.
What do I do next if the school wants to go ahead?
The Prayer Spaces in Schools website is an amazing resource. It’s crammed full of the advice and support you will need as you embark on all the hard work and planning, including Choosing the Prayer Activities Recruiting and Training a Team and Publicity and Preparation. There’s a section on the exciting bit – Running your Prayer Space and finally What Next? – supporting the ongoing spiritual life of the school community with which you are in relationship through your prayer space.
Finally, don’t forget to register your prayer space. It’s easy to overlook but it’s a very important step. Not only will it keep you in touch with resources and stories from others, it will allow the organisation to track where prayer spaces are popping up around the world and to keep you connected with others, maybe in your area, who are involved in their schools. Registration is all about getting, and staying, connected in the prayer space community.