Secondary RE – Engaging teens in the ‘God’ question…?

“But Miss, I don’t want to be a priest, so why do I have to learn about God?”

A familiar question I’m sure. I find within my subject there is often a flurry of such statements from students, particularly when they start the course in Year 9. As a department we have trialled various ‘strategies’ to engage them, and to make them see how important RE is!

The first change we implemented when I joined the department in 2005 was a re-brand to ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ as we felt this better matched not only our Year 9 curriculum, but the exam specifications we use for GCSE and A Level.  This name change received a very positive response, and helped to avoid the stigma of ‘RE’ without compromising delivery of the subject. However, I wonder whether we have almost become afraid to call our subject RE or RS for fear that the students won’t opt for GCSE, or will have a negative perception before their first lesson. Surely if we strive to truly engage them the name won’t matter?

Despite the new title, most tend to ‘click’ by about October half term that I am in fact delivering RE under a new guise, but by then the majority are on board. The secret I think is to grab them with the BIG questions – ‘Does God Exist’, ‘What happens when we die’, ‘The problem of suffering’ et al – to really show how RE is concerned with the things that matter. An open minded, un-shockable, and somewhat argumentative approach works really well – especially with the Dawkins fans (usually boys!). Of course, we’re never going to convince the entirety to see the value, especially when their parents (and in fact other staff), still view RE as reading parables and memorising the 66 biblical books. There is also growing concern about the E-Bacc, where RE is not one of the ‘Humanities’ (ludicrous!), only promoting a further negative energy.

However, as RE teachers, we can at least get students thinking in a reflective way about human experience and the world around them – which is crucial!

A few ideas to get started:

  • ‘Look into each others eyes’ and ‘Hold hands’ is a fun way of starting the design argument.
  • Good old Bruce Almighty is always a nice one for challenging stereotypes of what God is like and leads to discussing God’s attributes well (Dogma is an option for a female God character, but it’s harder to find a suitable clip here!).
  • If death was….a sound, colour, animal place – is a good imagination exercise that gets to the concept of our interpretations of life after death.
  • Near Death Experience gets them talking – try
  • If you could ask God one question, what would it be? A good bell work task, followed by some teacher drama….”Because I have connections, God has granted us 5 mins of his time” etc, usually works well in triggering questions about The Problem of Evil!

We know RE gets to the heart of what is important – we just need to convince everyone else! And, in my experience so far, the Big Questions are a cracking way to engage young people from the start!

Esther Zarifi
Religious Studies, Philosophy & Ethics Teacher
Prudhoe Community High School

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