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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Part 2: Why teach spirituality?

by Amber Harvey

In the September 2004 issue of Teacher, page 16, I left you with the words of David Tacey. He suggests that education "is not able to deliver what it promises, much less is it able to claim that it is satisfying the needs of its clientele." This is a challenge, certainly. However, I would like to put this suggestion into the context from which he writes. He is a university professor who meets students who wish to express their spirituality and who find that the academic environment systematically stifles it.

You and I, as the teachers of younger children, seldom find this yearning articulated in our classrooms. Do our students have this wish? Do they have the need? Do they have the right? According to the UN Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, they do.

We all passed through the university system and were influenced, to varying degrees, by attitudes expressed there. Many of us are wary of the word spiritual. We find ourselves on shaky ground when we discuss spirituality. Prejudices arise to cloud our vision. When the subject of spirituality comes up, many of us either express ideas from our culture of religious beliefs and practices or dismiss spirituality without even considering it. Who is really comfortable discussing the subject?

At a recent conference called "Learning and the world we want," sponsored by the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria, I saw a children’s art exhibit featuring works by children from Victoria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Recurring themes were the importance of the environment, living peacefully on the earth, and reaching out to others. Although the term spirituality was not used, the idea was expressed.

Where do we begin? We know, as teachers, that if we are open to our students, that they can be our teachers. Let’s look at the ways they express their spirituality. I know we want to allow children to become all that they can, whole human beings. To do this, let’s continue to look for the themes that come up in their art. Let’s read their writings for their content. Let’s listen to them when they speak and notice what’s important to them. If we do this, we won’t shy away from spirituality.

Kibble and his colleagues set out six avenues for developing spiritual growth: (1) the development of pupils’ imagination, (2) the challenge that is provided by new ideas and experiences, (3) working with others, (4) examining one’s beliefs, (5) examining the beliefs of others, and (6) expressing delight in what is good and wonderful. These avenues are to be taught. They are secular equivalents of religious activities.

Use of imagination
Whether writing a story or painting a picture, working out a math problem or deciding how to put together a marble track, children get to use their imaginations in many classroom activities.

The challenge new ideas and experiences provide
We challenge our students whenever we present them with new ideas and skills. Learning and challenge go hand in hand.

Working with others
We teachers often provide opportunities for our students to work with and for others in the school community or the larger community. A service component is more prevalent at the higher grades; but helping others is valued in all levels.

Examining one’s beliefs
Students are often encouraged to ask questions about their own beliefs. Teachers do not have all the answers, and our answers would not necessarily suit our students. We encourage open-mindedness, asking for opinions on current events and other issues that come up in the curriculum.

Examining the beliefs of others
Teachers ask children to take different points of view and then try to express those views. Whether role-playing characters in a story or writing about the moral issues in the conflicts between First Nations people and European settlers, the school encourages children to broaden their thinking. Students may also be asked to look at things like the environment and racism from different perspectives. Kibble writes, "In examining the ideas of other people, pupils will be helped to begin to find answers to the issues they have confronted and the questions they have asked. Confrontation needs to lead, over time, to a process of response and resolution. So we arrive at our fifth avenue of spiritual development, which involves pupils’ examining the beliefs and experiences of others in order to encourage a development of their own understanding of themselves and of life."

"Spiritual development in school, then, involves pupils’ developing an understanding of people and their beliefs through an examination of both their beliefs and their experiences. In many areas of the curriculum, this involves acts of empathy."

Expressing delight
"Our final avenue of spiritual development is to encourage pupils to express delight in what is good and wonderful," Kibble writes. "Worship involves the adoration and praising of a deity, an activity which is clearly inappropriate in a secular, multifaith institution. One can, however, encourage pupils to express wonder and delight—this is a secular equivalent." We take children for nature walks, where they can wonder at its variety and beauty. We teach children to admire great music and other works of art. We encourage children to enjoy their own expressions and those of others.

I fully believe that in our classrooms we are addressing the needs of children to grow and develop spiritually. When a child brings a flower or a shell to the science centre in a primary classroom, when a student masters a difficult passage in a piece she or he is playing on her violin, when she or he coaches a team mate who’s having trouble with a game, when she or he holds the door for someone else, something spiritual is being expressed. Teachers have been fostering these behaviours for centuries. Now we can start to name them, to acknowledge them. They need to be given the respect they are due.

Amber Harvey teaches at Quadra Elementary School, Victoria.

Part 1 of this "Teacher as Researcher" article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Teacher.

Resources
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 1386 (XIV), 14 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 19, U.N. Doc. A/4354 (1959).

Kibble, David G., "Sailing Between Ofsted, Scylla and Charybdis: a Yorkshire school gives new meaning to spiritual development." International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2003.

McCulloch, Sandra. "Art depicts world kids dream about," Times Colonist, Nov. 23, 2003.

Tacey, David. "Student Spirituality and Educational Authority." International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2002.


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