I recently attended a large Liverpool comprehensive school to take part in an interfaith event as part of a Culture Day. Our input was coordinated by Liverpool Community Spirit, an interfaith educational charity, and I was there to represent Buddhism alongside two other faith groups, Judaism and Global Christianity.
The format of the day was challenging: for five hours a succession of year 7, 8 and 9 classes presented themselves for an hour long ‘carousel’ – each class being split into three groups for 3 fifteen minute ‘encounters’ with each of the faiths in turn, with time for changing groups and feedback. We had been encouraged to bring in artefacts to show and to anchor the presentations. It was good advice. I wore my rakusu rather than robes and brought in my altar from home – a large Buddha, flowers, candle, water and incense – plus an inkin and bell. After the first hour and 3 repeated presentations my brain was already mush – I couldn’t remember what I had said to what group. I quickly realised the value of the artefacts on my mini altar – a ‘patter’ developed as I went round each object in turn and themes and questions emerged and were explored.
But it was hard work repeating the same presentation fifteen times, with group sizes ranging from 3 to 11 and a very wide spectrum of abilities and interest; the children were mostly lovely, the 2 with ADHD were lively and cheeky, and a couple were definitely from a different planet. My respect for teachers has grown even more. I really don’t know how they do it.
Did I learn anything from this? Well, the Buddha certainly does have some recognition – perhaps half could name him (though one lad did offer that he was Zeus!) and a surprising number volunteered that their grannies had a Buddha statue in their garden / living room and that he represented peace. It was also pretty clear that the attraction of these ‘carousel events’ for the school is that they tick a lot of RE boxes (3 faiths – check) in one day at little cost and can reach large numbers of pupils, over 100 in this case. But their educational value is less evident. It felt a bit like spiritual speed dating. It was not clear at all that this school had done any preparation on the 3 faiths before the event, nor was I aware that any RE teachers actually attended. Certainly, this was a world apart from our involvement with schools and colleges where a class attends the Zen centre and has the chance to experience zazen. If there is no preparation or follow up one wonders what the point is of such fifteen minute ‘faith encounters’?
But did the children learn anything? Judging by a quick glance at the feedback forms, one child certainly did, commenting that “Buddhists prey a lot”. I thought I’d kept my teeth and claws rather well hidden, but clearly I had been rumbled!