Some books are 'special'

The following examples are taken from teaching practice files. They contain many generalisations, for example in the ways sacred books are actually handled. At the appropriate time, the possible variety of practice and experiences and viewpoints can be explored. With younger children, however, the assumption is made here that care and respect and good practice should offend no one, even if one’s own responses are more casual or different. The assumption is also made that one can carefully use the word God (gods, spirit, etc.) in the classroom. The schemes seek to show that, to many people, religion is important and relevant: that writings help people learn about their faith and explore possible ways in which God and people can communicate: that they help people think about the meaning and purpose in life: that scriptures are not a dull subject to explore: that there are different ways of expressing and exploring truth. The content of the schemes with younger children is integral to work with older children, so additions will be mentioned rather than full schemes written up in each case.

An Infant classroom

The children were fascinated by the Book Corner, either because they had much loved books at home, or because it was a new and magic world of colour and discovery. Books helped organise their experience, pointed to new insights, extended experience, pointed the ways to new learning paths. They gave confidence, a sense of achievement. They were to be used as well as looked at and read.

We talked about the part books play in people’s lives, why people write them, how long it must take to write, illustrate, print them. How important they are! Do we have favourite books? Why are some books special? We should treat all books carefully, but do we exercise extra care with our favourite books — keeping them by our bed, taking them to show Gran, washing our hands before using them, not lending them to our friends? People who pray to God often have favourite books which tell them something about the mysterious person who cares for them. They often treat these books in a special way (The Muslim, Jewish, Sikh child will understand this easily, though many Christian children will not have this sense of reverence, and to many children the idea will be completely new).

The Qur’an

We had two Muslim children in our class, so we decided to begin by talking about the Qur’an. Because children love playing with the sounds of strange words — especially in this age of space technology and dinosaurs — we decided we would use some technical terms, so we pinned a large paper word-tree to the classroom wall and placed some large leaves in a box ready to be pinned on at the appropriate time — for example, we explained that many children all over the world worshipped God whom they called Allah. They were called Muslims. We looked at pictures and slides. These children had a special book called the Qur’an, given to them by a great teacher called Muhammad.

Using a packet of ‘wet ones’, a small Qur’an stand (made by a student), a small inexpensive Qur’an, a clean cloth, a string of prayer beads (again made by a student) we explained how this special book was treated. We showed pictures and slides of beautifully hand-written illuminated Qur’ans. How long it must have taken to write them! Why would someone spend so much time copying a book? Copying or reading the Qur’an was like saying a prayer. Muslims tried never to put anything on top of a Qur’an. It was placed on the top shelf, or on top of a bookcase. No pictures of Gran, or of a Womble or a footballer were hung above it. It was often wrapped in a clean cloth. Muslims try to wash their hands before using it. Wet ones were distributed and the small Qur’an (which had not been used in prayer) was carefully handed round, the strange script regarded with awe. Some Muslims kiss and hold the Qur’an to their foreheads three times before reading it. Certainly we would not put it down on a dirty desk, but only on a clean piece of paper, a clean hanky, or on our Qur’an stand. From cut-outs we all made a stand. Of course we would not eat chips or chappatis, listen to the telly, laugh and chat when reading it. Muslim children learn to recite some of the Qur’an in Arabic, some learn to recite it all. How clever they are! Outlines of the name Allah were handed out in English and Arabic script, and were coloured in and illustrated with flower patterns.

Finally we looked at some slides of people reading the Qur’an — at home, school, in the mosque, on pilgrimage to Makkah — each face showing concentration, care, happiness.

(Of course most or all of the facts would be forgotten, but hopefully the atmosphere of importance and relevance would remain to form a good basis for later, more detailed study. It should be noted that whilst some Muslim children will be proud to bring a Qur’an to school, others will not wish to do so. Many Muslims fear the book will not be handled properly. In addition, many are suspicious of women teachers handling the Qur’an, for they believe a woman should not do so whilst having a period).

The Torah

Next we looked at two small Torah scrolls — one in a velvet cover, as in the Ashkenazi tradition, one in a wooden case, reflecting the Sephardic tradition. The words Torah, Scroll, Jew, Synagogue, were added to the tree. We looked at pictures and slides of scrolls, noting the beautiful decorations. The children were fascinated by the yad and quickly understood how its use helped avoid dirty finger marks on the parchment, and how it helped followed the text. We discussed how carefully the large scrolls used in the synagogue were written — the strips of parchment carefully prepared, the prayerful way in which the copying is done, the fact that corrections to the names or attributes of God cannot be made if the copier makes a mistake. What happened to the spoilt strips of parchment — and to badly worn scrolls? These are carefully placed in boxes, covers, etc., even plain wooden coffins, and placed in graves or caves. The class had recently buried a much-loved goldfish. Because they cared for it, they had not just thrown it away. Similarly the Jews loved their scrolls and treated them always with respect. We made small scrolls, then looked at slides of the scrolls being carried round the synagogue, being read. The children appreciated the fact that you took the shortest route to the reading desk, eager to hear the story, and the longest route back to the Ark because you did not want to put the scroll away. They also appreciated the symbolism of touching or pointing to the scroll with the fringes of the prayer shawl, then kissing them, thus promising to listen carefully and to obey. They learnt the blessing spoken before the reading of the Torah. Very gently we explained the festival of Simchat Torah, when the reading of the scroll was both ended and begun — they all knew the feeling of wanting to read a favourite book again! They were fascinated by slides of people dancing with the scrolls, sharing their joy in the Torah and its service. They looked at painting books of the Sabbath and the Torah, coloured in the pictures, drew their own pictures.

The Bible

We then explored the Bible, using words like Bible, Church. We looked at slides of beautiful, illuminated manuscripts, and a book containing illustrations from the Book of Kells. After talking of the time and effort involved, we coloured in templates of capital letters and decorated the page with colourful patterns. We looked at some of the books which explore the Psalms with beautiful coloured photographs, also The Bible in Focus with quotations and passages from the Bible illustrated by beautiful photographs of contemporary scenes. We looked at postcards from the British and Foreign Bible Society. A local priest brought a copy of the Bible and the Gospel and Prayer Book used during the Sunday liturgy to show to the children. We spoke of the way in which some churches (Orthodox) carry the Bible in procession from behind the screen (iconostasis) and show it to the people. Some children had heard of Christ’s baptism and we explained that the procession represented Jesus after his baptism going out to preach to the people.

The Bible in Focus was placed on a reading stand for a week, a small bowl of flowers beside it. One child had brought in the battered, rather overwhelming-looking Bible given to an elder brother, now in year one at the Secondary school. The student wished to preserve the idea of reverence for the Christian Scripture.

The Sikh Scriptures

In another classroom the children learnt abut the Guru Granth Sahib, its raised position in the gurdwara, its careful covering in a cloth, the use of the chauri. They looked at slides of the use of the scripture during the service, of processions in the gurdwara, the street, the Hari Mandir at Amritsar. They understood that its preciousness and cost meant that many families could not afford a copy — they liked the idea of borrowing one for special occasions — i.e. weddings. They considered carefully how it would be kept and used in a home if a family were privileged to own one. They appreciated the random opening of the book to find the initial letter for a baby’s name. Copies of a small book Sayings of Guru Nanak were passed round.

The Hindu Scriptures

We looked at slides of Hindus worshipping in the Temple and at home. Hindus often sing some of the prayers and stories found in their special books. We looked at some beautifully illustrated copies of the Vedas and the Gita. In the Temple a copy of one of the Scriptures is often placed on a stand in front of an image. On a side table we placed a puja tray and a small statue of Krishna and Radha and placed one of our illustrated books beside it. Then we shared the story of Rama and Sita, putting the names Rama, Sita, Hindu on our Word Tree. We looked at slides, made masks and garlands, exchanged sweets and lit indoor fireworks, talking briefly about Divali.

Additional material used in the Junior Classroom — and with older children:

1. Stories of how the Scriptures came to be written — Muhammad, Moses, the Gurus, Hindu teachers, Jesus’ disciples. With the ten/eleven-year-olds some simple work was done relating to revelation and truth, with reference to the fact that some believers feel God actually speaks to them and they reproduce His words, whilst others believe that they pass on God’s message in their own words.

2. Stories and/or verses from the Scriptures, often copied and illustrated carefully by the children.

3. An exploration of festivals arising from scriptural origins:

a) Passover, Succot, Shavuot, Chanukah, Purim, Exodus, Ruth, Maccabees, Esther.

b) Qur’anic references to fasting and the Kaaba and Hajj, Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha. Also the Night of Power and Muhammad’s first revelations.

c) Baisakhi — the Khalsa and the Book replace the human Guru — the reading of the whole of the Book during the festival.

d) Divali, Holi — based on religious stories.

e) Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide.

4. One class of ten/eleven-year-olds explored Easter in terms of liberation from/liberation for. If you believed the story, how would your life be altered in terms of conduct, emotions, how would you view the world and the things which happened to you, how would you think about meaning and purpose?

The children then explored Passover in a similar fashion, looking forward first to Sinai and the covenant, exploring many of the laws re human life and property which accompany the more familiar Ten Commandments, and secondly to some of the tragedies suffered by the Jewish people. The children realised that the same words and concepts kept appearing in both festivals — responsibility, mutuality, confidence, freedom from fear, a sense of direction, a sense of belonging.

Thus Easter was seen not as a rejection of Judaism, but as a different way of helping people in the same situation, and many points for future thought and dialogue were established. We explored the titles given to Jesus — The Way, The Truth, The Light, and realised these also applied to the Torah, which is rolled upon Trees of Life, and which is referred to by the Psalmist, e.g. as ‘Thy Word is a Light unto my feet and a lantern unto my path’. A local minister, a rabbie and two mums came into the classroom and talked through some of the points with the children. Later, on The Night of Power we talked about the Qur’an being The guidance for following the straight path, of the certainty and confidence that comes from believing that God has sent His clear guidance to men, of the liberation from the fear of ignorance. Then a local Muslim came to the school and again talked with the children.

5. Whilst exploring the theme of symbols, the coverings of Torah scrolls were carefully studied together with the embroidery of parochets, e.g. lions, crowns, the star of David, the tablets of stone given to Moses, bells, breastplates. The meaning of the Ner Tamid was explained, Mezuzah and Tefillin were also studied and film strips and artefacts shown, the student explaining why, e.g., an empty mezuzah was very inexpensive, but one containing the parchment much more expensive. Gradually the children realised the importance of the Torah for the survival of Judaism after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. We then referred to the Guru Granth Sahib, its Lordship represented by the use of the chauri. We also referred to the custom in some gurdwaras of decorating a small bedroom in which the Granth Sahib was put to rest on the bed each evening, and taken in procession to the takht each morning, reflecting its living quality.

6. Whilst exploring the theme of beginnings, a class of 10-year-olds split into three groups. One researched the origins of the scriptures, one the origin of festivals, and one myths and stories of the beginning of the world. The latter stories were mainly selected for what they taught us of meaning and purpose for the universe and for human beings. Amerindian and Aboriginal stories were very popular. The children looked at Indian stories, at the stories in Genesis and the story in the Qur’an, developing especially ideas of service, responsibility, working with the materials God has given us to become creators ourselves. We also talked about the difference it might make to people’s attitudes and behaviour if they believed such stories.

7. A class of nine/ten-year-olds explored the ways in which the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came to be written down and discussed the reliability of copying and translating. The Muslim believes it is impossible to translate the Qur’an accurately. Such stories as the discovery of a scroll of the Jewish Scripture by Josiah and the work of the scribes in the Jewish exile were discussed. Why were there sometimes two differing stories of the same event in the Jewish Scriptures? Was it because of different traditions, emphasises, aims? We looked at the two different stories of the birth of Jesus and talked about the differing audiences for which the gospels were written. We talked about the value of letters and of the letter to Philemon. Using material from the British and Foreign Bible Society we discussed how the Bible came to be translated into English and the dangers and difficulties endured by Christians to make it available.

This raised the question — why was it worth dying for? We read transliterations of the passages in Mila 18 and My Glorious Brothers, realising how awful it is for a Jew to witness the desecration of the scrolls. Finally we talked about the collection and writing down of the chapters of the Qur’an. This led to a discussion on the accuracy of transmission and a discussion on the finding and importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The resulting exhibition of work achieved at the end of nine weeks filled the hall and resulted in talks and slide shows being given to the rest of the school.

8. The theme of justice was explored by classes from nine year olds upwards, using the book of Amos, verses from Exodus, also from the Qur’an and from the Gospels. A very interesting experiment was attempted with a class of eleven-year-olds when we very gently explored some of the activi- ties of those engaged in liberation theology in Latin America, basing it on the passages mentioned above. We spoke of the work seen by Derek Winter and recorded in Hope in Activity, of the work of Dom Helder Camara and Camillo Torres, and the student shared with the class the story of a young Volunteer Worker told in The Light of Day by Franz Lang. This led to a discussion of whether we should fight to achieve justice, freedom of worship.

Much of this work can be used in different ways with classes in secondary schools. It has many gaps. It raises many questions. How soon can you mention God in the classroom? How soon can children speak of other faiths outside their immediate environment? It raises questions regarding aims, objectives, methodology, content. It raises questions regarding the presentation of similar content at different levels — in earlier years are we guilty of superficiality or are we laying firm foundations?

The above experiences are shared with the reader firstly to point to the many and rich possibilities of work with Sacred Scriptures, and secondly in the hope that critics will at least take them seriously and consider the introduction of similar work in their own classrooms.


  • My Glorious Brothers, H. Fast. Bonim Books 1948. Mila 18, L. Uris. Corgi 1963.
  • Exploring The Bible: Chichester Project, P. Curtis. Lutterworth 1984.
  • Dom Helder Camara, N. Cheetham. People with a Purpose SCM 1973.
  • The Light of Day, O. F. Lang. Collins 1980.
  • Hope in Captivity, D. Winter. Epworth 1977.
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