Using stories in primary re colin Wilkinson is Deputy Head of

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Using stories in primary RE
Colin Wilkinson is Deputy Head of

Wombwell Park Street Junior and Infant School

Within the context of man’s ‘spiritual journey’, stories

have played a crucial role for thousands of years. From

creation myth to the Victorian moral tales in Sunday

journals, stories have helped to explain God, mankind,

and his place in the universe. Yet within RE, stories have

remained, for the most part, a much under-used tool to

enlarge our children’s understanding of the spiritual

dimensions of their lives. But they are an indispensable

way to develop the concepts involved in an RE syllabus.
A ‘good’* story, either read or heard, will help the

reader or listener to see, think, feel, experience and

possibly understand at least something of its characters.

In so doing the reader or listener’s experience will be

widened and deepened. In the context of RE and its key

concepts, stories illuminate both the basic human experience

and the basic patterns that are common to all religions.
What is a good starting point from which to work in

RE? It would seem that often a story associated with a

particular topic is a good way into illustrating a concept.

A valuable contribution to any topic on space/the world

around us, or indeed any environmental work is to look

at stories of the creation; either from the Old Testament

or other traditions such as those of North American

Indians. It is also interesting to compare different

accounts of creation — often remarkably similar in

format (for example, the order in which things appear)

and in motifs (for example, conflict, chaos and order,

light and dark, good and evil, obedience and rebellion).

It is very rewarding if a child sees the similarity before you

get to the point of explanation! It is important to use

stories as we would use other methods of discovery.

Comparing the creation story with ‘scientific’ theories

often illuminates a remarkable level of similarity between

the ‘fact’ and the ‘fiction’. Stories from mythology,

legend and folklore can help give a sense of awe and

wonder, of a feeling that there is something beyond

ourselves, a deity. That all the world’s religions have

shared stories shows the universality of religion, and some

of the understanding of religion can also be shown from

this. The children writing their own creation accounts

can deepen beliefs and faith, if not in a specific religion,

then certainly in a concept of deity. Also, any story that

helps create amazement and awe and wonder in the

universe around us is an invaluable aid.

Where do such stories come from? Hopefully, every

teacher will build up a store of them which can be used

on a particular occasion or to help illustrate a point or

topic. It is important that both traditional tales and

modern fiction be made available, both for the teachers

to read to the children and for the children to read for

themselves. Some stories, while not being suitable to read

aloud to the entire class, will be just perfect for a particular

child. It may be a picture book or a more ‘heavy’ piece

of fiction, but the important point is that it will fit the

needs of that child at that stage of development. This is

particularly true of developing the idea of self. Many

stories deal with the problems of growing up, changing

both mentally and physically and of becoming an individual.

Valuable books to be used in collaboration with a

topic on ‘myself’ which have been very successful with

upper juniors have been The Shrinking of Treehorn

dealing with the question of ‘no one listening to me’ in

a humorous way; also A Pair of Jesus Boots or The

Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler (all Puffin books). Identification

with the characters and situations in stories such as these

can aid the transition from ‘child’ to ‘young adult’.
The limited world of the child’s relationships needs

widening, away from immediate family and friends. We

need to develop a sense of what is needed to co-exist with

others and to help children realise that they are individuals

in their rights. Stories are therefore invaluable for

opening up relationships that children will never be able

to experience other than through stories. But it is important

also to give a child a model to identify with. In the

case of the former many stories highlight relationships

on many levels and most of us can bring to mind our own

favourites. Stories can cover the entire experience of

relationships. For the young child, picture books about

friendship and relationships within the family can be an

important starting point. As the child grows older and

their experience of relationships increases in both quality

and quantity and with a greater variety of people, stories

reflecting those relationships can be used as a starting

point for discussions and writing on ‘how you feel’.

Negative aspects of relationships can also be explored as

the child grows older. Think of Joseph’s Yard (Oxford).

Selfishness leads to the death of a beautiful flower, but

eventually all turns out well when the flower is shared.

Relationships on a wider scale can also be examined.

Books such as The Silver Sword (Puffin) deal convincingly

with the wider questions of war, forgiveness and

friendship with enemies. Also, the question of inter-racial

relationships can be approached with story — from

the picture books of Jack Ezra Keats to books like Gowie

Corby Plays Chicken (Puffin) (for older juniors) in which

a white boy and a black girl develop a strong relationship

despite overt and covert racism. The value of friendship

and sacrifice is greatly illustrated by the story Charlotte’s

Web (Puffin) in which a spider eventually gives her life

for a pig — but the whole question of miracles, death and

rebirth is also praised and dealt with very well. The Happy

Prince by Oscar Wilde (in many versions) is a story in

which a statue gives all to help others: a perfect example

of self-sacrifice.
The whole gambit of human qualities, harmony,

strength, joy, misery, sorrow etc, lies within the rich

treasury of stories that we have available to us. Indeed,

many emotions that a child may feel unable to cope with

can be happily handled in the safe confines of the story.

A topic on ‘heroes and heroines’ can be almost complete-

ly illustrated by stories. Reinforcement of positive values

comes not only via stories of real heroes, but also

imaginary ones — from Superman to Supergran, (who

not only reinforces positive qualities but also manages to

overcome considerable age stereotyping!). A Pair of Jesus

Boots raises the whole question of what are ‘good personal

ideals’ and of loyalty and to whom. Stories are also a

valuable way of overcoming stereotyping, whether racial

or sexual. Nor must we forget Bible stories for emphasising

personal qualities, especially those of faith, belief and

sacrifice, from Moses to Christ.

Stories with an historical bias can also be a valuable

starting point. The Bronze Bow deals with the question

of forgiveness in a Roman setting while religious tolerance

is dealt with in Red Towers of Granada. I Am David deals

with the question of personal faith and determination in

the setting of a Nazi-dominated Europe.

‘People who help us’ must be in the top ten favourite

topics for lower juniors and an important part of the

concept of corporate identity. The child’s awareness that

he is a part of the wider community and the consequences

of that fact can be developed via stories. The effects of their

actions on the wider group occurs in many stories, from the

Old Testament through books such as The Wave (Puffin).

Based on an American high school, this short novel for

older juniors shows the ill effects on people who are not

members of the ‘in’ group.

From earlier folklore such as the North American

stories to the recent interest in ecology and the

environment, stories can be used to illustrate our

relationship with the natural world. The concept that

creation is interdependent can be shown with stories such

as The Sea People. Here, the concept of a finite planet is

reflected in the island which is destroyed by over-

exploitation. Mole (Methuen) is another example of how

the human march of ‘progress’ can be disruptive to

animals. Indeed, the Old Testament stories of man as

steward of the world looking after things, contrasts

vividly with what he has done with the world in stories

like Mole or Wilkie’s World (Faber), which show what the

world could be like and what man has made of it.

Determination due to our industrial society is graphically

shown in The Bear Who Wanted to Stay A Bear while the

treatment of animals is sensitively dealt with in Rabbit

Island. Our thoughtlessness towards our environment is

handled well also in Michael — Bird Boy (Picture Lion)

and Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish (Picture Puffin). A

story which reflects on some of the deep truths about

creation and mankind is Michael Foreman’s The Two

Giants (Brockhampton). Some of the truths which are

dealt with in the book of Genesis, and in similar traditional

stories from our faiths and cultures, are presented

here in a way far more likely to capture the interest of

young children than the Bible story of the creation, the

garden of Eden and the fall of man. It provides a good

foundation for a later appreciation of stories of a

mythological character from the great religions.

The deeper concepts concerned with the basic patterns

in religions are perhaps best dealt with in fantasy stories.

Possibly the best known examples of this are the novels

of C S Lewis. Although obvious in their symbolism of

the Christian belief in saviour and resurrection, they

remain classics of their kind. Less obvious perhaps in its

application to RE concepts, but just as well known, is

Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man (Faber). Although first

perceived as an enemy, the Iron Man becomes saviour

of the world. The struggle of good versus evil is reflected

in many stories, for example The Mouse and His Child

(Puffin) which is especially recommended for use with

children. Although very difficult in parts, the concepts

of prophecy and good triumphing over evil are reflected

marvellously in this work. Watership Down (Penguin)

deals with similar concepts, adding a hint of eternal life.

The concept of forgiveness is tackled well in Pinocchio

although possibly in a rather more hidden way. The Wind

in the Willows reflects many of the qualities found in all

these works.

We should not feel worried about using more overt

symbolism in stories, both those from the Bible and

others, for example, The Day It Rained Colours (Lion) in

which the bringer of the colours is obviously the Christ


* Children define ‘good’ in many different ways — the

common denominator seems to be enjoyment.

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