Learning to read . . . a church

27 June 2014

Shandy Hall museum, in north Yorkshire, has launched a scheme to encourage primary-school children to explore their local church. Paul Wilkinson reports

SHANDY HALL

Reliving the past: schoolchildren outside St Cuthbert's, Crayke, with the writer John Wedgwood Clarke

Reliving the past: schoolchildren outside St Cuthbert's, Crayke, with the writer John Wedgwood Clarke

ONE dull winter's day at the beginning of this year, Pauline Manfield and her Year 5 and 6 pupils at Crayke C of E Primary School, in north Yorkshire, gathered up some paper and pencils and set off up the hill to their village church.

The plan was to use the lessons they had learned from a visit to another Yorkshire church, St Michael's, in nearby Coxwold. There, they had been taught how to use its 15th-century features as an inspiration for some creative writing, in an Arts Council-backed project, "Reading the Past, Learning the Future".

Mrs Manfield recalled the climb to the equally ancient St Cuthbert's, in Crayke. "Everywhere was all shrouded in thick mist, but as we got to the top, it split. It was really quite atmospheric.

"We started in the churchyard, and thought about what they could see and sense and smell - any-thing that caught their eye. Then they were thinking about similes and metaphors to describe the graveyard-stones standing like soldiers, and so on.

"Next, inside the church, we talked about the stories we could find, and had a go at being a voice from the pulpit, standing there and speaking aloud. They collected lots of ideas."

Back at school they used those ideas, first to create some poetry, then to imagine that they were an object inside the church - the font, the bell, or a pew - and answer questions which allowed them to be the personification of that object.

"They came up with lovely things," Mrs Manfield says. "There was some super writing, which is on display on the church now. One girl, who was 'the font', was asked: 'What day do you remember?' She wrote: 'I remember the day a tramp came in. He washed his hands, and I washed away his hunger.' I went 'Wow!' when she read it. It was a moment that takes you and shakes you.

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"It was very different to our other visits to church - usually for RE and history, or a service. We will certainly be doing it again."


THE scheme Reading the Past was devised Patrick Wildgust, the curator of Shandy Hall, a museum in Coxwold, once the home of the Revd Laurence Sterne, the 18th-century eccentric literary visionary who created the semi-comic character Tristram Shandy, and sometime Vicar of St Michael's.

"If you come to see Shandy Hall, then you need to see the church, too," Mr Wildgust says. "We have large groups of visitors, and this is a small museum; so the church seemed a good place to talk about Sterne.

"And the church itself is so interesting, because it has all these layers of age stacked up. What I wanted to emphasise, especially to teachers, was that churches are very important buildings, because of the amount of information they contain - like in a capsule.

"It's just a question of how you read them, or how you look at them. I especially wanted to get to primary school children. Tristram Shandy is obviously way over their heads, but the church is not.

"For instance, if you wanted to write a story, then the simplest way is just to go down to a churchyard, and there are as many names of characters as you want. Their histories are also there - you just have to start to scrape.

"Sacred buildings are a repository of a community's shared history and culture. Though each might have common features, each will display this universal similarity in its own way. Names on the gravestones will have local significance; fixtures and fittings will often be made by local craftsmen; the stone used for building, and for monuments, may be local stone. Each church is unique and particular to its locality, reinforcing a sense of place and identity.

"I wanted to encourage the idea that churches are under-used educational resources. Sterne was a creative writer - one of the most experimental of creative writers - so it fits in with the museum."


THROUGH the York diocesan advisory committee, Mr Wildgust invited seven primary schools to take part. "They were all chosen as they were in easy reach of Coxwold, so we could take them through what is at St Michael's, and then they could go into their own church. Fundamentally, it was encouraging curiosity."

He called in a set of "experts" - including a mason, a blacksmith, a stained-glass artist, and a historian - to help them look at the church from their specialist points of view. And, with the aid of the National Association of Writers in Education, he commissioned the writer John Wedgwood Clarke to help the children see the church and the work of experts from different angles.

Next, he made short films of the craftsmen in action, which he uploaded to the project's website. "I wanted to create a template for schools, so they can go to their own church and start to mine the information that is there, all year round, and can be seen from a wide, different perspective.

"Instead of the children in a shuffling queue, being forced to go through the rigours of communal worship - which isn't going to set them aflame with interest - they would see their church in a different way.

"To say it was a success is an understatement. The response was quite extraordinary. The way those children explored the churches on every occasion was tremendous; they did it excitedly, and with great interest. . .

"The project is an online resource; so a teacher in, say, Somerset, can look at the website, show the children a film of, say, the blacksmith making a hinge, and see him go to the church and look for signs of his work. Then they can go down to their own village church to see what they can see.

"Its not really looking for something specific, but to focus the lens of their intellect, and start to find things that they didn't even know about. That's where it starts to generate. I have always believed that teaching that age group isn't so much classroom instruction as the way information passes, and skitters around. Children show each other things they have found. . .

"I am not worried that the children won't understand. Their brains are elastic, and like sponges - they take in stuff in a remarkable way."


NIC SPENCER, a Year 5 and 6 teacher at St Peter's C of E Primary School at Brafferton, was full of praise for the scheme. "It was fantastic," she says. "It was just to a whole new level, a deeper experience than we have ever done before. It was the first time we have used the church for creative thinking.

"We use it for religious facts, photography, and illustrations; but I would never have thought of using it as a stimulus for poetry - and it was the best quality poetry I have ever seen. It's truly inspiring; it has absolutely changed the way I thought. And I got the children to see the church from a whole new perspective.

"They did work with the writer on all sorts of experiential things: for example, they stood with their toes on the side of the church wall, and put their chins on the wall, and looked up, and then had to say, if the church was an animal or an insect, what would it be. A whole new poem came from seeing the church as a butterfly or a beetle."

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The project is supported by Arts Council England, which recognises the value of a church as a combined art gallery, museum, and source of culture and local history at the centre of every parish. All places of worship - church, mosque or synagogue - contain art, craftsmanship, architecture, and social history.

The Church of England is keen to develop closer links between schools and their local church. The Revd Nigel Genders, who is head of school policy at the Church of England Education Division, and Deputy General Secretary of the National Society, says: "One of the key recommendations of The Church School of the Future Review was to produce more material and training opportunities for clergy, and all those involved with schools, to enable them to develop church-school links more effectively.

"In developing these materials, which will be available in the autumn, we know that the church offers a rich resource for schools, both practically and pastorally. Schools can use the church building to enrich the whole curriculum, as well as to promote the spiritual development of all children."


DURHAM CATHEDRAL has just launched a full-day course, teaching children about the Christian and heritage aspects of the cathedral, its surrounding woodlands, and the banks of the River Wear.

Pam Stewart, of the cathedral's woodlands and riverbanks team, said: "There are so many areas where we can unite these aspects of the cathedral's life. For example, teaching the children about medieval wall-paintings in the church, and relating that to how plants and berries were used to make paints and dyes; or how trees in the area were vital in transporting the stone for the cathedral pillars."

And the Churches Conservation Trust, which has saved more than 340 redundant ecclesiastical buildings that were at risk, has its own National Plan for Learning. It offers a programme of activities for both schools and families.

Part of the plan is the project Explorer Church Partnership (ECP), which encourages schools to engage with churches in the care of the trust, and develop a greater understanding and appreciation - and even a sense of pride in them.

One of the trust's three recently appointed Heritage Learning Officers, Kelly Powell, said: "One of the main objectives of the ECP has been to demonstrate to schools that historic churches can be used to support almost any topic of study."

She plans to inspire children to create their own stories at the early 18th-century Holy Trinity, Sunderland. "It housed the town's first library in Sunderland, in the 1700s, and was basically a multi-purpose building - even housing council offices. Because of that link with the library, the plan is to turn the church into a centre for storytelling."

And, in Stansted Mountfitchet, in Essex, students are creating a blog about the medieval St Mary the Virgin, which will be used as an online resource for other schools in the area.

www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk/reading-the-past

 

STAINED-GLASS WINDOW

I feel lonely and cold, the light doesn't go through me, it shines on me and that is not what I am made for, so I do not feel like I am me. I do not like the night for I am not myself and can never go to sleep. The owls do not like me because they peck at me.

The man that made me was a scary man with a scary name, with scary tools. This is my second life. One day I was a piece of sand, the next I was a smooth green piece of glass.

The time of year that I love is winter for I love looking through myself and seeing all the people huddle inside the church for warmth. Suddenly all of these small grown-ups run in and say "I want to go in the altar first!" They then come up to me and start writing on these black rectangle things.

I remember the day I was being made and put together and getting lost in a maze of me.

The sun comes over the hill and wakes me up and shines right through me. I wish I could move, not seeing the same sight each day, not seeing the same people all the time, not being able to do anything other than standing still the whole time. Never seeing the sights I've always wanted to see. I want to be a somebody.

Archie, Bafferton Primary School


THE SOUND OF CROWS

I gazed at the mighty mammoth of a church
Running wild from crazy poachers.

I heard tummies roaring likesomeone just pulled
the trigger on a lawn mower.

I glimpsed at vines finding their way out a
grave like a man's shrivelled arm.

I peeked at a hidden door leading into the
mystery of black.

I listened to the wheels winding round and round
on a car on the horizon of my mind.

I questioned the bell whether or not he was scared of
shrieking spirits in the grave yard.

He said the armour of Christianity would guard
his life forever.

I heard screeching from poor
children dead from their childhood.

I asked the bell," Are you annoyed
from pesky flies?"

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He replied, "Not as pesky as you are!"

But the mystery is yet to be solved . . .

Tom, Bafferton Primary School


WHO AM I?

When the lights go out it's dark and foggy. Moonbeams shine through the stained glass and the light falls upon my chest.

The church smell is mustier than an old yew tree burning under the sun, but the bouquet of roses, tulips and daisies smells divine.

I feel colder than the winter sea that is deeper than the coffins outside. My water freezes to a thin crisp of icy crystals.

I was made by a stone carver, who was stronger than a cliff of pure marble.

My favourite time of year is Easter because most citizens get christened.

A tramp came in and washed himself in my holy water. I washed away his hunger, thirst and want.

I remember every baby I christened. Some screamed like a ghost, some kept as quiet as a mouse.

The glorious sun makes me come alive and then I grow arms and legs.

I wish for a new life where I move and am used for royal christenings.

Jasmine, Crayke Primary School

 

I saw a church like a sleeping dragon
I saw graves standing like a new piece of grass
I heard bells ring like birds tweeting
I heard rain dripping from trees like people tapping their foot
I could feel the calm touch of the church as it reached out to me.

Jemima, Crayke Primary School

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