When I was curate in Northern Ireland, there were five primary schools in which weekly assemblies were to be conducted, but there was a particular school which it was always a joy to visit. In a big Loyalist estate on the edge of the parish, it had once been a much larger school, but with the passing of the years the age profile of the estate had risen and the school had no more than a fraction of its former numbers.
The principal smiled as he gave me a warning on my first visit. “When you ask questions, some of them will raise their hand every time and every time they will answer ‘Jesus’. The logic is that sooner or later they will be right”.
He was right, but it was still fun. The children sat on the floor in a crescent. It seemed sensible to sit on the floor, halfway between the two points of the crescent, to talk to them.
The assembly talks did pay a dividend. Visiting houses in the estate where there were primary school aged children, there would be at least someone who was a friend. Assembly stories would be revisited; sometimes being turned on their head in the children’s retelling of them, but at least there was some communication, at least the church had a face for them.
Sitting on the floor changed the whole dynamic. It only worked in smaller schools, but there was much more interaction. A decade later, at an integrated school in a divided town, it became a learning experience as young people from very diverse backgrounds shared their thoughts. Sometimes comments were not always completely relevant; sometimes people simply wanted to share a piece of news; but being heard in itself is something important.
The memories of the times spent sitting on those floors have remained important. Talking with children, taking seriously what they have to say, is a learning process for both teachers and students.
With the passing of the Covid restrictions, the chance of a senior member of staff wandering into the room at being bemused at the exchanges have increased. The conversations are frequently tangential to the subject content, sometimes incidental.
One morning last week, the Year 7 lesson on the Tripitaka, the Buddhist Scriptures, somehow wandered through such topics as solar eclipses and Henry VIII. Year 7 students are still of an age where they believe teachers are a repository of all knowledge.
Perhaps it is not the content but the nature of the conversations that matter. Perhaps the relationships built in the random conversations will be a foundation for serious engagements when examination material is faced in four years’ time.