St Francis, a failure and a friendship

We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.

The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.

And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.

So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.

And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.

And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important.  Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.

What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.

And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved.  And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.

And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.

But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.

And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.

And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.

Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.

Sources

www.darvish.wordpress.com

www.aleteia.org

 

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A Saintly Request!!!

A special request! In the past I have written stories for school assemblies, simple versions to tell aloud. Quite a few of those stories figure saints – St Werberga (One of my geese is missing!) St Bridget, St Columba. These feature together with traditional folk stories and other faith stories in a book I published with TTS called Character Strength Assemblies https://www.tts-group.co.uk/assemblies-for-cha…/1009310.html

I would LOVE to write a similar book that collects together saints from different traditions and, for that matter, secular saints. Saints have BIG characters and are great for children to know about and think about. Could anybody, especially those from other faith traditions, help me out here with ideas for who to include and some stories???

New book chapter

I am very pleased to say that I have just had a chapter published in this new book on positive psychology. It is co-written with Judith Gray, formerly head of Frodingham Infants and details the work we did together on Celebrating Strengths.

Celebrating Strengths combined ideas from positive psychology with psychodynamic theory and theology and philosophy to create what I think was a unique educational philosophy and approach to school life – and Judith was an important part of that process.

Character strengths and virtues in education – how and why?

In my latest video I talk about how and why you might want to introduce character strengths and virtues in education. There are three main reasons – to help to manage or contain anxiety, to build relationships and to help teachers and students alike to stay hopeful. And I break all the good rules of talks by adding a fourth reason – it gives us a language to discuss – not to impose – ideas of right and wrong and what constitutes a good life.

Well-being in education – character strengths and virtues

The importance of joy and pleasure in education

Today, I have been working on my PhD. And as a result of my reading and writing today, what is uppermost in my mind is the importance of pleasure – the simple pleasures of teaching, learning, writing, researching – and just living. I feel that pleasure in learning, what Simone Weil called ‘joy in the work’ is in danger of being eclipsed in all the talk of targets, improvements, standards etc.

Weil wrote that the intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. If she is right and I think she is, then much of what happens in schools today is not about growing intelligence. If teachers feel no joy in teaching, children are unlikely to feel much joy in learning, and if children don’t feel that joy in learning, that thrill of discovery, that freedom to try and to fail and try again, they will want to leave education as quickly as possible instead of seeing learning as a delight to pursue throughout their lives.

And today, I have felt joy. Joy in standing at my desk (I stand to work, sit down to rest); joy in reviewing the videos of my conversations with colleagues and pupils. Joy in the fact that I have the time and the energy and the mental space to write a PhD. Joy in the sunshine of a spring day in my study.

Interestingly, this joy does not preclude struggle or discomfort. I struggle to express my ideas clearly, feel anxiety about whether my work is of the required standard, get frustrated at trying to sort out a muddle of an over-long chapter into two tight, well-argued and interesting ones. There is dis-comfort in learning, too and it can sit, strangely enough, alongside the joy, even deepening it.

And what about the simple joys of standing, sitting, breathing, looking that my training as an Alexander Technique teacher has opened my eyes to? Those are there in the classroom too – but mostly, we’re too worried about targets and goals to notice. And that seems really rather sad. So now, I will end a day’s reflections with the joy of a walk in the sunshine. And, if you read this, I wish you a drop of joy too.

Weil, Simone. (1959) Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God London: Fontana Books

 

Character strengths in action: Using your whole body to tell a story

You can, and I do, often use simple props to tell a story. You can also use your body. A mixture of tai chi moves, with signs from British Sign Language help me, as the storyteller, to embody the story. Because I am using my whole body, I am fully present, aware of where I am, my audience and my whole self as I tell the story. It is less a cognitive and verbal activity, than a way of inhabiting the story and drawing my listeners into the story with me.

I demonstrate this method of storytelling here

A retelling of Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom, using BSL signs and tai chi moves to enhance the storytelling

As well as the character strength of #wisdom, students see many other strengths in this story, including #humour, #persistence, #teamwork and #spirituality.

Here’s a picture from Frodingham Infants that is based on the story,

Frodingham Infant School Scunthorpe UK

 

I hope you enjoy it 🙂

 

Three ways to develop character strengths and promote educational well-being

In these blogs and the videos that accompany them I am sharing with you what I have learned from 12 years of working in schools supporting the well-being of teachers and students.

The blogs and videos are meant either as a stand alone training resource or as a supplement to my published resources and my story videos.

In an earlier film, I talked about how I have put stories and storytelling at the heart of my well-being work in schools – precisely because a good story well told promotes the well-being of both teachers and students, An introduction to my well-being in education videos.

Now I want to talk about another theme, that of paying attention to character strengths and virtues.

I first came across the idea of character strengths in the work of Martin Seligman and the VIA or Values in Action character strengths and virtues. You can find more about this approach at the VIA Institute .

Of course the association of character strengths with education is much older and dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle linked happiness with the use of character strengths and virtues. And he said that children learn about qualities like courage and honesty in three ways

  1. seeing them used by role models
  2. thinking and reasoning about them
  3. using them for themselves

So we learn what courage is by being brave.

In my work, I’ve tried to draw on those three ways of learning.

Firstly, I’ve encouraged teachers to tell stories that show characters or historical figures using – or failing to use – qualities like love or friendship or enthusiasm. I might tell a story like Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom or Where is the Moon or the Three Little Pigs and then ask, what strengths did you see in that story? Where? I might also ask, were there character strengths that SHOULD have been used but weren’t?

In this way, children and teachers engage in a thoughtful – and educational activity – and at the same time begin to build up a picture of what the strengths look like in action and to listen for, look for the strengths, to spot them both in stories and then in other people and finally in themselves. Using character strengths for yourself, seeing them in others, thinking about them, builds positive relationships in the classroom and creates an atmosphere that enhances learning and supports well-being.

To develop Aristotle’s idea that we learn about character strengths and virtues through reason, I have used Philosophy for Children or P4C and taken either a story or a single word like creativity or courage as a stimulus for discussion. If you don’t know about philosophy for children there are resources and training available and the more I use it the more powerful a teaching tool I think it is. Again, a philosophy session is a very educational activity – we’re not trying to be therapists, we are encouraging intellectual rigour, depth of thinking and discussion. At the same time you as a class are building your understanding of what a particular character strength means in this group and in this community, now. It’s not what the ‘experts’ say about courage that really matters – it’s what it means in your school, your family, now that is important.

Finally, the third way of learning about character strengths that I have used in education is to create a concept of Strengths Builders – ideas and classroom exercises that deliberately set out to let you use and therefore build a particular strength. So, for example, if you want to focus on building the strength of curiosity for yourself or your class, you might set a challenge trying a single new food you have never tasted in the week ahead, or of watching a television programme or film you haven’t seen before – or of reading and even learning by heart a poem by a poet you have never read. You set out deliberately to pay attention to – and build – a particular strength. Then, if everyone in the class has done this activity – you can share and reflect on your experiences.

The shared experience – and the way that you are all paying attention to the same thing – curiosity – is part of what builds community. I will say more about community building in a future video.

If you want lots of ideas for building character strengths you can find them in my Character Strengths Ideas Box Character Strengths Ideas Box or in Character Strengths for Circle Time.

 

character strengths activity box tts

You can find a high school programme that contains strengths builders for all the VIA Strengths here Strengths Gym – a high school programme of strengths builders and stories for 11 to 14 years

Equally, you can think up your own.

Have fun.

Stories and storytelling for teacher and student well-being

Educational well-being – practical ideas for supporting teacher and student well-being

1. Stories and storytelling for teacher and student well-being

This is the first in a series of blogs and videos which are intended to share with you the fruits of 12 years of working to support teacher and student well-being in education – through a focus on character strengths and virtues, stories and storytelling and the creation and celebration of rhythm and traditions in the classroom.

I will be telling my stories and sharing ideas and suggestions. If you enjoy these resources, please let me know!

The first of a number of films will follow shortly 🙂

Why become a storyteller?

Storytelling is an ancient and highly effective teaching technique and ANYONE can learn to tell stories. The world’s greatest teachers all told stories to convey their essential messages. Storytelling engages the whole selfthe emotional as well as the rational self – even the physical self (a good story gives us ‘goose bumps’ or makes us shiver), so stories are far more memorable than a series of statements or a list of facts. Telling stories allows us to make an emotional connection with our audience because storytelling is mind to mind, face to face and heart to heart.

Psychologist Dan McAdams says ‘We are all tellers of tales…each of us comes to know who he or she is by creating a heroic story of the self’, (McAdams, 1993, p. 11). Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, says that ‘the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues’ and that without stories, children are ‘unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words’ (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 216). Bettelheim regarded fairy tales as essential to children’s healthy emotional development, (Bettelheim, 1976).

Storytelling allows a teacher to be playful, to model creativity for their pupils, to nurture them and introduce them to the stories of their own culture and those of others. It is an opportunity for a teacher to show their pupils something of their authentic self.

Storytelling is perhaps our oldest art form and has been used in all societies to pass on values and wisdom to the next generation. Children never forget a teacher who tells them stories. The stories you tell children are the most lasting gift you will ever give as a teacher.

Storytelling stimulates the imagination more than the reading of books or the watching of films – because it leaves more for the child to fill in. Stories that are told are remembered better than those that are read aloud. This is probably due to a combination of their greater emotional impact and the fact that oral stories tend to be shorter and use strategies to engage memory – rhyme, rhythm and repetition.

Storytelling helps children become comfortable with silence and stillness.

Telling stories increases your own ability to hold children’s attention and enhances your creativity.

Finally, storytelling is immensely enjoyable – for the storyteller!

How to get going as a storyteller

First, tell stories you love. Your enthusiasm and pleasure in the story is mostly what children will remember. The fact that you tell it with passion is much more important than how fluent or skilful you are.

So, start either with a favourite story of your own or choose one from my published resources. The ones in my books are already written very simply, and are designed to be told aloud. Read them through a few times then put the book down and practice in a room, all by yourself. Practice IS important.

PS00511_small

In particular, make sure you know the first and last line by heart. This is important. Then, learn by heart any memorable phrases that are repeated through the story. There are usually a few of these.

Then, let the children know you have never told this story, or even told any story before. This gets them on your side. Then, have a go. And remember, Rule 1 of storytelling: Enjoy it.

Don’t worry if you miss bits out, slip up on words, get stuck and have to start again. Storytelling is a skill, you get better with practice.

If you want to tell a particular story that is not available in the TTS resources, find a few versions in books or on the internet and read them all through. Then put them all away and write your own version as simply as possible.

Rule 2 of storytelling: Keep it Simple.

A good template for creating a good story to tell aloud is The Three Little Pigs. Simple structure, memorable phrases with alliteration, lots of repetition. Most people could tell this story with no practice at all. It is a really good example of a memorable, oral story. All the stories I write to be told aloud are really The Three Little Pigs in disguise!

Rule 3 of storytelling:  If you can see it in your imagination, your listeners will see it in theirs.

When you tell the story, make sure you are seeing it in your mind’s eye. Picture it as clearly as you can.

Rule 4 of storytelling:  Tell the Same Story As Often as Possible.

Tell the story again as soon as possible, either to your class or to another class. In the Waldorf education system in Scandinavia children hear the same story told every evening, by firelight, throughout the week. This allows them to get to know the story really well and for the teacher to get to know it too, so that it really enters their repertoire. And children enjoy repetition – look at how often they watch a favourite DVD or play a favourite game. Novelty is good – so is repetition and familiarity.

When to tell stories

Storytelling has an obvious association with literacy and with speaking and listening. However, you can tell stories in any subject discipline. I knew a maths advisor once who used The Three Billy Goats Gruff to great effect to help teach measurement. She took the class outside to take little steps across the ‘bridge’, counting how many were needed to get across; then they took bigger steps and counted how many of those were needed and so on. She used Coronation Street, Brookside and East Enders to teach place value to high school students, too.

So, don’t feel limited to literacy lessons to tell stories. And don’t forget that older students like stories, too.

My retelling of a traditional Lincolnshire story, Where is the Moon?