Spiritual and Emotional Literacy

Posted on March 14, 2008 by Amy Tolmie

Spiritual and Emotional Literacy is the ability to reflect upon, explore and express spirituality and emotions.

The aims of the lessons are to…

Increase the vocabulary of feeling words
Be able to describe basic feelings linked with an event or experience
Be able to recognise basic feelings in others
Be able to describe a spiritual experience (real or imagined)
Produce artwork describing a pupil's spiritual side

For the purpose of these lessons, we define spirituality as…

“The nourishment of the inner life of individuals and the school community and the qualities and dispositions that affect how they relate with themselves, others, the world, and (for some) God/Ultimate Being”. (See this booklet from SCAA (now the QCA) with their original information about spirituality in schools).

In our work we find it helpful to look at the four elements of the spiritual: myself, others, the world and God. It helps us explore all the areas through which faith can grow.

Lesson content

The emotion lessons include activities which give young people an experience i.e. hearing a story, seeing something surprising, using the senses, doing a meditation, having empathy for something or someone. We then ask them to reflect on that and learn vocabulary to define those experiences.

The spiritual lessons let them choose experiences from their own life and encourage them to look for spiritual themes within those. I.e. you went to Spain on your holiday and swam in the sea. It made you feel free like no one could get to you, you felt really small like the world and all creation was huge, you wondered where all that water came from, how many other people had swum there and what connected you all. We also use art to help them explore their spiritual side and for some of the best examples of this see Spirited Arts.

Background to SEL

In our work in schools we noticed that young people were living lives that were full of spiritual thoughts, practices and emotions but that they struggled to name these things and therefore communicate them. We began to believe that they would engage more fully with these things if they could explain, relive and reflect upon them.

So we started looking at ways to give young people a spiritual vocabulary and while we were at it we also had been challenged to spread our work across the curriculum and not just stick to RE, PSHE or citizenship. As we were talking about literacy and, at this early stage oracy, English seemed the obvious destination and so the idea for SEL was born.

Struggling for a suitable definition of Spirituality was one of the biggest challenges, as it is a bit like the story of the blind beggars and the elephant, everyone has a different view! Whilst our chosen definition might be rather wordy and too vague for some people, we feel it's suitable to the academic context, allows for multi-faith interpretation and it give us lots of scope to explore what it may mean. These lessons are the very beginning of a spiritual journey for some pupils, and as a bear minimum we want them to learn that spirituality is part of everyone's life and be open to that. We are not looking to define or prescribe what that looks like. We can offer our view, and it is about creating an openness and encouraging the young people to explore for themselves.

Feeding into this was a new drive in our area for schools to think about Emotional Intelligence. Young people and children are under huge pressure to achieve well academically. The sand pit too quickly gives way to SATS papers and the opportunities for children to experience and communicate emotions and learn about relating to others are often missed. As this basic ability is with us for life and largely formed in those early years, there are real worries about the future adults we are generating. This led to the government coming up with the new SEAL initiative 4 years ago. You can read more about that here.

The background to our SEL lessons includes many conversations with people involved in teaching spirituality, those responsible for delivery of the curriculum and those responsible for assessment through Ofsted. Background reading includes Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman; Finding the Words: Spirituality and School Life by Bill Gent of the Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service, found here. This process helped us to define 'spiritual'. The course was a year in research and another in development. We are now testing the second format of lessons and when complete at the end of the summer term, we hope to make the SEL course more widely available.