The practice of gathering for chapel forms a regular rhythm of the school chaplain’s work and the community life of Anglican Schools. Much prayerful preparation by the chaplain and others can be affirmed by attendees yet there are other occasions when appreciation seems elusive.
With many families unfamiliar how and why we gather in Anglican Schools today, some may question the place of chapel in the contemporary Anglican School altogether (a question not for this reflection), whilst others will view this time as an educative piece to affirm the sacred DNA of the school. Seeking to understand this long held practice in the life of Anglican schools it is therefore worth asking, ‘How do we know students are engaged in chapel?’
The term engagement is complex and contested. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership acknowledges,
Engagement is a poorly defined concept in education. It is clear, however, that engagement is not simply about good classroom behaviour or attendance, but a connection with learning. The student who is quietly sitting at the back of the classroom not participating in discussions or completing their work is as disengaged as a child who is talking with friends or the child who did not show up at school.
The complexity and contestability of what engagement is, may come as a comfort or challenge to many school chaplains and leaders in Anglicans schools today.
Added to the mix/mess are the multiple lenses of engagement. The AITSL recognises and distinguishes the perspectives of emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement. As educators in Anglican Schools we would also add, for want of a better term, ‘spiritual’ engagement. How each lens is intended in our practice is more tangible than how they are measured. Attempts such as surveys have been used to capture some of the student and staff experience, yet it remains a thin measure. My longitudinal experience is that behavioural engagement is the most discussed or palpable of the engagement lenses, illustrated by commentary about student participation, enjoyment or silent compliance.
Whilst this reflection offers more questions than answers, I wonder how the story of scripture and the lens of theology informs our individual/communal practice and expectations in Anglican Schools.
An interesting image and verb to explore the practice of chapel is ‘cultivating’. To cultivate, in the sphere of agriculture, often cited in scripture, is to intentionally care for something of value over a long period and changing seasons. The Creator in Genesis is revealed as a cultivator who plants (Genesis 2:8) and is remembered in song as the One who continues to cultivate the earth (Psalm 107). His creatures in response are called to cultivate and care for the creation. Jesus himself used the imagery of cultivation in his teaching. A farmer when out to sow some seed (Matthew 13). Such parables not only resonated with his agrarian listeners but also challenged expectations and reimagined the ordinary.
To cultivate well is to be attentive to the change before us in young people, adapt and in most cases frustratingly wait without guarantees. To cultivate well is to recognise a shared interdependence between the field and farmer. Cultivation is also regular, embodied, communal, long term, unfinished and hard work! A lack of regularity with chapels may provide little imagination for cultivation yet regularity without reflection may lead to chapel becoming a tradition without meaning.
Cultivating and consuming
Holding ‘cultivating’ alongside ‘consuming’ is also important or fruitful. Whilst an element of consuming is not particularly unhealthy, a steady diet of consuming in the context of chapel can reduce the attendees to the passive recipients of information, even entertainment. Consuming faithful information may be fruitful overtime but the imagery of cultivating collaboratively may help us to proactively clear the weeds before the seeds are sown. A further danger of just consuming is that it is not a disruptive practice to the trends of Western individualism and a materialistic imagination, fruit may come but it may rot quickly.
Cultivating and curating
Gathering in the school for chapel does have an element of curation. The imagery of curating just like cultivating brings together thoughtful intentionality and facilitation. The curator is not just a passive observer but proactive agent, guiding and redirecting others along the way. The planner of a chapel gathering, like the curator in a gallery, seeks to have three-dimensional people in mind and provides a holistic experience. Curating can carry us forward to enable greater ‘engagement’ yet cultivating deals more astutely with the experience of encountering and adapting to the season(s) of childhood and adolescence as well as the meandering work of faith formation.
Cultivating and concluding
Returning to our initial question, ‘How do we know students are engaged in chapel?’
We can acknowledge with humility that we cannot fully know and engagement is multilayered. We may see some obvious signs (for good or ill), yet we may need to ask a different question, ‘What is the work that I/we are called to do?’. If cultivating? then we will need to sow seeds that will last and seek to adapt as best we are able to our climate, characters and conditions. We can expect fruit (change for the good), yet we must also expect the unexpected and faithfully improvise to the changing seasons.
 http://www.curriculum.edu.au/leader/engagement1,37021.html?issueID=12851 Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, March 2014.