Annabel

Aug 272013
 

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How would you feel if a complete stranger had a photograph of you on their fridge? Your hair a mess at the end of a tiring day, caught at an unflattering angle in your oldest clothes, damp and sweaty, longing for a shower.

You might feel that your soul had been stolen – plenty of people see cameras as frightening, not just annoying – or you might just be furious that your privacy had been violated by someone who doesn’t even know your name. A few years ago a group of young Chinese men surrounded me at a tourist spot in northern India, friendly, laughing, snapping away. I asked them to stop, but they didn’t. A tiny window into the lives of those whose faces pop up as screen savers the world over.

It can be tempting just to snap away vaguely, presuming it does no harm, but a quick walk round the block in someone else’s shoes provides a sharp reminder that it does. Many people who go on slum or township tours equate the experience to a trip to the zoo.

Enough.

Clicking the shutter should be the last thing you do.

Why are you taking the picture anyway? What will you use it for?

Now we don’t have to load film, check it’s caught, wind on, keep it in a dark place, make sure it’s developed safely and hope, pray we got the shot we saw. We’re digital, we’re point and shoot, we can take thousands of frames at no extra cost.

Yet it’s no coincidence that most photographers who have worked for long periods in war zones, disaster zones and among the desperately poor, are haunted. One ex-Sunday Times reporter told me he could not longer take those pictures after his first child was born.

You want to show people what you saw, but don’t give up on words. I won’t forget watching a student tell a friend about her day at a school in a South African township. Her voice became soft and tears came to her eyes as she realised that the children she was describing were far too small for their age because they had never had enough to eat. Talking forces us to engage; photography can let us off the hook.

Use the power of your camera wisely. Access to the lives of others is a privilege, so bring both good intentions and a critical mind.

Don’t forget to capture details, insights on the condition of people’s lives. Look for the things you can’t see. A near-empty drugs cupboard in a hospital can tell you far more than a picture of someone dying, and doesn’t compromise anyone’s dignity. Heads bent over a shared textbook, an unnecessary flower garden, feet in new shoes.

Seek out contrasts, juxtapositions that illuminate. Ordinary objects that tell stories.

Talk to people. Introduce yourself. Ask.

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Sometimes people say no. Perhaps one of their friends, or someone nearby will say yes. Take the photo. Show them. Do it carefully, move to catch the light and their best angle. Many people have never seen a photograph of themselves. Don’t start if you don’t have time to finish.

Last January I was in Tamale, northern Ghana. I walked through the market with a local guide. He knew everyone, they catcalled as we went past. With his permission I took shots of the market, a riot of colour and activity. But I wanted the women. So I asked. Some said no. Some said yes. I started taking pictures and when I had a good one, I showed them. They were delighted. They were beautiful, astonishingly beautiful. Those who had said no, now fought to be next in line. We laughed, I teased them, they teased me, we had fun.

I took their names and asked permission to use the photos. Although I had showed everyone their pictures, I couldn’t give them copies. I promised I would send them, and I did. I don’t know if they arrived. If I could have done I would have printed them on the spot. We lost something very precious with the demise of the polaroid. I was converted after a trip to a remote part of Madagascar in the mid 90s by friends who insisted on taking and giving people their photographs. I had been completely against the idea. I could not have been more wrong. What could be more precious than a picture of your family?

Don’t underestimate the power of photography. In thoughtful hands a camera shrinks space, connects strangers and illuminates lives. In thoughtless hands it snatches and grabs, hits and runs, confirms stereotypes. Used to tell stories it is still the magic lantern that captivated our forefathers and made us leave home in the first place.

* See Susan Sontag’s 1977 book of the same name, and her later Regarding the Pain of Others. Also The Bang Bang Club and Ken Light’s Witness in our Time

May 192013
 


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Within 48 hours of arriving in Guatemala I had learned more about justice, genocide and journalism than all my English education had taught me. You bet I was cheering last week when the former dictator was jailed for 80 years.

There was chaos in Guatemala City when I landed in July 2003 – streets crowded with demonstrators and traffic at a standstill. The radio in my hotel told me the crowds were supporters of Efrain Rios Montt – former President, military dictator and commander of the government forces responsible for the worst excesses of Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war.

What? A man accused of genocide – why would anyone want him back?

Heading out of town I saw posters, slogans and flags of rival political parties festooned across streets and painted on the road. Buses roared past on their way to the city to register candidates for the upcoming local elections. Perhaps the same buses that had carried the angry mobs into the capital the day before?

In 2003 Guatemala was still off the main tourist track. Guide books made scant mention of the civil war and few people strayed into the indigenous communities that were targeted in the genocide. My guide Ruben showed me things I would have missed, like the small crosses scattered across the cemetery, marking the civil war graves. Many more bodies lay in unmarked mass graves, their location still secret 10 years after the end of war.

I asked Ruben if the war had been in his village. He said yes: his people had supported the rebels and so US-backed government forces had moved in with helicopters and small planes and carried out a scorched earth campaign. Unable to defeat the rebels, the army simply targeted the communities that sustained them. Witness testimonies record villagers being terrorized, raped, tortured and killed indiscriminately.

He came home from school one day to see a truck full of boys from his village being taken away. He ran. His friends were forced to join the army and become executioners of their own people.

When the peace accords were signed in 1994 two international commissions were established to investigate the truth of the struggle between successive military regimes and leftist guerillas. Both reports held government forces responsible for over 89% of the 200,000 deaths and 45,000 disappearances.

In 2003 the generals were still in prison, but not for much longer. I arrived just as many peoples’ worst fears seemed to be being realized and the past, in the form of Rios Montt, looked set to return.

When I asked Ruben about the demonstration in the capital he smiled patiently. They were paid. Most of the demonstrators did not even know why they were there. It was true, though, that in many rural areas, including those where the terror had been worst, Montt was the candidate of choice.

His political party, the Columbian drug cartel-funded FRG, was the only one that identified with the poor. Eight million Guatemalans lived in the countryside, 60% below the poverty line. Widespread illiteracy, no media and an almost passionate determination to bury the past meant that most people knew nothing of Montt’s history. What they did know was that he promised cheap fertiliser, free health care, new schools and land reform. None of the other parties even pretended to care about the poor. Of course the stakes were lower for them – without Presidential immunity, Montt knew that his crimes would catch up with him. As they did, last week.

I saw the poverty. Six and seven year old boys in orange wigs and face paint juggling fruit at intersections in hope of winning a few quetzales from hard-faced motorists who wound up their windows against them. Tiny children who made toys out of garbage; teenagers who risked their lives taking dares from passers-by. There were 6,000 children living on the streets of the capital in 2003 and persistent rumours that private security groups were hired to shoot them because they were bad for business.

I never ‘did’ Latin America, presumably because it was never ‘ours’. When I left school I could not even have found Guatemala on the map. Without time on the ground, Ruben, the writings of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu and considerable research I would still have no idea why last week’s verdict was historic and monumental.

I also never once considered that the BBC could simply be wrong.

Feb 242013
 

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What motivates young people to learn?

Fun? Imagination? Fear of the future without a college education?
If you ask them, they will tell you that you can teach them anything if you make it matter to them.

The easiest way is to make it about them. Nearly 20 years ago, when I took over the History Department of a Nairobi School, the most successful thing I did was to introduce a family tree project.

I had Kikuyu students in my classroom, and Luo and Kalenjin and several born in Britain as well as five or six born in Nairobi but with parents or grandparents born in the Indian Subcontinent. Computers barely existed, so all information was gathered by talking to family members, either in person or on the phone, waiting for visits or even writing letters. Everyone had to keep notes and start drawing their tree – and as they grew, the trees became collages, with stories and even artefacts stuck on: a coin, a bead, a piece of cloth, a photograph.

My students held court, sharing their research and findings, feeling the thrill of an attentive audience. They were the experts on their own lives, and they loved it (a lot more than Napoleon, who they’d done the previous term).

Of course you can’t design thirteen or fourteen years of curriculum around ‘Me’ – at least not without creating a generation of narcissistic monsters. But taking time to relate distant or abstract material to those in the room, and finding ways to engage heart and emotions as well as head, makes excellent educational sense.

This is one area where education can learn from the non-profit sector which has long understood that you engage people by creating proximity. It’s hard to care about people of whom we know nothing in a faraway country; the trick is to tell stories to bring them closer, to show the similarities between their lives and ours, to help us understand how it might feel to be them. To make it more real.

Carl Jung wrote that people cannot stand too much reality, but I disagree: in my experience, teenagers gobble it up. It brings out the best in them, differentiating them as individuals with both abilities and passions.

2 years ago Mayor of London Boris Johnson and I both hit on the idea of a London Curriculum (although I’m pretty sure I thought of it first.) I based mine on an experimental class I’d taught a few years before in the US that used our local city as a classroom.  Part of my inspiration also came from CITYTerm, a brilliant programme run out of the Masters School, which uses New York City as a classroom and laboratory. In both cases the approach was project-based and relied on collaboration with experts from the city – architects, engineers, poets, social workers and entrepreneurs.

It can come as something of a shock to learn what’s on your doorstep: the things that are closest to us exert huge influence, yet we seldom look at them carefully, let alone understand them.

The nearly 4 million people who have seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story will also have heard her descriptions of growing up on a Nigerian university campus reading British and American children’s books. She loved those books, but because of them, the first stories she wrote featured characters with white skin and blue eyes, who played in the snow and ate apples. Only later did she realise that people who looked and thought like her could be in books too.

In January I met Deborah Ahenkorah, Ghanaian Echoing Green Fellow and founder of the Golden Baobab Prize for African literature for children and young adults. She created the prize because

“the tremendous lack of good quality African children’s literature dawned on me. A continent so large and richly diverse has tons of wonderful stories to share with young people everywhere: where were these stories?”

Last year they had more than 400 entries from 25 African countries. They also run workshops for writers and illustrators, and have plans to establish distribution channels across the continent to ensure that African books reach African children in their schools and, at last, in their own homes.

And it’s not just African children on the continent who need stories about themselves. There are millions of children of African heritage in the diaspora who never read stories that connect them with their own identities either. For stories cross continents too. Last month in Ghana I visited the slave castles of the Gold Coast and saw the door of no return through which millions of men, women and children left, many of whom ended their days in Jamaica. With over 200,000 Ghanaians and 250,000 Jamaicans in London, shouldn’t these stories be told in British schools too?

Who else is in our classrooms? Are we telling their stories?

Growing up is an identity project, and if we want to engage young people, we need to show them that school is the place to learn about the things they care about. We do that best by nurturing schools’ most valuable secret weapons – infectiously enthusiastic teachers. They are an endangered species now, killed by the growing exam culture and an obsession with cookie-cutter, lockstep learning, but they are still there. Let’s hope that those who have been taught by them will realise that it is loving learning that matters most, and the freedom to explore who you are and how you will take your place in the world.

Feb 112013
 
The great great aunts

The great great aunts

Last week I was privileged to be the keynote speaker at Global Issues Day at Ursuline Academy of Dallas. It’s a wonderful school and my audience was both fiercely well-informed and completely engaged. They asked fantastic questions.

I took as my text the words of Secretary of State Anthony Lake to the head of Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges in the first weeks of the Rwandan genocide: She asked why he wasn’t doing more. He replied, “You have to make more noise.” 

She asked why he wasn’t doing more. He replied You have to make more noise.

Making noise is one of the most important jobs human beings have. For democracy to function, for change to happen, for the rights of the weak and of minorities to be protected and for the preservation of those things that have no voice – those of us who can, must shout. We must drown out the sound of vested interests and entrenched hierarchies, of the profit motive and of fear of the unknown.

I showed a photograph of my great great aunts. There were five of them, and they had 2 brothers. One of the boys, my great great grandfather, was an alcoholic. The other was epileptic, which in those days meant he was unable to function independently. Both had the right to vote.

Their sisters, on the other hand, were extremely well educated, well travelled and bold. One went to Bogota, another introduced the Montessori system into Australia and taught the governor’s daughter; another was Matron of the Royal Free Hospital, and another the headmistress of a London school. None had the right to vote.

What did they do about their voicelessness? They became suffragettes. Not the chaining yourself to railings, starving yourself in prison and throwing yourself under the king’s racehorse sort, but the making mountains of Turkish delight and coconut ice to sell at fetes sort, the marching through the streets wearing the purple, green and white sash sort, the making public speeches and rallying the troops sort. They were part of the no- longer quiet majority who gave one another the courage to keep singing when society condemned them as monsters.

And as Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the bravest of the Suffragette leaders said

You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under. 

You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under

In 1994 as the killing in Rwanda escalated, we didn’t raise our voices because we didn’t know anything was happening. We rely on the press to tell us these things, and they didn’t. Perhaps they thought we didn’t want to know: it was too far away, too complicated. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves. As a result, thousands of us who might have jumped to our feet and started to shout, didn’t. And nearly a million men, women and children died.

Citizen journalists are beginning to change the story, as are outstanding news organisations like the Pulitzer Center, which funds journalists all over the world to tell untold stories. But so too is something else:

School.

At last young people are being educated to know about the world; to find their passions, to understand who they are and what they care about. They are being taught  to ask questions, to find out for themselves and not to take no for an answer. They have powerful role models from all over the world, opportunities to see for themselves, and real experience of what they can achieve if they choose to.

Ursuline girls were among the millions of young people who rose to the challenge of Kony 2012. They raised tens of thousands of dollars and sent 2 students to Uganda to see how it was spent. I spoke to one of those girls, and her eyes shone. She couldn’t wait to go to college and then, maybe, back to Uganda one day.

To the rest I said this: The luckiest people in the world are those who have something they care about. School is the place to start looking. When you’ve found it, fight for it. And make lots and lots of noise.

Sep 062012
 

 

I started seeing invisible people when I lived in Philadelphia, after my first visit to a homeless shelter. An old man with a shopping cart; a woman with her possessions in bulging plastic bags; the people-shaped bundles under bridges. It reminded me of the time I tried on a friend’s glasses and first saw the leaves on trees.

I had another shock 2 years later when I ran a community-based program in Cape Town. I thought I knew a good deal about the townships, having spent some considerable time working with community leaders. But nothing prepared me for visiting a hostel where families rented not rooms, but walls. 1 room 4 families, bunk beds on all sides, belongings, or a child, underneath, clothes hanging from the bedposts. In one room a single woman forced to wake and wash at 3 am if she was to have any privacy.

Last year in London I had my English eye-opening. Guides from Unseen London took a group of my students and I on walking tours around the city. They had all slept rough – they showed us where, as well as telling us where to find the only free toilets (in Covent Garden) or a free cup of tea and a sandwich. They showed us the places where you could find a warm grating in winter or shelter from the rain, although most had recently been closed off or locked. I complimented one guide on her highly detailed knowledge of the city. “And I’m a History teacher” I said. She beamed back “so was my mum.”

Like the transparent overlays that transform the ruins of ancient Rome into the great city it once was, there’s a whole missing dimension to our cities.

Without realising, we have all become partially sighted; without intentional programs and lots of practice there is a real danger that this may become a progressive condition

Without realising, we have all become partially sighted; without intentional programs and lots of practice there is a real danger that this may be a progressive condition. To combat this, we have to show young people how to look and to listen; to see what’s under their noses, to make sense of the quiet voices it’s so easy to miss. We need to bring that lens into the classroom, and with it reality, and some pretty big surprises.

There are lots of ways you can do this, but here’s one: Community Mapping

2 years ago I collaborated with an amazing English teacher to design a Service Learning program. Ours had a Human Rights theme, but it would have worked equally well focused on people with disabilities, the elderly or refugees. These are all sensitive issues; the trick is to give them a human face.  Our inspiration was a highly-detailed map of our local community, produced by the UK Ordnance Survey, which also has a fantastic Digimapping package for schools.

Each Year 8 / 7th Grade class had a map, and a set of pins. The project began with lessons on human rights, looking at the Universal Declaration and all the laws that require governments to act (the UDHR doesn’t.) They also studied definitions of Poverty, widely agreed to be the greatest human rights violation in the world today.

That done, their first task was to find and mark on the map every organisation that worked towards fulfilling people’s rights: doctors and hospitals, schools, churches, a homeless shelter, the police station, a library and a community centre. I’d established community partnerships with many of them the year before, so this was a powerful way to strengthen and extend those partnerships.

The next task was to divide the list up and research each one. For each organisation they identified a leader and made a note of their contact information. As a class, they drafted a letter inviting all the leaders to come to school to be interviewed – on a day we called Write on Rights Day.

The venue for the work now switched from advisory / tutor / form time, to English class. The English teachers launched a journalism unit, with a particular focus on interviews. They studied examples, looked at the most successful techniques for extracting information and opinion, and started practising. In small groups they began deciding the best questions to ask each of the community leaders.

Invitations were emailed out and replies came in. A Friday afternoon was chosen and several parents roped in to bake cakes and man the teapots. Posters went up around school to let everyone know what was happening.

18 local community activists and leaders were interviewed that day – not only one of the most powerful and inspiring collections of role models you could imagine, but also a masterclass in leadership. Student photographers were hard at work. Detailed notes were taken, and for the next few weeks students worked on their articles. Once edited and peer reviewed they were gathered together and indexed. A small group of students then put in a grant application to the parent association, and a month or so later they got approval: the manuscript was sent to a local printer. Copies of the book were delivered to all the community partners.

One boy talked to a student from the neighbouring school about what it was like being in a school with lots of refugees:

“I learned a label can mean a lot of different things.  The word refugee is more complicated than just something like illegal immigrants. A student I talked to was a refugee from Kosovo and all these years later, he’s just a normal kid going to school.” 

A student I talked to was a refugee from Kosovo and all these years later, he’s just a normal kid going to school

Far from a grim responsibility, this work is a gift. I’ve yet to meet a young person who couldn’t be drawn in, their curiosity piqued by the mystery of the unknown, their brains and hearts engaged by the stories they uncover. They don’t even notice that they’re collaborating, problem-solving, thinking critically and analytically, being creative, storytelling and developing their communication skills..

Learning to see, hear and acknowledge one another is a fundamental part of being human. It’s also really interesting. As one student wrote: “The way I see the local community changed a lot.  I never thought that there were people living so close to my house that needed so much help.”
Aug 072012
 

Being in southern Africa has given me a new perspective on the debate over technology and education.

We shrink distance and build empathy by storytelling. Empathy, as Gloria Steinem once said, is the most revolutionary of emotions.

In the Global North, apart from a polite conversation in the New York Times and the Guardian, it has become a generally accepted truth that money spent on technology is money well spent. The stuff’s cool, the kids seem happy and anyway, who has time to talk? Laptop programs are being replaced by iPad programs and Salman Khan is a household name. If your kid’s classroom isn’t flipped, you’re probably a bad parent.

Recently, though, some murmurs of concern have bubbled up: does filling classrooms with computers actually increase the quality of education? One upside of devastating budgets cuts is that calls for proof that money delivers impact are getting louder. Most people are well-equipped to join the debate, voice their opinions and vote. We might also consider asking the children: a recent student newspaper at a wealthy London school carried an article begging teachers to stop spending money on technology, not least because the boys’ locker rooms were full of discarded interactive white boards.

In the Global South, however, many parents, teachers and learners are having these decisions made for them. Governments are eager to bridge the digital divide, while well-intentioned donors and foundations are tripping over in their haste to wire up classrooms and get everyone online: it’s physical, impressive and has great ‘before and after’ appeal.

But does technology increase learning? Not if:

• Power is unpredictable, bandwidth limited and download speed snail-like

• Computers are regularly stolen

• There aren’t enough qualified IT teachers or money for training

• Nobody knows which websites or software to use

• Computers break or do weird things that can’t be fixed

• Computers can’t be upgraded regularly, virus-protected and maintained

• The are no projectors or printers.

So what then should tax and donor dollars be spent on in the Global South?

Unless you have a transcendent skill the chances are that it is your personality and your people and communication skills that will play the greatest single part in determining your future success

People.

In the North too.

Here’s why:

Unless you have a transcendent skill – art, entrepreneurship, languages – the chances are that it is your personality and your people and communication skills that will play the greatest single part in determining your future success. Teachers see this every day. They also help young people develop their identity, their confidence and their mastery of how to move through the world. They act as mentors, guides and role models. Technology does not.

Technology distances people and prevents them from connecting and learning from one another. Of course it facilitates some kinds of connection, but not the kind we need most.

At one of the UK’s outstanding state (public) schools, all non-core curricular teaching time has been filled with a school-designed relationship curriculum. Many young people, particularly those from complicated, traumatised or deprived backgrounds, haven’t been shown how to form relationships – with one another, authority figures, their parents or siblings.

Whilst online bullying, sexting, inappropriate contact by predatory adults and young people intentionally or unintentionally witnessing hardcore pornography are clearly problems, so too is the fact that we just don’t talk anymore.

One more thing: whilst technology can certainly be engaging, recent research has found that a new digital divide is opening up, as children from lower income families increasingly use it for ‘time-wasting’ – games, social networking and watching videos.

One of the Global South’s great advantages is that it can leapfrog the North’s mistakes. If it’s too soon to see what those mistakes might be, then it’s too soon to make significant investments.

One of the Global South’s great advantages is that it can leapfrog the North’s mistakes. If it’s too soon to see what those mistakes might be, then it’s too soon to make significant investments.

So what do we spend those donor dollars on?

Identifying future teachers, school leaders, governors and trustees and giving them the best training and support we can:

• Supporting them through college

• Pairing them with mentors and master teachers

• Providing clear job descriptions, regular evaluation and professional development

• Paying them reliable and reasonable wages; creating structured and secure careers

• Equipping classrooms with basic supplies

• Giving all school communities access to a library

• Guaranteeing every child access to safe bathrooms

• Ensuring that all students have at least one meal a day at school, uniforms, including shoes, bus fare and textbooks.

 I felt pretty strongly about this, but thought I’d just check with a couple of experts. Since I’m here at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, I asked 2 of their most recent graduates:

I is from Ghana, where her brother is a teacher. Every day he has to cross a river to get to his school but many of his students will not be there, because there is work at the plantations. Like many of his colleagues he is demoralised and badly paid and has little hope of things getting better.

F is from Mali. There are not enough schools in the region she comes from, so she is going to start one. She already has backing from a powerful set of supporters, who were no doubt as impressed as I when they learned that 2 years ago she spoke no English.

For both girls, technology is a low priority.

Finally, the front page of one of last week’s newspapers carried the headline ‘IOUs Instead of Cash Stun Teachers’. Their pensions were raided for wages, but now neither are being paid. Inside was the separate story of a recently discovered cache of textbooks, destroyed and abandoned, never delivered to schools.

So teachers first. When the fundamentals are in place, by all means bring in the technology: train the teachers, invest in maintenance and let technology’s magic work. But don’t forget that before we had technology we had imagination, and one another. We can’t afford to lose either.

Jun 302012
 

School trips are often memorable for the wrong reasons, but sometimes chance encounters bring lessons that could never be learned in a classroom.

History is full of wars. Sometimes I felt that I dispatched thousands to their deaths before break, then thousands more after lunch. I used poetry, photographs, music and diaries to try to bring soldiers to life, but as my students continued to write sentences such as “unfortunately 6 million people died” I knew I’d failed.

I had no experience of war, but I had studied many. The first World War always seemed different. My grandfather fought first to last but never spoke of it, instead bringing home a puppy from one of the smashed French farms, a tiny creature forced to stand symbol for all that could not be said. My father used to tell me about walking past the Star and Garter Home in Richmond as a boy, and seeing the old soldiers, many of them in their twenties and thirties, staring and gently rocking.

When my father died, it was the First World War I couldn’t teach: weeks later I was unable to speak of the futile deaths and wasted lives without facing the window, tears running down my face. There was something utter about the loss of humanity that allowed that pointless war to continue. I am not saying that it was a worse war than the Second World War, or any subsequent or previous wars, but for me, blessed with the infinite privilege of not having lived through one in my country, it was the war that taught me about war.

In fact it was a school trip to the war graves that taught me what even the best book could not, and taught my students too.

July, skylarks, a perfect, timeless summer day. We set off from London early, by bus and channel tunnel, my mind on lunches, lists and toilets. We took all of Year 11 who had ‘done’ the war, but were mostly excited by a day off school. Our first stop was the cemetery at Tyne Cot, Belgium, close to where the three battles of Ypres had been fought.

The visitor centre was yet to be built, so once everyone was off the bus I was suddenly able to take in my surroundings: more than 10,000 identical white headstones, row on row, each planted with a single rose, framed by manicured grass and an unbroken blue sky. It was impossibly beautiful.

My students walked round solemnly, reading inscriptions – thousands ‘known only to God’ – and talking in whispers. The air was still and heavy; there was something of church about it.

Suddenly a bus pulled up and tens of tiny Belgian children tumbled out and started zooming around across the grass. They shouted and screamed, ran around, pushed one another, and pretended to be airplanes. My students were horrified. They rushed to me, begging me to do something – I didn’t need to be told twice! I too was appalled that this sacred place had been so violated and was ready to give the children’s teachers a piece of my mind.

Before I had the chance they approached, smiling, and said, in perfect English: “We hope you will understand: these children live in the villages and we bring them here so they aren’t afraid of all the graves and dead people.

So many of the men buried here were so young that they died before they were married; we think they would like to hear the children’s voices.”

Later in the day we saw the small piles in the corners of the fields where the farmers place the unexploded ordinance they still turn up. Here, where Passchendaele’s mud devoured more men than both sides’ bullets, bodies still sometimes rise to the surface.

The German cemeteries tell their own story. No flowers, few individual gravestones, dark, shady trees providing cover. How much courage it must have taken to visit your son or husband buried deep in enemy soil.

There may be no more important work a teacher can do than help their students understand the reality of war, whether by letting those with first hand experience tell their stories, or by going to the places where wars are not History yet.

So don’t lock down the curriculum, force everyone through assessment hoops and slash budgets: make space and time for us to stand back, so war can teach itself.

Jun 112012
 

Today’s New York Times carries a story about the Syrian President’s carefully polished image, courtesy of some very expensive Western PR. As well as the notorious Vogue feature on his British-born wife, there are surprisingly many flattering portraits of this most brutal of dictators. Although the horrifying events of recent weeks have been widely reported, it will take time to erase the carefully crafted, wholesome image of this glamorous couple. The NYT article quotes Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, explaining the appeal of the President and First Lady thus: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”

The article reminded me of my visit to Syria in 2003. At first glance everything looked normal. There were no public protests, no opposition marches and no tanks in the streets. The only unsettling things were the huge billboards covered with images of the president: here in an army uniform, there in a business suit or with his wife and children. Every shop and café had a photo of him on the wall. He smiled benignly on his people, the new young president. Sometimes he stood beside his father, the former president, Hafez. Then they were both smiling. People were desperate to chat, to practice their English. Women watched me from behind their headscarves, and when I smiled, they smiled back. Children waved and rushed up to me, not to ask for anything, just to meet, to say, “Hello, how are you? What is your name?” Conversation was complicated, and took place only in large open spaces with nobody close by. On the pretext of taking photographs I separated myself from the crowds and asked careful questions of those who hung around, obviously eager to find an audience. Could they listen to international news? No, it was censored. Could they access the Internet freely? No, it was blocked. Was there politics taught in school? Yes, all students had classes of political indoctrination. What did they think of America? Wonderful!

There were almost no other Western tourists in Syria that summer. Souvenir shops were empty, cafes were closed and everywhere people were suffering because their only source of income had disappeared. Hotels were operating on a skeleton staff and many people had lost their jobs. As I drove into Damascus, alone in a taxi, the driver pointed up to a brutal, heavily fortified building on the hill: an unmistakable piece of fascist architecture. “If you are a murderer you can be out in a week. If you criticize the president you can be there for life.”

Hama is a beautiful small town in the Orontes Valley, famous for its huge water wheels, or norias, which are used to feed the fields and fill the aqueducts. Their grinding, creaking and rhythmic groaning creates a soon unnoticed soundtrack like the whirring of cicadas. My memory retains a tranquil picture of a traditional town, where every woman wore a headscarf and loose topcoat, and every person waved and smiled. By night it was a dim, quiet city: by far the loudest noises I heard were the call to prayer and the sounds of the swallows swarming at sunset. There were peach, pomegranate and citrus orchards and gardens of flowers made possible by the plentiful water. I stayed at the Cham Palace Hotel, which was almost empty. In the evenings I swam alone in the pool in the garden. From the water I could see the weathered domes and dappled tile-work of the mosques and minarets of the old city.

On the plane home I talked to the man sitting next to me. This is what he told me about Hama: In 1982 the city, Syria’s fourth largest, with a population of 350,000 people, was destroyed on the president’s orders. Aerial bombing cut the roads so that nobody could escape on foot. The army surrounded the city and started shooting. Bulldozers and tanks followed, and then, to be sure that there were no survivors, cyanide gas was released. The old city was razed. Between 10 and 20,000 people were killed. In a case study of political violence, Hafez al-Assad, the then President, had ordered the attack against the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamic insurgents inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution. His aim was to teach a lesson for generations. Every family in the city lost someone. Exactly as he intended, it spread terror throughout Syria, and was barely reported elsewhere. What I had thought was the old city was in fact a complete reconstruction, distressed and pre-aged to fool the tourists. My hotel, with its swimming pool, was built on the mass graves of one of the neighborhoods.

This is why global education matters. The accurate representation of reality is too important to be left in the hands of market and profit-driven media. Some voices in the press are expert, brave and impartial; more are naive or careless; a few are being paid to misrepresent. How are young people ever to understand the world that their taxes and votes shape if they do not learn at school?

The best education in the world is one where children with different histories learn together side by side. There’s no better example than the family of United World Colleges which turns out outstanding, compassionate graduates year after year, many of them years older than their age-cohort because they started life as refugees. If we start seeing the world as a classroom, unfolding events as lesson plans and those who have lived life on the ground as teachers, then we will educate a generation of young women who will scoff at the idea that being “extremely thin and very well-dressed,” is more important than standing by whilst your husband orders the slaughter of children.

May 202012
 

 

Before we give up on Broken Britain, here’s some inspiration from the girls of Loreto Day School in Kolkata. Over the last 30 years they’ve changed thousands of lives by turning their school into a multi-faith hub for social justice. They also passed all their exams. If they can do it, why can’t we?

In 1979 LDS Sealdah was a traditional girl’s Catholic school with a small group of scholarship students. This left the new Principal, Sister Cyril, ‘uneasy’, so she began to open the school up, to create a ‘healthy mix’. Now twice the size, half the pupils are from families so poor that the school not only buys their uniforms, food, medicines and books, but also pays their parents’ rent in the nearby slums.

Meanwhile, the girls daily passed hundreds of children who were living on the pavements and railway platforms with no hope of an education. So the girls began an amazing experiment, gradually drawing street children into an after school program of games and lessons. It was so successful that within a few years they had created a fully integrated school-within-a-school. The children became known as the Rainbows, a source of joy and also a revelation: with regular attendance, an illiterate  ten or eleven year-old Rainbow can be ready to join a mainstream class of girls her age within a year.

Teaching the Rainbows is Work Education, a curricular subject which takes place twice a week. Girls are taught to teach literacy, numeracy, life skills and crafts, vital for survival and income generation.The huge top-floor room is filled with children, half in blue and white uniforms, half in ragamuffin cast-offs. All are intent on the lesson, holding up cards with sounds and letters, spelling out words, laughing and shouting encouragement. In a country still riven by the legacy of caste – where a high caste woman may work to support a low caste woman but not touch a cup of tea she has made – it’s an amazing sight.

Work Education can also be completed in local villages – 150 girls go on their day off every week to teach 3,500 rural children – with Childline, the Hidden Child Domestic Labour Project, or in the local slums. Girls regularly encounter cases of injustice and abuse and are challenged to get involved. They learn to use their voices and their skills, gathering evidence, lobbying and advocating for children’s rights.

Values Education is also compulsory, designed to make girls think and to promote social change. Together these two programs, equal in importance to the traditional subjects, make a curriculum of agency. This honestly recognises that the world outside the window is not ok and prepares young women to be part of the solution: Loreto graduates are confident, informed and dynamic.

The school survives from hand to mouth, on gifts and grants and prayers. It’s by no means perfect, Sister Cyril can be distinctly dictatorial and some of the education is old-fashioned and dull. But several very powerful myths have been exploded by these merry girls with blue hair ribbons: they have demonstrated beyond doubt that compassion is more productive than competition, and that doing the right thing is about love, not money.

London is not like Kolkata and many of Sister Cyril’s programs would be crushed by Health and Safety before the ink was dry. But across the UK things are not ok either. People are separated from one another by gulfs of inequality and unfamiliarity; children are abused, homeless, hungry and frightened. It’s time for our own radical vision. So let’s be inspired by the Rainbows and get started.

May 052012
 

Often the discovery of natural resources can feel like a curse, but last year I was at the opening of a school that proved the opposite can also be true. Lebone II was built with the riches of the Royal Bafokeng Nation and a vision that’s all about people.

Perched on the edge of the wind-sculpted hills of South Africa’s North West Province, even the location of the school is significant: this is the site of the traditional ceremonies to initiate young people into adulthood. The red earth and brilliant blue sky are incredibly beautiful, but the view also includes the smoke from the platinum mines, source of the Bafokeng’s enormous wealth and some 80% of the world supply. It’s a constant reminder of the responsibilities for the next generation. In return for a world-class education these young people will be expected to stay and build their nation – and there’s a lot of work to be done.

Chances of success are greatly improved by the leadership of their dashing young king, Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi. Helicopter pilot, architect and owner of a knee-weakening smile, he personally chose the site of the school (after flying over every inch of his kingdom) and the winning design for the buildings. Although he never expected to rule, when faced with the deaths of both older brothers, he took on the role and their legacy with inspiring passion. He is exactly the sort of king, queen, president or prime minister the world needs more of – and a dazzling role model.

The product of an ‘English’ African education, Kgosi Leruo is determined that Lebone II will be African African. The dappled heart of the school is a central amphitheatre that mimics the traditional African meeting space under a tree – with the shade provided by a stunning chain-mail roof. Around this are classrooms and labs, each built for teaching both children and teachers. Observation areas have been discretely built in, and every classroom has been decorated on a budget of nothing – with student work, scrounged movie posters and colour charts left behind by the painters. This is not a posh boarding school for the elite, but a buzzing hub for sharing best practice. Lebone is connected to 45 partner schools and workshops are held every week for local teachers.

Everything about the school is underpinned by the Zulu word ‘ubuntu’, or its Tswana twin ‘botho’, roughly translated as ‘I can only be me because you are you.’ So the outreach programme, for which the school closes early every wednesday, is underpinned by the simple idea that “whatever we teach or learn here, we’re still people, and part of our community.” Placements involve visiting a prison, feeding the elderly, working with orphans or reading to the blind.

If this all sounds a bit worthy, then it’s time to meet the students, unmissable in startling blue and green uniforms. 70% Bafokeng, 30% from other southern African countries, they not only work hard but are armed with a devastating, infectious charm. Respectful to the core, they whooped and cheered as the lengthy speeches were followed by their teachers’ enthusiastic but shaky attempt at line dancing. Seconds later, at a signal from their leader, a blue and green flood poured down the steps of the amphitheatre in a joyful demonstration of how it’s done.

If platinum can do this, then I can’t wait to see what oil, coal, diamonds and shale gas can do.