Saturday, 28 November 2015

Questions I Was Asked This Week (27 Nov 2015)

Every week, teachers are asked questions. Sometimes it's related to what's being learned, other times it's completely off the wall but still quite interesting. Sometimes we know the answers, and can satisfy the student's curiosity. Sometimes, we don't... and we shouldn't pretend otherwise.

Here's what I was asked this week:

Is Ireland still neutral?
Ireland has considered itself neutral since World War II. Officially, we took no sides in that war, but unofficially we provided help to the Allies. The reasons for staying neutral were very straightforward - the Irish Free State was only barely 20 years old and was in no way equipped to be able to take part in a massive European war. We've kept our policy of neutrality ever since - Ireland never joined NATO during the Cold War, for instance, and neither did we join the Non-Aligned Movement.
President Mary McAleese inspecting Irish troops in Lebanon, 2011
Since joining the UN in 1955, Ireland has taken part in peacekeeping missions in the Congo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Chad, and Kosovo among other regions, and US military planes have been allowed to stop over at Shannon Airport. These planes were subject to conditions that they did not carry weapons or formed part of military operations, but these conditions were waived after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Officially, we are still neutral. In 1994, the government pledged that Irish neutrality was an issue that could only be changed by referendum, although neutrality isn't actually a constitutional issue. There has been talk in recent years of Ireland reducing or doing away with its policy of neutrality and becoming involved in European common defence initiatives, but for now, that's only talk.

Are the IRA still around?
There has been a good deal of talk about the IRA in the news lately, with allegations that the organisation still exists in secret and influences the decisions of Sinn Féin, allegations which Sinn Féin denies. I'm not going to comment on that but I will go through the established facts.

The IRA which was around for the Troubles in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 began life as the Provisional IRA, which formed in 1969 when the Sinn Féin movement split in two (the other side became what we now call the Workers' Party). Numerous attempts to establish ceasefires failed over the years, until the Good Friday Agreement put an end to the Troubles and established the power-sharing agreement between Nationalists and Unionists in Ireland which is still in place today. The Provisional IRA officially announced an end to all paramilitary activities on 28 July 2005, and issued orders for all weapons to be dumped. On 26 September, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning confirmed that the IRA's arsenal had been totally decommissioned.

In the ten years since there have been reports and allegations that the IRA's Army Council is still active, but the Sinn Féin leadership has repeatedly denied this. Two breakaway groups from the IRA still exist, neither of them agreeing with the ceasefire or the Good Friday Agreement. The most notorious of these groups is the Real IRA, which claimed responsibility for the 1998 Omagh bombing which killed 29 people, and the 2009 murders of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland.The other group, the Continuity IRA, has been less active and has itself suffered splits.

These groups are considered criminal organisations by authorities in Ireland and Britain, and their activities have been condemned by Sinn Féin.

Aren't there still problems in Belfast?
Where isn't there a problem, really? But yes, tensions do still flare up between the Nationalist and Unionist communities of Belfast. Quite often, these tensions are due to parades or parade routes by the Orange Order and other groups. Put simply, Nationalist communities do not want Unionist parades in their areas, and vice versa, but the other side will argue for the right to march where they please. A Parades Commission was set up in 1998 to try to mediate and monitor these tensions, but problems still arise, as in 2012 when riots broke out in north Belfast over a parades dispute.
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson (Unionist, left) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Nationalist, right)
More recently, the allegations of continued activity by the Provisional IRA saw Unionist parties walk out of the Northern Ireland Assembly in protest. For a few weeks in September and October of this year, it looked as if power sharing in the North was about to collapse. On 17 November, all of the Northern Irish parties issued a new agreement in which they vowed to continue the power sharing executive, but the report acknowledges that the issue of how to deal with the past remains a difficult one. We'll have to wait and see what happens in the next few months!

What are Jewish cloaks called?
The cloaks the student was asking about are traditional Jewish prayer robes called tallits. Traditionally, the tallit gadol is a large prayer shawl worn during morning prayers, while the tallit katan, which can fit comfortabally under regular clothes, is for everyday wear. These cloaks have tassels on the fringes called tzitzits, which represent the rules and laws for life laid out in the Torah, the Jewish holy book.
Jewish men wearing the tallit. You can see the tzittzit tassels.
If you could invite any historical person for an interview, who would it be?
Now this is an interesting question. I've been thinking about it for a few days, and I think this is the kind of question that could do with a post of its own, so watch this space!

What about you? Who would you invite?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

I Can't Do It

"Wait - before I write this down, is that the right answer?"

"I wrote the wrong answer, now I have to do it again."

"I'm not writing it if I might be wrong."

I can't help it. Any time I'm met with a sentence like those my face becomes one of bewilderment. Students who are so afraid of being wrong they would rather write nothing. We see the same thing in exams - whole sections left blank rather than being attempted. Why? They might be wrong, they say! It isn't just a few students here or there, this is an epidemic! My own brother, still in secondary school himself, is the exact same. Why are we so afraid to be wrong?


"Wrong"
The curious thing is that everyone knows we learn from our mistakes. It sounds like a cliché, but something only becomes a cliché when it's true. Not just in school but in life, it takes our mistakes and setbacks to show us how to move on in life. A mistake in a job interview can lead to us reviewing how we respond to questions and how we can improve. A broken off relationship can teach us how to have better relationships in the future. Accidentally offending someone can mean gaining a better understanding of that person by talking to them. Mistakes happen all the time - yesterday I hit my leg on a wooden box while moving something, and it's left me remembering to take more care looking where I'm going (and a sore leg). We all know that we learn from our mistakes, so why are we so afraid to make any?


"Right"
We tend to have an odd obsession with perfection. Countless revision guides, study courses, even this website, exist to help students reach their potential and write "perfect" answers that will get them full marks. We give a lot of praise to the student who got all As, but perhaps less to the student who got mostly Cs but worked really hard for that. Teachers are the same - what teacher doesn't want to be considered extremely good at what they do? It's especially noticeable when in the H.Dip, you often find yourself caught up in trying to prepare perfect lessons, keeping a perfect file, writing perfect reflections, and generally being seen as a perfect teacher... even though you're just beginning! (I was as guilty of this as anyone else). Teachers also have to contend with the importance placed on exam results - a teacher with generally good exam results will be looked on more favourably than a teacher who hasn't.

Is this a fair way to judge either students or teachers? No, not really. The student who got an A in English may have worked very hard for it or they may just have had a natural aptitude for the subject and achieved their result with ease. It's to be celebrated either way of course, but that C student who strove to achieve that result will still end up treated as if he or she didn't try hard enough. We celebrate those who achieve the full number of points in the exams - and they should be celebrated for their work - but we can't forget those who might not have come anywhere near 600 points but still put in a huge amount of dedication, work and effort. Why not celebrate them too?

Human
It's true of course that we do in school, whether we're students or teachers, all leads up to exams. Students in First Year begin a journey that will culminate in the Junior Cert and then the Leaving Cert. Throughout that journey, they hear a huge amount, every day, about those destinations. The all-important, all-consuming destinations. But what about the journey? Why judge students primarily on their performance as they cross the finish line, without taking into account how the journey has been for them?

We're all only human. We will all make mistakes throughout our entire lives, there's no way at all we can avoid that. I would much rather teach a class of humans who get things wrong sometimes, than teach a class of robots who are always right and have perfect answers all the time. Nobody really learns in that environment.

The new Junior Cycle reforms may go some way towards alleviating this issue, but it will be some time yet before our young people feel comfortable enough, together, to be able to explore their subjects and their work without first needing to know if they're "right". It's our jobs as teachers to help them to realise that really, no matter where they are in their educational journey, it's perfectly fine to be "wrong".

Monday, 23 November 2015

Questions I Was Asked Last Week

Every week, teachers are asked questions. Sometimes it's related to what's being learned, other times it's completely off the wall but still quite interesting. Sometimes we know the answers, and can satisfy the student's curiosity. Sometimes, we don't... and we shouldn't pretend otherwise.

From now on I'm taking note of every question I'm asked each week and, whether I already knew the answer or had to go researching, I'm going to post the answers here. So, what was on students' minds this week?

Is Ireland going to be attacked by ISIS?
I doubt there was a single History teacher in the country who wasn't asked this question over the week. Of course, the simple answer is: I don't know. But it is unlikely.

People stand at a memorial to victims of the attacks in Paris last weekend.
I've noticed that a lot of young people have misconceptions about what ISIS is, what the relationship is between ISIS and the religion of Islam, and what their campaign is about. ISIS is the name given to a radical Islamist group which are fighting to establish a new caliphate (Islamic religious state) in the Middle East. Now, I used the word "Islamist" there, not the word "Islamic". What's the difference?

"Islamic" describes something related to the religion of Islam, in the same way that "Christian" is used to describe something related to the religion of Christianity. An "Islamist" is someone who believes in the superiority of Islam, specifically a very hardline version of it, and who wants to see that imposed around the world.

It is wrong to equate ordinary Muslim people, whether in Ireland or around the world, to ISIS. That's like taking an extreme hardline Christian pastor who calls for gay people to be put to death and saying that all Christian people are like that. Or like in the 70s, 80s and 90s, when the IRA carried out bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland and England, there was a tendency to equate all Irish people with being potential terrorists. (I made these comparisons in a post last week as well).

These comparisons are obviously wrong. The vast majority of Muslim people are appalled by what ISIS are doing in the name of their religion, and Muslim groups in Ireland have condemned the attacks on Paris last week. The attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre in my own city of Cork last weekend was just awful, and was carried out by people with no understanding of what is actually going on. Likewise, the refugees fleeing from Syria are not ISIS. They're fleeing from ISIS. Nothing would make these people lend their support to the group which has destroyed their homes and lives - would you?

Back to the question of whether the Paris attacks means Ireland is a target. Second-level students today are too young to remember the 9/11 attacks happening. I was in Second Year and I vividly remember coming home from school to see the news. In the days of shock and confusion after that (people kept the news on continuously for days and regular programming was often interrupted), people thought World War III was on the horizon - even me, I can remember texting a friend about it. The government sent every Irish household iodine tablets in the event of an attack involving radiation either on or near Ireland. The early years of the War on Terror kept that feeling of possible destruction going in the background, ramped up every now and then when a new major attack took place. Something I was surprised by in talking to my students was that they believed the Paris attacks were the first of their kind in Europe. Ten years ago, al-Qaeda detonated bombs in London which killed 56 and injured hundreds. This threat isn't new. At the same time, it doesn't mean impending doom.

Europe's security forces are on high alert after what happened in Paris - the actions taken in Brussels this weekend being an example. ISIS targeted Paris because of French involvement in the war in Syria. Ireland isn't involved in that war. It's true that we do allow US military planes to stop over in Shannon Airport, and this has always been controversial, but we have been allowing this for years, it isn't new.

Obviously I hope such an attack never happens here, or anywhere ever again. Whatever the future brings, the answer to this threat is not to tar every person who identifies as a Muslim, or every person from the Middle East, as having anything to do with ISIS. Fear and division is what that group wants. Let's not let them have it.

How many dictators are there in the world today?
Reading about the atrocities committed by people like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as the undisputed and unchallenged leaders of their countries, it can be hard to imagine there are any world leaders like that today. Sadly, the regime of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, or of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or even of Vladimir Putin in Russia demonstrate that, even if there are no leaders currently engaged in the mass extermination of their own peoples, there are still plenty of rulers out there who hold on to power undemocratically, aren't account to their people and make decisions based on having that corrupt, unchallenged power.

I didn't know exactly how many of today's world leaders can be considered dictators, and after looking into it I found that it depends on your definition of what makes a dictator. Russia's Vladimir Putin may count as a dictator to some, but others might point to the existence of opposition parties in Russia, however constrained they might be.

Planet Rulers have a list of leaders they consider to be dictators, based on the research of Freedom House, which have classified 49 countries as "not free". The leaders of each of these countries are considered to be dictators as a result. Click the link to see the list - keep in mind that not everyone might agree with every name on it!

Who is the most powerful leader in the world today?
Staying with world leaders for a moment, I can remember asking my dad that question as a child. He replied that it was probably the US President, who at the time was Bill Clinton. Just like trying to figure out what exactly makes a dictator in the modern world, working out the criteria for "most powerful leader" can be tricky. Are we judging them based on their political power? Their influence? Their economic might? Their military might? The answer might be different for each one, so let's look at it through those headings.

The US President still wields considerable power. Barack Obama has been as much an influential figure as Clinton was in his day, and the candidates for the next presidential election are being watched very closely around the world. The role of the US military around the world and the huge influence of American multinational companies worldwide reinforce that under each of the categories we're looking at, the US is still on top.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
That's not to say Obama is the world's only powerful leader, though. Here in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's influence within the EU is huge, and Germany's strong economy means it has a lot of influence in that field as well. Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping and India's Narendra Modi are all vying for influence and power as well. China and India are the world's two fastest growing economies, while Putin has been positioning himself to reclaim some of the influence Russia enjoyed in its Soviet days.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So in a few years, who knows?

Did Russia not sign the treaty ending World War II?
Russia, as the Soviet Union, did take a full role in the negotiations and treaties which ended World War II. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin attended the Potsdam, Tehran and Yalta Conferences which set out demands to Germany and Japan and shaped post-war Europe.

It's true that the Soviet Union and Japan didn't formally end the war against each other until the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, which cleared up some issues over territory and committed them both to continuing to negotiate peace between them.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Cruelty

A few days ago I wrote a post about an anti-war speech on the last episode of Doctor Who. With the attacks in Paris last Friday night and the subsequent mixed reactions on social network sites, I was reminded of another part of that speech which I had left out:

Doctor:
You just want cruelty to beget cruelty. You're not superior to people who were cruel to you. you're just a whole bunch of new cruel people. A whole bunch of new cruel people being cruel to some other people, who'll end up being cruel to you. The only way anyone can live in peace is if they're prepared to forgive. Why don't you break the cycle?


Flip Sides
I won't lie, I don't much like teaching about war. It can be interesting, certainly, and the horrors of World War II are not something any future generation should be ignorant of. It can be draining to tell the story of the Holocaust, to explain the events that led to decades of death and destruction in Northern Ireland, and to focus so much on the actions and motives of people such as Hitler and Stalin more than on people who made good contributions to the world around them.

That's not to say that I don't want to teach these things or that I won't, I will always do so. It's just that teaching young people about humanity's failures can sap the fun out of the subject at times. Of course, there are many such failures to choose from - History is rich with events which showcase people's inhumanity to other people. Cruelty begets cruelty. If History can show us the progress we can make as individuals and societies, the flip side is that it shows us our setbacks and mistakes.

Fear
Anyone who thinks the blame for Friday's attacks falls on the Muslim community of France, let alone the world, would seem to have a very narrow view of current events. I've seen far too many comments either on Twitter or on news reports which oversimplify the problem and make generalisations about whole groups of people. When the IRA detonated a bomb in Manchester in 1996, would the British public have been right to say that all Irish people were the same, all wanting violence, all uncaring towards the ordinary people who died in those atrocities? If an extreme conservative Christian in the US calls for all gay people to be put to death, should Christians be decried as hateful, over-judgemental zealots? If one atheist commentator or group calls for religion to be abolished, does that mean everyone who doesn't believe in a religion is virulently opposed to people having a different set of beliefs to them?

No, of course not. ISIS is an extremist group which thrives on fear - not just the fear of people in the Middle East, which has caused so many of them to have to flee their homes, but the fears of people living in the west, fears which when stoked a certain way lend themselves to prejudice against Muslims, against refugees, against people from Syria... in short, just fear against other people. Groups such as this use fear to operate, and those who engage with that fear just give them what they want. The cruelty of ISIS begets a new kind of cruelty on those who have either had to flee their homes because of them, those who find themselves tarred with the one brush because of them, or both. What cruelty is next?

Kindness
There are many stories in the news and social media sites which also demonstrate the great kindness shown by people in response to the attacks. This kindness has been seen every time an atrocity has been committed, and it is this kindness we should all concern ourselves with. Leave cruelty with the people who have committed it, let's not become new cruel people ourselves.

Doctor:
What is it that you actually want?

(After a long pause.)
 

Bonnie:
War.

Doctor:
Ah. Ah, right. And when this war is over, when you have a homeland free from humans, what do you think it's going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you're very close to getting what you want. What's it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think people will be allowed to play violins? Who's going to make the violins? Well? Oh, you don't actually know, do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, you don't actually know what you want. So, let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you've killed all the bad guys, and when it's all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?

Bonnie:
We'll win.

Doctor:
Oh, will you? Well, maybe, maybe you will win! But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

War: It's Always the Same

I'm a Doctor Who fan. As a History teacher, I'd love to have a TARDIS to make classes that little bit more interactive but I'm not holding out hope on that one! (Also, think of the paperwork involved)

Normally I don't write posts about TV shows I watch but last weekend's episode featured quite a powerful scene in which the Doctor had to diffuse a potentially devastating war right as it was beginning. Shapeshifting alien refugees had settled on Earth peacefully, in human disguise, until a small faction of them demanded the right not to have to hide, and began killing people to make their point. The conflict winds up in an MI-5-type facility where the humans and the aliens face off, each with one hand over a button that could wipe out the other side. The alien's leader has taken the form of the Doctor's companion, Clara.

Enough context, now watch the speech the Doctor gave:


The important part is transcribed below. It's quite powerful, and should be a good resource for anyone teaching History or CSPE - or indeed, anyone teaching at all.

Doctor:
Everyone, fingers on buzzers! Are you feeling lucky? Are you ready to play the game? Who's going to be quickest? Who's going to be luckiest?

Kate (human):
This is not a game!

Doctor:
No, it's not a game sweetheart, and I mean that most sincerely.

Bonnie (alien):
Why are you doing this?

Kate:
Yes, I'd quite like to know that too. You set this up, why?

Doctor:
Because it's not a game, Kate! This is a scale-model of war! Every war ever fought, right there in front of you! Because it's always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHO'S GOING TO DIE! You don't know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill, until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning: SIT DOWN AND TALK!

The Paris Peace Talks which followed World War I, 1919.

Armistice talks following the Korean War, 1953.

Ian Paisley, unionist, and Martin McGuinness, nationalist, sitting together as joint First Ministers of Northern Ireland after decades of conflict, 2007.
US Secretary of State John Kerry with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at meeting for a peace negotiation, 2015.

Listen to me, listen. I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is, it's just a fancy word for changing your mind.

Bonnie:
I will not change my mind.

Doctor:
Then you will die stupid. Alternatively, you could step away from that box, you could walk right out of that door, and you could stand your revolution down.

Bonnie:
No. I'm not stopping this, Doctor. I started it, I will not stop it. You think they'll let me go after what I've done?

Doctor:
You're all the same, you screaming kids, do you know that? "Look at me, I'm unforgiveable", well here's the unforeseeale - I forgive you! After all you've done. I forgive you.

Bonnie:
You don't understand. You will never understand.

Doctor:
I don't understand? Are you kidding? Me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war, this funny little thing? This is not a war! I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know! I did worse things than you could ever imagine and WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES... I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight, until it burns your hand. And you say this: No-one else will ever have to live like this. No-one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

The episode in question was the second part of a two-parter which also dealt with issues surrounding identity, extremism, and the question of what comes after an uprising or revolution - so if you're interested and ever get the chance - however you feel about Doctor Who and science fiction - I recommend checking out "The Zygon Invasion" and "The Zygon Inversion".

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Who Owns 1916?

Oh, 1916. It's one of the most interesting and important events in modern Irish history, but just like practically any event from the revolutionary era it's open to different interpretations and layered with controversy, sometimes completely unnecessarily. 

With the centenary coming up next year, preparations are already well underway for a variety of commemorations. The first such event took place last weekend as the death of Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was commemorated - not once, but twice. The Government's own official commemoration, attended by the President and the Taoiseach, was followed by an elaborately staged Sinn Féin commemoration, which featured a re-enactment of the funeral procession as well as people dressing up in period costume.
 
The Sinn Féin re-enactment of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa's funeral, 1 August 2015.
Photo from
@sinnfeinireland
Why were there two commemorations? For one thing, Sinn Féin wanted to hold their own event. For another, the Government event, as with the earlier launch of their 1916 commemorations programme, was met with accusations of lip service and not doing enough to properly commemorate the important people, places and events from this tumultuous time in Irish history. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil each have their own programme of events separate to the Government, and that's not to mention the huge number of other groups and societies that will hold their own events.
 
The heading of the 1916 Proclamation, addresed to the people of Ireland.
What are we to take from this? Who's running the "real" events? Which ones are the most important? The answer is... no-one and none of them. Of course the Government (no matter what parties are in) will be organising the official commemoration outside the GPO on the day itself, but the wide variety of events and actions taking place remind us of one very important thing: the Easter Rising belongs to no party, no group and no individual. The Rising, like the rest of Irish history, belongs to the Irish people. The more people who organise and take part in different events the better. 
 
The British media in the days after the Rising mistakenly referred to it as the "Sinn Féin Rising", even though Sinn Féin at the time had no direct involvement in it. It would be unfortunate if, a century later, people were still confused over who "owns" the Rising. It isn't just Sinn Féin, or Fianna Fáil or the Government. It's all of us together. As long as we don't lose sight of that, we're in for an exciting, interesting and fitting commemoration to a week which changed the course of our history forever.
The memorial to those who died for Irish freedom at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Class of 2015

Today is the last day of exams for my 6th year students. I've taught most of them for three years, from their Junior Cert days right up until this. It's the first time that I've taught students right up to the very end. I work in a centre much smaller than a mainstream school, so there are just seven young people altogether in 6th Year. Having worked closely with these young people for three years, I'm sitting here now feeling equal parts sad that I'm saying goodbye to them, and proud and happy that they are about to leave. By half four this evening, they will all have completed their Leaving Certificate.

They're seven very different people, each with their own strengths and talents, each with their own ideas, and each with their own future. Like countless students across the country, they have come through their own difficulties and setbacks to get to where they are now. In the book that our centre published last month, "What the Life Centre Means to Me", a few stories mentioned teachers who told young people that they would never achieve their Junior Cert, let alone their Leaving. There is absolutely no excuse for ever saying this to a child. Ever.

I'm writing this now more for myself as an outlet, but if I'm going to use this blog to keep a record of my thoughts on school and teaching, there would be a huge gap in it if I didn't record how absolutely, immensely proud I am of my students, how much I have enjoyed having the privilege of teaching them, and above all how much I have learned from them.

(Behold!) Thank you.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Some thoughts on the 2015 History (and CSPE) papers

1. Ordinary Level students can't depend on Social Change to come up
"An old person describing social change in 20th century Ireland" has been a staple of Ordinary Level People in History questions, coming up every year in the past six, except in 2011... and 2015. Anyone who thought 2011 might be a fluke (myself included, I must admit) will have to keep in mind not to rely too heavily on that one when helping students revise in the future.

2. History marches on
Screencap from the SEC website
The Junior Cert Higher Level Document question caused a bit of a stir by asking students what post Mary Robinson held after stepping down from the presidency in 1997. The Junior Cert course officially finishes up in 1985, though Robinson becoming the first female President in 1990 is included in every textbook in the Social Change chapter under the "Changing Role of Women" heading. Textbooks also tend to mention Mary McAleese and the Celtic Tiger in this chapter, so it's not unheard of for the course to unofficially extend beyond 1985. If anything, this question and the fuss it raised showed that it might be time to update the course a little bit to take in some of the 1990s. Given that 1985 was 15 years ago when I was in First Year and doing the same curriculum, going as far as 9/11 wouldn't be out of bounds now, in my opinion.

3. Technology marches on
A lot of supervisors noted seeing a lot of students leave the Robinson question blank, raising concerns about the effectiveness of CSPE as a subject. Leaving those concerns aside for a second, one question in the CSPE paper that caught my attention was in the Gorta option in Section 3.
Screencap from the SEC website
I'll admit I wasn't sure what to make of it at first. On the one hand it seems like an odd question, causing students to take more time than they usually would because they'll need to count the letters they're writing. The more I thought about it though, I came to see it as a good literacy exercise, having students evaluate what they're writing in order to be as concise as possible. And while I'm wary of going overboard in appealing to popular culture and social media in exam questions (the 2013 Business paper's infamous Lady Gaga question being the prime example of that), I think it can be very effective when done right.

4. CSPE: Serious subject or "doss"?
Screencap from the SEC website
Anyone who teaches CSPE will know what I'm talking about. It has a reputation for being an easy, effortless subject which doesn't really matter. The questions are commonsense, there's no heavy learning, and there's a picture round - which this year focused not on politicians' faces but on buildings. Áras an Uachtaráin, Leinster House and the Four Courts should be known to all Junior Cert students, but I'll admit I wouldn't have expected them to know what the Central Bank looks like. Of course, by the process of elimination they should have been able to answer it anyway, but questions like that show the potential CSPE has to be more than just formulaic basic information on how the state works.

5. People in History, People Outside the Box
Screencap from the SEC website
That's what was asked in the Ordinary Level Junior Cert paper in place of the aforementioned "old person describing social change". That particular question hasn't been asked before - a similar one was asked in 2009, but it specified someone involved in either peace and war in Europe from 1920-45, or one of the Third Year options. The above question could justifiably be answered with anyone from Hitler to Kennedy to Thatcher to deGaulle. It's easy to stick to a small number of comfortable favourites for People in History questions (Lemass is the go-to for an Irish political leader, for example), but it's interesting when a question comes along that shakes that complacency and encourages thinking about people who have never featured as People in History before.

Another question which caught people out - some think it may have been a misprint - was this Junior Cert Higher Level People in History question: "A named leader in the struggle for Irish independence, 1900-1912". The course features several Irish independence leaders from 1916-1921, most notably Michael Collins, but the same can't be said for the period 1900-1912, which is really only glossed over. John Redmond, Arthur Griffith and James Connolly would be viable candidates, but they wouldn't have been studied as People in History. Unless it really was a mistake, it means revising with a wider scope in the future.

6. The same goes for the Leaving Cert
Any Ordinary Level Leaving Cert students who assumed that if Anglo-American popular culture came up in Dictatorship and Democracy, Charlie Chaplin would be a part of it (because he has been each and every time so far), were disappointed when the paper instead asked them to write about Bing Crosby. Not Crosby and/or Chaplin, just Crosby. In fact quite a few of the questions that came up throughout the Ordinary Level paper were a departure from what came before. Stalin's show trials were completely ignored in favour of his actions during World War II. The traditionally heavy emphasis of the Ordinary Level paper on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its impact on the civil rights movement finally gave way to focus specifically Martin Luther King. It's the first time there's been an Ordinary Level long question about him at all since this course was introduced in 2006. 

7. Paying attention to past questions pays off...
That's not to say that the papers were completely new. All four History papers contained many questions which came up before. My sister, who did her Leaving Cert in 2013, looked through the Higher Level paper afterwards and identified several questions she had done during her time in school. It proves that practicing the questions which came up before is good revision, and students who put in the work over the two years will have been rewarded by some questions they would definitely have used for practice in the past.

8. ...but don't predict anything!
We all like to try to predict what will come up. I do it too (completely called the Martin Luther King question!), and with the recurring nature of many of the questions, sometimes we'll be right. But just as often, we can be very wrong - Social Change being the prime example. The State Examinations Commission has been looking into the predictability of its exam papers, and with talks and rumours of examination reforms constantly going on, anything could yet change. It's easy and convenient to fall into a routine of having students revise a certain number of "likely" topics, but it's a habit we should try to avoid if we can. Take the constant debate over whether we're teaching subjects or teaching to a test. We have to work within the system in place, which for the time being remains very exam heavy, but we shouldn't allow our subjects to become formulaic and predictable because of this. If this year's variations from the norm and "new" questions should tell us anything, it's that we should anticipate questions that haven't been asked yet. We should look at the topics and wonder "what can be asked?" rather than "what has been asked?". If we do that, then even as we're teaching for an exam we're still teaching our subjects, especially when, as History teachers, we should be encouraging students to analyse, to interpret, to examine and to explore - not simply to learn something off.

9. Time to relax.
I don't know about you, but I felt a weight off my shoulders at 5:20pm today. Now it's time to take it easy, and look ahead to the next year and what we can do to make it a good one. A good year needs a good break beforehand though, so my final thought is this - enjoy the summer!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflecting while waiting for English Paper 2 to finish...

In 1992 I started my school life, in a colourful room full of posters, games, crayons and books. I loved it, and all this time later I still have vivid memories of that first year. I can remember drawing a picture for my teacher, Mrs. Hourihane. She kept it on the front of her desk for the entire year.

I have Mrs. Hourihane to thank, in a way, for where I am now, sitting in a room waiting for my students to finish their latest exam. Everyone can name a few teachers they had who had a positive impact on them. From an early age, I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, and her kind manner and encouraging presence was a major reason why. As I got older and developed a love for History, my teaching ambitions had a focus. And so my reasons for wanting to become a teacher centred around two main things: a desire to help people and a desire to share my love of history.

I did my PDE (H.Dip) in 2011, knowing full well that the job market for teachers was not at its best. Nonetheless it was what I wanted to do. I wasn't thinking about money, I wasn't thinking about job security, I wasn't thinking about promotion prospects, I was just thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and why I wanted to do it.

A series of events led to me working outside of the mainstream system. The experience has changed me, both as a teacher and as a person. Working one-to-one with young people who had been let down by the mainstream system, I was teaching both to help and to share my love of my subject: it was teaching exactly as I had always envisioned it. Indeed as I sit here I'm thinking of next year: my current Leaving Cert students will have moved on to pursue their own ambitions, and for the year that it is we here will be planning centenary commemorations for a major national historical event. History, and Help.

The future is a frightening place as well. I don't have a secure job, and the longer I stay out of the mainstream system, the harder it may be to get back into it. But moving on from where I am now doesn't feel right. Not simply to me as a person but to me as a teacher as well. I have invested in the students I teach, in the success of the place in which I work, and in the concept of teaching as an act of helping others, not simply as a job.

Am I wrong? Am I naive? Some people would probably say so. It's 23 years since I started school, and roughly the same amount of time since I knew I wanted to become a teacher. I've never been ignorant of how fortunate I am to be able to work in an area I enjoy and love. I'm still young, and still developing as a teacher. In 23 years from now, I won't be as young, but I'll still be developing as a teacher. The experience I've had working where I work has had a profound impact on that development. My experience interacting with people through History Help has influenced me as well. When I look at the future of my career, the thing I want most is to continue having these kinds of experiences. I became a teacher to help. No matter where I end up working and who I end up teaching, that is what I want to do.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Laughing at History

It has been reported that Channel 4 are producing a comedy set during the Great Famine in Ireland, not typically a moment in Irish history that we would associate with comedy. The news has been met with a great deal of criticism, and it's hard to disagree with any of it. As I write this, a Change.org petition to stop the production has amassed over 30,000 signatures. Historian and author Tim Pat Coogan, who argued in his book "The Famine Plot" that the Famine was an act of genocide by the British government at the time, has condemned the idea, noting that “you really would have to be talking about making jokes about Belsen and Auschwitz and the gas chambers to make it an equivocal thing in our lifetime.”

I agree that this idea is controversial and quite possibly ill-advised. Over a million people died in the Famine, and over a million more emigrated, never to see their homes again. The conditions that people suffered through were inhumane, and the response of the British government at the time was wholly inadequate and indefensible. However, even with all of this in mind, I think that this show should go ahead.

This scene, in which "Hitler" humorously promotes the Hitler Youth, is followed with real footage of the children who joined and the revelation that they ended up having to fight in the war despite their age.
We laugh at history all the time. Horrible Histories (of which I am a devoted fan) takes some of the worst moments in human history and can make us laugh about them, without failing to convey the tragedy behind those moments. Blackadder Goes Forth takes the gruesome conditions of the trenches of the First World War and turns them into comedy, but the very final scene of the main characters going over the top remains one of the most emotionally impacting moments in television history. Likewise, M*A*S*H made us laugh about the Korean War, but it also brought us back to earth by showing us the horrors of war in every single episode.

Laughing one minute, despairing at the death and destruction the next.
While the topic of the Famine is a very sensitive one in Irish history, we have no reason to believe that this show will treat it with total irreverence. If it follows the path of the most memorable historical tragedy-based comedies, it will show us the despair and sorrow alongside whatever humour it does manage to find. It will bring the Famine back to the front of public memory (as indeed, it's already doing) and more people will learn about it and its devastation.

If it doesn't, then I'll join in calling for its removal. But first, let's wait and see. Comedies about terrible events in history have the potential to be controversial and offensive, but they also have the potential to convey the gravity and seriousness of those events. We'll just have to wait and see if this show can strike the right note.