Sunday, 4 December 2016

Reflections near the end of the first term, 2016/17

This year I’ll blog more.
It’s coming up to that annual point in time where people make promises to themselves that they don’t always keep. For teachers, though, New Year’s Day falls somewhere between the end of August and the beginning of September. It’s when we think about things we’re going to do differently, things we’re going to try, and how we’re going to be better than last year… and then the same level of work, busyness and tiredness kicks in as before and we settle for something less than our initial heady ideas. At least, that’s my experience. I decided on two things this year – that I would make more resources of my own, for it’s become a new favourite hobby of mine (make of me what you will from that) and that I would tend to both the History Help site and the blog a bit more. Like, say, once a week. I’ve largely kept to the former idea. As for the latter, you need only a quick scroll down to see how that turned out.

Teaching can be a very busy, very time consuming job. And that’s on a good day. Not that I’m complaining, the work that goes in to teaching pays off when you realise that people are actually learning from you. But of course, it can mean that some things get pushed to the side for a duration of at least a week to half a year. Like maintaining a blog. I’ll freely admit that History Help arose in the first place partly from an unwillingness to disassociate free time from an opportunity to produce something for teaching. In the few years that have passed, with a bit more experience, I’ve gladly learned my lesson to take free time to be free time.

Having said all that, I find the writing process quite helpful when it comes to untangling thoughts, so here we are and here I’ll be as regularly as I can writing about the things I think about being a teacher.

Does it ever get boring?
This is something that some people think about being a teacher. Lately a few students have asked me questions along this line, particularly on days where I’ve taught the same topic to several different groups in one day. Of course, it can be a bit boring at times. There are days when, like any other human, I would much rather be at home doing very little. Those days, though, are few and far between. Whether a day ends up dull or stressful, just teaching a lesson always cheers me up. I love my subjects, and I love explaining the various topics contained therein. I love answering questions, no matter how left-field they might be sometimes. I love talking about the world and why it is the way it is – though recently I’ve had to follow my own advice to students and remain focused…

Teaching Trump
I remember sitting in my First Year Science class one day, as our teacher sat down and solemnly explained the then burgeoning foot and mouth disease outbreak to us, and how it could mean the end of the Celtic Tiger economy (he was just a few years off).  A year later, we spent entire CSPE classes going over the 9/11 attacks, collectively trying to understand what it was all going to mean. There are moments when history unfurls before our eyes, and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem as important to know about the reasons why Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Columbus’ voyage and it does to understand why a world-changing moment is taking place right in front of us.

My previous post on how Donald Trump’s inflammatory behaviour offered teachers an opportunity to educate carried many of the same faults shared by an awful lot of what was written about him in the weeks and months before the election. It carried a sense of disdain and a firm belief that no, of course this man could never actually win… and then he did. While I believe that it’s best to maintain a position of neutrality when discussing controversial or current topics with students, I couldn’t abide by such a position this time around. Trump’s comments on various groups of people required more from those who work with young people than simple neutrality. I believed that then and I still believe it now, and I won’t pretend I was anything other than horrified at the result on 9 November.

But here we are. This is the world we’re in and while 2016 might not be many people’s favourite year for a jarring array of reasons we can’t simply resign ourselves to living in some kind of nightmare. Whatever we think of Trump’s victory, or Brexit, or our own government’s woeful inaction when it comes to solving inequalities in our society, or any of the other million and one things that cause problems, discord and confusion in our world, we still have to go on and we have to do so with hope that no matter what happens, there will always be things to look forward to. I can’t stress enough the importance of a good political and civic education. In the days after the election I answered every and any question students had about Trump with a discussion about how he was elected, what it means, and whether or not he might actually do some good at all. I had to stop after a while because students had picked up on the fact that merely mentioning his name was enough to divert me from the lesson at hand. Still, history is history.

Five Years
Reflecting brings one thing into focus. It’s been five years since I began teaching, and it really doesn’t feel like it at all (though the message has been brought home quite well more than once as I end up encountering students I taught in First and Second Year in 2011 who now go to college and tower over me in height). I’ve learned a lot in those five years. I think back at some particularly green moments I had in my PDE year with a little embarrassment, but also relief that I’ve learned from it and can handle situations better as a result. At the same time, I feel like I still have so much to learn.

I’m a different teacher than I was when I was 25. I hope to be a different teacher again at 32. It’s the kind of job that can never really stay the same, no matter how many times you teach the same topic. It just keeps evolving, as we have to respond to new changes and pressures from the outside and our own reflections on the inside. It’s the kind of job where we have to keep going and help our students to make sense of the world they’re about to enter into as adults, and the kind of job where we have to remember to stop every now and then for ourselves. It’s the kind of job that might have dull days here and there but never ceases being interesting. It’s the kind of job I always wanted, and even though the last few weeks have been hectic to say the least, it’s the kind of job I love, standing in front of a group and explaining something. And it’s so much more than just that, too.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

What Donald Trump Means For Our Teaching

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo:
Oh, what a time we live in. Reeling in the Years is going to have to do an hour long special when they reach 2016, such is the speed at which our world seems to be changing these days. Brexit led to a circus of absolute confusion and uncertainty, the Olympics took place under an ever-darkening cloud of controversy, we've commemorated a century of the republic with a political deadlock, technology is marching on at a pace faster than you're reading this sentence, and over in America a man who has demonised entire groups of people and made abhorrent comments about women is running for President. Is it any wonder that so many people have sought escape as virtual Pokemon trainers?

For teachers, the state of things presents a challenge - how do we keep our subjects and our methods relevant in a world that changes constantly? I think about this challenge a lot, but recent events have had me really set to work on it. For CSPE teachers this challenge is one that has always existed anyway - our once-a-week, vaguely defined subject tends to get a bit of a poor reputation, and it can be hard to make it seem engaging and relevant to the students we teach. There have been times when I cursed the fact that it's my second subject. However, it really is hugely important, and the man I mentioned above has reminded me why.

Donald J. Trump has inspired me as a teacher. No one has done more than he has to spark people's interests in current events. He's been utterly brilliant at making people realise how important it is to know about the world we live in. You don't see an inflammatory, aggressive, wildly misogynistic and so-very-unsuitable man get so close to becoming US President and not want to know the answers to questions like "What would it mean if he was elected?", "How does he get away with saying these things?" and "How did he manage to become the candidate in the first place?"

Now, there are actually very serious answers to those questions. The rise of Trump, like the surprise Brexit result in June or the surge in support for people on the other side of the spectrum such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, is largely down to people's massive disillusionment with politics and politicians. The failure of leaders, governments and parliaments around the world to listen to and address the uncertainty people have felt since the recession - and there has been so, so much of it - has created a vacuum. On the one hand, that vacuum can be filled by communities organising, working together and campaigning for the issues that matter to people. On the other hand, it can be filled by a loud, self-confident "strong" leader who claims to have all the answers, and history is full of examples of what happens when people like that get the power and influence they crave.

Donald Trump inspires me because he makes people ask questions and think about things. He inspires me because he's a reminder of what can happen when we have blind faith in what prominent people tell us. He inspires me because he inadvertently makes it very clear that only a decent civic and political education can help us to avoid letting our young people fall - whether as victims or perpetrators - into the mire of discrimination, vilification and dehumanisation that's unfortunately increasingly present in western society. So, thank you Donald, you’ve given us a lot of a work to do.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Pokémon Go-See-Our-Monuments

Back in the day, I was a big fan of Pokémon. I couldn't tell you how many hours I spent glued to my GameBoy. It's a phenomenon that's never really died out - almost two decades later my brother spends an equal amount of time glued to his Ninento DS. Now the phenomenon has practically restarted itself with this Pokémon Go app, which allows you to catch Pokémon in "the real world", so to speak. As much as I enjoyed the older games, I can't say I feel compelled to download it and start playing, but I've been reading with interest about the many different incidents that have happened because of the game. Some ridiculous, like people walking into trees because they were too busy looking at their phone, others more serious, such as reports that some people have used the app to facilitate burglaries.

The story which caught my attention the most was on the front page of yesterday's Evening Echo. The game operates by marking local landmarks as hubs. Cork City councillor Kieran McCarthy criticised as "inappropriate" the use of local monuments in this fashion. Quoted in the Echo, Cllr. McCarthy said "It isn't exactly showing respect. There's quite a bit of tragedy surrounding these two monuments and having these colourful creatures on your phone is not appropriate". For anyone unfamiliar with him, Kieran McCarthy is steeped in Cork history, and if you're in or near the city, I highly recommend his walking tour. While I see what he means about the cross between the serious nature of these memorials and the frivolity of the game, I disagree that it's altogether a bad thing.

Too many of our monuments are just walked past, ignored or not even noticed. As I write this I'm sitting on a bench across from the National Monument on Grand Parade and near to the Cenotaph and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorial. People walk past them without paying them any attention - in the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorial, it's so small most people don't even register it.

It's not as if these are the only monuments in Cork, either. The city is littered with monuments, memorials, plaques and signs that herald back to some moment in history. I've lived here all my life and I still come across new ones I hadn't noticed before. No, it's not entirely appropriate for a memorial to people who gave their lives for Irish independence, or victims of a devastating attack, or casualties of war to also be the place where you can catch a Chansey, but I don't think that's what we should be focusing on. My first reaction when I read that story yesterday was to think it was great news - if the game is using monuments as hubs, surely it's brilliant that people are therefore being drawn to them? Sure, like the people who walk into trees, some players won't look up from their phone long enough to learn anything about the monument, but others will. They'll notice the monuments we have, they'll notice what they're about, and they might even notice how there are so very many.

Let's not just condemn this development because it seems frivolous, let's celebrate the fact that our monuments are being used as meeting points, that they'll be noticed and that their meaning will be imparted to, I hope, very many people. After all, history can seem a distant and inaccessible thing too much of the time. The more different and dynamic ways we can find to share it, the better.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Our Example

The Rumour
Earlier this year, while the world was still reeling from the attacks in Paris and Brussels, I was asked about a rumour which some people had seen flying around on Facebook. "Don't go to the Patrick's Day parade in town", a Middle Eastern woman supposedly said, "Stay out if you want to live." Would Isis attack Cork? Over the course of that week I heard that several variations of that rumour were being shared online, but of course it died down once March 17th passed and nothing happened. Not that it ever would have.

Things like this can seem silly and trivial to us, but what about when you consider the impact of social media on young people? I could make up a story where someone told me there would be an incident in town tomorrow afternoon, get my friends and their friends to share it, and before long there's a new rumour making the rounds. I don't for one second blame young people for getting caught up in this, they're still learning about the world. But what they learn about it comes from what they observe, and young people today are exposed to an enormous range of opinion which is at best anti-migrant and anti-immigration and at worst just plan xenophobic and racist – why else was the woman in that rumour Middle Eastern?

The Language
Take the Brexit. Nigel Farage, leader of the Pro-Leave United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), last week unveiled a poster showing a long queue of migrants waiting outside the border of Slovenia last year, with the large, sensational caption "Breaking Point". The poster was condemned by politicians and media outlets from all sides as being flagrantly racist, and it was reported to the police for the same reason. It's been pointed out that the poster and its message look very similar to Nazi propaganda from the 1930s.

Farage stood by it, and he's not the only one. Anti-immigrant language in the UK has become louder and louder over the entire Brexit campaign. Meanwhile, in the US, presidential candidate Donald Trump has made loud headlines for his calls to ban Muslims from entering the US and to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

The Feeling
The rise in anti-immigrant feeling is what gives way to rumours like the one above, and what allows people like Farage and Trump to gain support. A picture is built up of an “Us vs. Them” scenario where our very way of life is under threat. Thankfully, our own politicians haven’t quite jumped on this bandwagon but the sentiment still lurks. Last September, the Government committed to taking in 4,000 Syrian refugees. As the general election drew near, polls and surveys revealed that two thirds of Irish people were against this commitment, believing it to be too high and almost half believing it would lead to an increase in crime.

Let’s put that into perspective. According to the CSO’s most recent Population and Migration estimates, there are a little over 4.6 million people living in the Republic of Ireland today. As a percentage, 4,000 refugees would make up 0.09% of that population. Not even 1%. Not even 0.1%. We can manage that, surely?

The Future
With the world the way it is, the plight of displaced people isn’t going to simply vanish. Of course, like anything a government does, immigration is something that needs a healthy discussion, with various sides of the debate taken into account. But please let’s not allow an “Us vs. Them” mentality to develop here. If it takes root, as it is in Britain and other parts of Europe, we will be teaching our children and young people that it’s okay to discriminate, it’s okay to dehumanise, and it’s okay to reject those who are less fortunate than us. I don’t believe for a second that that’s Ireland’s future, so let’s make sure it isn’t.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

To the 2016 State Exam students

The sky is blue, the sun shines bright and the heat is bordering between lovely and slightly uncomfortable. It's Ireland's famous exam weather, which came early this year but has most certainly remained in place while over 117,453 students sit inside sports halls, classrooms and (if they're really unlucky) prefabs beginning their Junior and Leaving Cert exams.

To all of you who are enduring it, I want to say good luck. It's not always easy, sure, but it's not the end of the world either. So much emphasis is placed on these exams by so many people (myself included, I regret to say) that it really can seem like they are the defining "make or break" moment of your life, particularly the Leaving Cert. Your entire future depends on these two weeks in your 17th, 18th or 19th year. It all comes down to this.

Nonsense, of course. Yes, the exams play an important role in things, but they don't decide your life once and for all. There are a few things you should remember. Firstly, whatever it is you want to do in the future, there are multiple routes to it. There always are. Opportunities can arise from the most unlikely places. Sometimes people don't get the course they wanted only to find that their next choice was even more fulfilling. Sometimes people go down a certain route and then decide it's not them, so they look at what else they could do. Sometimes things don't work out the first time, but they do the next time.

The other thing I want you to remember is that you're doing this not for your parents, or your teachers, or anyone else. You're doing it for yourself. People were criticising the pressure placed on exam students when I did my Leaving Cert over a decade ago. They're still doing so, and starting to do things about it, but progress is slow and hits many bumps along the way. There are some big changes coming up for the Junior Cert in particular, but that doesn't help you now. Talk of reform and a need to lift the pressure doesn't help you, unless the people talking are also actually doing something about it. I don't mean to sound all doom-heavy though. What I mean is that you can try to lift some of the pressure yourself. Just remember: This isn't the be all and end all, and the only person you're doing this for is yourself. If things don't work out the first time, there will be another way. 

If you just do the best you can for yourself, you'll do well. Even if you have a bad day, don't beat yourself up about it. It happens to everyone at some point, if not during the state exams then during an interview or a college assignment or a task at work. The best thing you can do for yourself these next two weeks is to spoil yourself. Have something nice, take plenty of time to relax, talk if you need to, and when it's all done, enjoy the weather (if it's still sticking around)!

Best of luck, all 117,453 of you.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Project/RSR Ideas: The Order of the White Feather

Stuck for a project idea? Every time I come across something interesting I'm going to post it here to help people in need of something good to research.

I never watched Downton Abbey while it was on, but lately I've begun watching through the whole series. It's quite an interesting show from a history teacher's point of view, as it illustrates very well the comfortable life of the upper classes in Britain, and the challenges faced by the working class. Whether you're a Junior Cert student looking at social history and life in industrial England, or a Leaving Cert student looking at the First World War or Britain's fortunes after it, it's a decent show to gain some insights from.

One insight I got it from it concerned people's attitudes to the war. In one episode, the family are hosting a concert to raise funds for the war effort. It starts off nicely, until two women suddenly get up from their seats and walk around handing white feathers to the civilian men present. The feather is meant as a symbol of cowardice, and the women's aim is to shame the men for not having joined the fighting. This incident spurs one of the recipients, footman William Mason, to enlist.

I hadn't heard about this before, so I looked it up and found that it was quite a common practice. The Order of the White Feather was established after the beginning of the war by an admiral, Charles Fitzgerald, and an author, Mrs. Humphrey Ward. The Order's aim was indeed to shame men who hadn't enlisted to fight in the war - although if you think about it, it would be very unrealistic to expect every man to do, when there are many essential occupations that people couldn't just abandon. The British government was quick to cop on to this, and gave male employees in the civil service with "King and Country" badges to show that they were "doing their bit" for the war effort. The white feather movement was also adopted by prominent suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst.

Of course, it's completely incorrect to label men who did not want to enlist as cowards. Many were conscientious objectors who did not want to risk their life fighting in a war that in the end, would change nothing for them. A very interesting resource is The White Feather Diaries, a collection of writings from those who refused to enlist.

If you're interested in pursuing this as a project topic, look for sources that deal with World War I, attitudes to the war at home, and the suffragette movement.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

"Have I Actually Taught Them Anything?"

I was always a quiet person. I have a low voice and I don't say in fifty words what I can say in five (verbally, anyway). I also always wanted to be a teacher, but from time to time - with the best intentions in the world - those close to me would question whether I'd be able for it. I always said I'd try, and try I did. I'll never forget waiting outside the classroom to teach my first class as a student teacher. I had never taught before. I vividly recall standing there, holding my books, smiling nervously when other teachers passing by said good luck. And then it was time. I walked in, and there was a sea of about thirty faces, all staring at me. Luckily, they were new First Years and were just as quiet and nervous as I was. I could feel myself go red as I looked at this sea of faces... and I just started talking about history. I haven't yet stopped.

I remain a quiet person, but I'm a quiet person who's able to teach. The years have flown by and I find myself more and more comfortable and confident in it. But there are times, still, when I question whether I should be teaching at all. Have I done a good job? Have I explained this right? Have I given them a useful class? Have I actually taught them anything? Am I a bad teacher?

I ask myself these things a lot. Sometimes I answer in the negative. I had planned a series of lessons with Sixth Years in October about the Rising and its aftermath, and with the centenary coming up I wanted to make it big. I did up lots of notes and handouts, and off I went... Except I made it far too complicated. And that's not to talk down about my students, who have been brilliant all year. I mean I had prepared stuff along the lines of Third Level material. I don't know how I did it. I always prided myself on being able to plan lessons well. It took a few weeks to get things back on track after I confused my students, because I just floundered when planning the rest of the topic.

Looking back now, it seems a very silly thing to have worried about. Teachers make mistakes all the time. But I really was so annoyed with myself. There are days that are so busy and hectic that I find I don't seem to be teaching much, rather I'm just giving exercises and not really engaging. There are days when I feel tired and I allow the class to go off on a tangent about the US presidential race or ISIS or the refugee crisis. Those days happen. Not often, but they happen.

As we prepare for the end of the school year and the exams in June I find myself thinking a lot about moments like that, and my lesson planning mishap, and instead of parlaying myself for it I realise that I've learned from it. I was so annoyed at myself for getting that plan wrong that I've put a lot of extra thought into my plans since. I get annoyed at myself for having "zone-out" classes that I stop myself and make sure every class I have will count for something. Sometimes it still doesn't quite work out. I'm not a perfect teacher. But I'm not a bad teacher either. 

What got me thinking about all of this today was that one of the students in that sea of faces who were introduced to their nervous History teacher that day launched a book of poetry. Seeing how confident she was and thinking back to how she was also a very, very quiet person and how far she's come made me think of how much can change in a very short time, and the reflective mood just continued from there! The book launch was part of the Cork Life Centre's Edmund Rice Conference Week, which you can read more about here.

During the Dip year, I wrote pages upon pages of reflections about each lesson I taught. At times it was tedious and exhausting, but it was valuable in that it made me stop and think about what I was doing. I might not write reflections like that anymore, but I think this year I've remembered that stopping and thinking about things helps a huge amount. Teachers have to do this, because if you think about it, our job is never really the same year after year. It might seem like it is, but there are so many changes - in policy, in curriculums, in popular culture, in technologies and communication, that the kids we'll see even in just five years will be quite a bit different from the kids we see now.  How can we judge if we're doing well or not? We can only stop and think.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

1916 at the Cork Life Centre

It's Proclamation Day, and schools all around the country have been commemorating one of the single most important documents in all of Irish history. Here at the Cork Life Centre, things were no different! Situated in what used to be the Lord Mayor's house, with a view of the entire city, and an ethos that goes all the way back to the work of Edmund Rice in the 19th century, the Life Centre's staff and students have always been keenly aware of history and more than prepared to celebrate it.

We began in September, with students from all years hearing lessons on the lead up to the Rising, the week itself and the aftermath. A small copy of the Proclamation was put up in every classroom, and before the month was even out, some of our students had the opportunity to attend the removal of the remains of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa from Collins Barracks.

By October we had begun drama workshops in preparation for our performance of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in May. The interest in the production has been huge, and as it's come together over the last few months we've seen new talents discovered, explored and developed. As the cast have gotten to know their characters, they've learned about what the 1916 Rising would have meant for them, and by proxy, very many ordinary people living in Ireland at the time who may not have played an active role in the developments of that week, but whose lives were no less affected.

Local historian Philip Johnston visited us and delivered a talk about Roger Casement and his mission on the Aud. He brought with him some artifacts recovered from the ship's wreckage, and replicas of the kinds of weapons Casement was trying to smuggle for the rebellion.

Our students also got involved in the Make A Book project in Cork City Hall, with a book about the Cork City Gaol during the time of the rebellion - we even got a replica of the key!

Members of the Defence Forces visited the Life Centre earlier in March and presented us with the national flag, replica copies of the Proclamation, and the lyrics of Amhrán na bhFiann. We were very grateful for the time they gave us, especially considering we have some students interested in joining the Defence Forces themselves. Lieutenant McKeown and Gunner O'Mahony from 1 Brigade Artillery Regiment spent time with our students to answer their questions about how to join and the work that would be involved.

Thanks to resources shared on the History Teachers Association of Ireland Facebook page, we've changed our room numbers to names - the seven signatories adorn the doors of our main classrooms.

That's not their only presence in the Life Centre, however. For the past few weeks, our students and their Art teachers have been working on huge wooden displays for each of the seven signatories. One by one they appeared on our rails, in the same order in which their names are listed on the Proclamation, until the group was finally complete today.

With the signatories on the rails behind us, the entire Life Centre community gathered today to mark Proclamation Day. Students and staff read sections of the Proclamation aloud, we raised three flags - the national flag, the flag of the Irish Republic, and the Starry Plough, before singing Amhrán na bhFiann together.

The copies we received from the Defence Forces now adorn our classroom walls, and a large replica of the Proclamation now hangs above our staircase, surrounded by several "mini-proclamations - our students and staff have been writing down their hopes for Ireland's future. After all, it's been a hundred years since Pearse, Connolly and the other rebels first read the Proclamation aloud to the people of Ireland. The ideals contained within it are not confined to the past, and the best way we can honour the men and women who fought not just in the Rising, but the entire independence struggle, is by looking to the future of Ireland, and asking ourselves: what we can do to reach those ideals?

With the school day ending, everyone has left the building today with a richer sense of what the Proclamation really means, and as the evening sun shines outside, we're all looking to the future of our Centre, our nation, our republic, our Ireland.

These celebrations have been possible through the hard work of the entire Centre community, but special thanks must go to Art teachers Helen and Mary, Drama teacher Michael, History teachers Claire and Ken, Construction teacher Brendan, Make-A-Book co-ordinator Sheelin, and all of the staff and students who contributed to the Proclamation display and who took part in today's celebrations. We would also like to say a huge thanks to the members of the Defence Forces who visited us and who invited us to the removal in September.

We leave you with the words of some of our staff and students...