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.