Tuesday, 11 October 2016

What Donald Trump Means For Our Teaching

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo: politico.com
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.