Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Blogging

I've been teaching for three years now. That isn't a very long time at all, indeed the first of those three years was my PDE (H.Dip) year. So the thought crossed my mind that it might be a bit rich of myself to start putting my ideas and thoughts about learning and teaching on to a blog when I still have so much to learn. Maybe some people would think so. But if I were to encounter a student doubting him or herself in a similar way, I would tell them not to let those doubts decide what they do. So I've no excuse for letting mine!

I taught for one year in a mainstream school and for two (and counting) at an alternative education centre. The things I've learned in those three years have helped me to become a better teacher, and a better person. I learned these things not just from the H.Dip program, not just from senior colleagues, but from my students as well. That's the thing about education - it's not merely teachers teaching students, it's people learning from people. My students learn from me, and I learn from them. That's the way I always want it to be, and that's the way it should be.

So one of the reasons I decided to start this, against the somewhat dour advice of the doubting voice in my head, was to write down for myself what I've learned, so that it isn't merely swimming around in my increasingly forgetful mind. Teachers are trained to reflect from Day 1 of their teaching practice: what worked in this lesson? What didn't? What can I do better? As frustrating an experience as writing those reflections could sometimes be every night, it's something that all teachers should remember to keep doing. We can all do better. There's no such thing as a perfect teacher, but we can try!

When I first set this site up two years ago, I intended it for use in my classes, and didn't put much thought into it beyond that. The fact that it became so popular (over 340,000 views in total since August 2012) and that it has received such positive and encouraging feedback is amazing and also very humbling. I became a teacher to help people, so knowing that the work I've done on this site has been doing just that makes it more than worthwhile. I hope that what I write here will prove worthwhile too - teachers have so much to say, and we should all be saying it!

The new school year starts in two weeks. It will bring with it challenges, opportunities, successes, failures, laughs and drama. And not just for me - for everyone. Students, teachers, parents... we're all part of the same world. What will we learn from each other this year?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Why Should We Learn About History?

I spent two nervous hours in my school last June, waiting for my students to come out from their Junior Cert History exam. As I paced a corridor, I thought about the work they’d done so far, their time in the school, and everything they’d been through – good and bad – to get to where they are now. My thoughts turned to their future. What would they become? What successes and challenges would they meet? What would their stories be? As a History teacher, I couldn’t help but think of this. I love stories.

The Question
Every History teacher in the country can attest to hearing the Dreaded Question at least once a year: “What’s the point in learning about this?” This question became a national discussion with former Minister Ruairi Quinn’s plans to remove History as a compulsory subject in the Junior Cycle and his challenge to historians to show why History should matter to 12-year-olds and their parents.
The Dreaded Question is actually a good one. Sure, there are many dramatic, exciting topics in the History course, such as World War II, the American Revolution, and the Irish struggle for independence, but then there are other, less exciting topics such as early Christian Ireland and the Plantations. Indeed, what is the point in learning about them?

The Story
Imagine reading the third book of the Hunger Games series without ever reading the first two, or watching Game of Thrones from the most recent episode without ever watching the earlier seasons. Sure, you’ll pick up on bits and pieces of the story as you go along, but without reading or watching what happened before, you’ll never gain a complete sense of the story, the events that have happened in it, and what the characters have been through. Every character has an origin and every story has a beginning, including our own.

We live in the longest-running and most complex story there has ever been. Most of us exist in this story as background characters, only a few of us go on to influence the overall plot. Some parts of the story began a long time ago, other parts are just starting now.

Take, for instance, the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the long-running discrimination and bigotry that resulted in decades of death and destruction. It’s certainly a dramatic story, and much more likely to capture the attention of students then, say, the Plantations – but how can one understand the former without the latter? The Plantations may come across as dull and uninteresting, but they’re a prequel to the partition of Ireland and the Troubles. History is full of prequels and sequels. The world we live in today is a sequel of sorts to the events of World War II. It will in turn become the prequel to something else.

The Characters
Of course, just because most of us might be background characters in the larger story, that doesn’t mean we’re barely a part of it. We all have our own stories: where we came from, what we’ve been through, and how we came to be who we are. Even if we never turn out to be as prominent a character as Rosa Parks, Michael Collins, Mary Robinson or Barack Obama, we still have our individual parts to play – just as each of those four people did before they were famous, and just as they would have done anyway.

Irish people often tend to cherish our stories. The struggle for independence still captures peoples’ imaginations today, and we have given a great amount of attention to commemorating the many centenaries that take place in this decade – not least the one coming up in 2016. Even Ruairi Quinn himself acknowledges the importance of the story and his role in it – he wrote about it in his 2005 memoir, Straight Left.

The Historians
So, how can we expect children growing up today to enter this story as adults if they don’t know what’s already happened in it? How can someone properly understand the economic downturn, the Garda surveillance controversy, or the recent horrible discovery in Tuam without knowing what previously happened in the story that led to these events?

Ireland has developed around that story. Our cities and towns have developed around that story, and we as individuals have developed around that story. The popularity of shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and The Genealogy Roadshow is evidence enough of our desire to know the origins of our part in the story. To answer Ruairi Quinn’s challenge, historians don’t need to convince anyone that History matters. We have always been a nation of historians.

The Future
My students came out of the exam centre in dribs and drabs. We chatted about the exam, and I congratulated them on all their hard work and effort. I was still thinking of their future as they walked off: how their stories would tie in to the larger one in which we all live. As they get older, those students will experience the latest twists and turns of that story. How can we expect them to live in it if they don’t know what twists and turns have happened already?

This post appeared on TheJournal.ie on 7 August 2014.