A Chess set and a social experiment

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Collaboration, social flow and a search for a school vision.  It was prompted by an afternoon of brainstorming by the teaching staff about the sort of school of the future that we wanted to achieve in the forthcoming years. At the table I sat at, with a group of five of us we found ourselves focussing rather on the social aspects of education.  Exam results are important, but the feeling we had was that a well-functioning social environment is also extremely important.  The sense of well-being, at all levels, of an educational institution also has a significant role to play in a healthy learning environment.

My own personal feeling is that the general levels of social engagement should be given more priority and we should be considering ways of facilitating interaction and in the long-term improving a feeling of wellbeing between pupils and pupils, staff and pupils and indeed also amongst the staff.

I left the discussion afternoon with the feeling that I wanted to do something.  I reflected back on my own secondary school days and remembered with fondness the inter-year football league that was played during the lunch breaks and featured a couple of teams made up of the teaching staff.  It did, back then, undoubtedly bring the school together. 

I’d been sitting on an idea, not unrelated to this, for a while.  A modest step that I could perhaps individually realize.  I decided I was going to make a large-scale chess board and accompanying pieces and then just one day leave them standing in the hall at school, take a step back and see what happened.

Two weeks later after many before and after school drawing, sawing and painting sessions I was finished, plywood pieces on a 120×120 cm board.  I carried it down to the hall after the lunchbreak.  A few groups of pupils were sitting around, taking it easy during a free lesson.  I set it up, took a photo for myself and withdrew to the balcony around the hall to look down on my handy work.  I really wasn’t sure, were the pupils at the school really waiting for a giant chess set?  Would they play?  Would there respect the pieces and leave them where they are meant to be?  Would it just become an ornament that nobody touched?  I had no idea.

I needn’t have worried, literally within two minutes the first game started. The early signs were good!

Since then, we’re a week further on, the board has been in virtually constant use, from early in the morning until the very end of the day. Serious players, beginners and everything in between, often with large groups watching and discussing the action.  It has been such a pleasure to watch.

Often it really hasn’t been the groups of pupils that I’d expected to see.  The problem cases, required to stay behind at the end of the school day have been playing, the youngest in the school, the oldest and yes, the staff too.  I really seems to be working the way I hoped, its fabulous to see, dare I hope that it will continue?  The signs are good, but I’m realistic enough to know that we will have to wait and see!

I find myself pondering what to do next. I have a number of possibilities, but perhaps first up is a sister board for the chess set, but this time the popular Dutch game dammen, comparable to draughts, but played on a larger board and a few small differences in rules. An extra job for after the Christmas holidays!

A mention for classes h3p and h3q

In the socially distanced classrooms that we are encountering in education at the moment a special mention should go out to my two 3rd year (14 year olds) classes.  Both are small classes an I find myself with no fewer than twelve empty desks in the room.  All the pupils in Dutch schools are being required to keep at least 1.5 metres of distance from their teachers.  Both h3p and h3q have taken this advice to the limit, they seem to care for my health and well-being to the extreme.  Every lesson they pile into the classroom and insist on making sure that there is a good four if not five metres between me and them, they couldn’t put any more distance between me and them if they tried.

Or……it could of course be that they are displaying the more recognised teenage behaviour of wanting to sit at the back of the bus, back of the hall, back of the cinema, back of the theatre, back of the bike shed, the back of anything else that is going, and yes, the back of the classroom! 

But on a more positive note, I do feel a general respect of my personal space from the pupils I teach, and if they do creep a little too close it is simply through enthusiasm for the drawings they want to show me, and don’t seem to mind at all to be reminded to take a step back.

A film of our times – with a Dickensian echo

As the titles moved up the screen, a silence held the cinema, nobody moved.

The film we had just watched was Ken Loach’s Sorry we missed you.  Loach is well known for films with a social charge. His previous film I, Daniel Blake followed the struggles of and unemployed carpenter and a single mother through the UK’s social security system.  In Sorry we missed you we follow the life of a delivery van driver, his wife who is a care worker and their family.

The film is captivating, but anything but an easy watch. There are small glimmers of hope to be found here and there. The resilience of family bonds even in the most demanding of circumstances for example. But overall, it is a grim and punishing indictment of the world we live in of zero-hours contracts, scant employment rights and impossible demands thrown down on employees who are left with few choices or opportunities to build a career or even a stable existence.

Loach offers an insight into what goes on behind our online orders, it is not a pretty sight. As it is presented in the film it is no understatement to say that it is an abusive system.

As my wife and I discussed the film on the way home, we both felt like the film had put us through a emotional mangle, where social compassion and responsibility had been all but squeezed out. We were struck by how Dickensian it all felt.  This is a free market economy at its extreme where the workers at the end of the chain have few rights and protections.

It is a very British film, set in a clearly very British context. The EU does have its faults and difficulties, but it does take issues such as employment rights relatively seriously.  Is a post Brexit UK is unlikely to see improvements in this area?

A film for school?

Whenever I watch a movie, be it at home or in the cinema, always at the back of my mind is whether the film could be one that finds its way into the film study course I do with the 15 year olds that teach. Sorry we missed you is no exception.  And yes, part of me really wants to give my pupils a look at this one.

It would be a massive step outside of their normal film consumption of super-hero movies and rom-coms. But given the right framing up in the lesson material leading up to it I think it could be incredibly interesting.

The crucial question is always whether the film would engage them and capture the attention?  Well, it portrays a world that would be recognizable in the sense that it is a family unit with teenage children, and does it using a narrative than progresses with considerable twists and turns.The social injustices of this particular strand of the working world would certainly be an interesting discussion to have. There is a lot on offer here, and we haven’t yet started to consider the aspects of filmmaking beyond the narrative and, in this case, the social points being made.

 

Guessing your future…the unexpected happens

The fourteen and fifteen year olds that I teach are in the process of starting to think about their so called ‘profile choices’, the point in their journey through secondary school where they can drop a few subjects and possibly choose one or two new ones.

In the Dutch contFullSizeRender(8)ext where I teach, it is a relatively small range of possibilities that they select from, at the end of it all they still have a timetable with between eight to ten different subjects. As far as future university studies or career choices are concerned a great many options are still open with such a broad knowledge base. Yet somehow the message that seems to settle in the minds of the pupils, partly through the input that they get from school and partly from family and friends, is that even at this early stage they are stepping onto the rails that will lead them to their future chosen career.

I have to admit to having some problems with the system that creates the impression within the minds of the pupils that they are somehow choosing a future career at the age of fifteen. This degree of certainty is something of an illusion, there are so many twists and turns on the educational road ahead, coupled with the fact that the nature of work and employment is in such flux, that many jobs and employment opportunities of the future are unimaginable to us when viewed from the present.

But actually my bigger problem with the message that seems to be getting through to the pupils choosing their subjects for next year is that every choice should be related to simple career perspectives. Choosing a subject because (a) you simply enjoy it or (b) it may contribute to your development as a person or even (c) because it allows you to use skills you seem to have that other subject areas ignore all are largely ignored in the whole process.

Neither education or life are linear processes where everything fits so neatly into one career game plan. It is an illusion to think that it should. In addition to this education should be seen as a more holistic process. We have a role to play in shaping the individual and creating balanced and broad minded citizens for the future. We need to value and nurture the variety of skills our young people have, encourage them to use and develop them all. Our educational systems have a tendency to value only academic development, neglecting the social, creative and expressive.

Almost as if to illustrate the way in which career choices in the real world have a tendency to twist and turn in unexpected ways I listened yesterday to a talk given by an ex-pupil of our school to the very same pupils I had been talking to about their selection of subjects to earlier. She left the school some twelve years ago to study law at the nearby University of Tilburg with ideas in mind to become a criminal lawyer, as she put it herself, “like you see on the tv!”. However, due to people she met and elements of the courses she followed her interests started to broaden and take her focus to unexpected areas. She has now worked for the Dutch ministry of Defense and NATO, being particularly involved in projects that focus on the place of women and children in lands that have been effected by conflict and has taken her to various places including extended placements in Afghanistan.