Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul

 

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

Remember the Children of Peshawar

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Peshawar, a historic city with many beautiful landmarks, including this, the Sunehri Mosque. Sadly it is today associated with far more negative feelings.

Children often demonstrate the most stubborn resilience. Thank goodness they do.

Driving to work this morning I was reminded by an item which I heard on my car radio, that it is the anniversary of the dreadful massacre of innocents that occurred at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 16th last year. Writing about the atrocity on this blog at that time, I described the perpetrators of this mass murder of 122 children and 22 teachers as thugs, and suggested that one of their motivations for this evil deed was their fear that education will ultimately produce an increased number of people who are prepared to condemn their particular brand of bigotry, and stand against their violence and hatred. I have had no reason in the intervening year to change my mind on this matter.

A visit to the website of Dawn, the Pakistan, English Language national newspaper, confirmed what I had expected. A significant amount of space in today’s edition has been devoted to remembering this cowardly act, but even more column inches are given over to a celebration of the courage with which children and their parents have rebuilt a school community and reaffirmed their right to education. Several articles in today’s newspaper consider the current state of Pakistan and its efforts to address security issues and the fear of terrorism, but at the centre of many of the arguments is a reflection on the impact of this specific tragic event upon the lives of children and their families. The words of the journalist Zahid Hussain are fairly typical of the tone set on the paper’s opinion pages when he writes:-

“It was, perhaps, the gravest moment even for this country that has seen so many tragedies and bled so many times. The wounds of parents losing their children can never be healed. Those who escaped the macabre dance of death are back in school traumatised by the memories of their colleagues mowed down in front of them. Their lives can never be the same again.”

Whilst several writers have tried to capture the mood in Peshawar, and to reflect upon how we might interpret the terrible events of December 2014, they cannot hope to achieve the eloquence that is contained in the commemorative pages that dominate today’s edition of Dawn. Under the heading 144 Stories, the newspaper presents a narrative of each of the victims who died that day at the hands of a group of criminals. These stories convey understandable anger, incomprehension, desperation and fear, but many also are filled with compassion, hope and even forgiveness. I found it impossible to read more than a few of these accounts as the poignancy of the words and the feelings so personally expressed quickly become unbearable.

The tragedy of that day last December is peculiarly juxtaposed now here in England, as elsewhere in the world, when families prepare to celebrate Christmas. Many of us look forward to spending time with family and friends, but most particularly with children and grandchildren. Perhaps reading accounts such as those that are published today in Dawn serve an important function in insisting that we reflect upon those freedoms and relationships that we can so easily take for granted, and in ensuring that we are never complacent about the need to stand up against those who would undermine the values which so many of us hold dear. This is not simply an issue for Pakistan, but one for which we must all accept some responsibility. It is one in particular that those of us who are teachers should ensure continues to be discussed in our classrooms and with our students and colleagues.

My words are wholly inadequate in addressing a topic of such gravity, and cannot possibly hold a candle to those used to convey the 144 stories presented in Dawn. If you have time today to read only one page from a single newspaper, you would find it hard to better invest your time than in reading the one highlighted below.

 

http://www.dawn.com/news/1223313/144stories-remembering-lives-lost-in-the-peshawar-school-attack

 

Donald is not an easy boy to like, but still we must try to include him!

It's difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

It’s difficult to see the beauty of the world if you have a paper bag stuck on your head!

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump,

It is with great sadness that I find it necessary once again to write to you regarding both the academic performance and the conduct of your son Donald. I am sorry to say that in recent weeks he has failed to provide any evidence of progress in most areas of the school curriculum, and his behaviour has become an increasing cause of embarrassment to the school.

I am fairly certain that much of what follows in this letter will come as little surprise to yourselves, particularly as together we have monitored Donald’s idiosyncrasies over an extended period of time, and I am sure that like us, you recognise that he gives the impression of living much of his life in a fantasy world, which of late has resulted in the most alarming delusions of grandeur. Indeed, in a recent conversation with the school’s careers teacher he even made the preposterous suggestion that he thought he might stand next year for the post of head boy. Whilst we would not wish to deter any of our students from standing for such a prestigious post in school, and indeed we are proud of our democratic traditions, I have to say I find it hard to believe that any of our students, who have a reputation for intelligence and fair play would be likely to support Donald in seeking such a position.

The difficulties which Donald presents in school are many, but I feel obliged to draw your attention to a few specific issues brought to my notice by some of his teachers.

Mr Clarke, our excellent head of history has this term been addressing a syllabus that recalls the early settlement of our post-Colombian nation. This most exciting and informative topic is always popular with students who are eager to trace their own origins and explore the possibility that they may have ancestral roots from many parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately Donald, who appears to believe that he is of pure “white American” extraction, caused some consternation in the class by suggesting that his classmates Michael Beaumont and Elizabeth Burns may not be authentic American citizens and should be considered for repatriation to France and Scotland respectively. When Mr Clarke ventured to suggest that the name Trump was thought to be of Germanic origin from the term “trumpe” indicating the player of a drum, Donald resorted to his usual strategy of threatening to begin litigation against his teacher. Incidentally I still have thirty badly written letters purporting to be from Donald’s legal representatives on my desk.

Sadly, I can report similar issues from his Geography teacher Miss Grainger, who is in despair over the fact that whilst Donald claims to have a personal connection to young ladies who are the holders of dubious titles such as Miss Venezuela, Miss Panama, Miss Sweden, and Miss Dominican Republic, he was unable to locate any of these nations in his atlas. Miss Grainer is of the opinion that Donald needs to get out a little more. Unfortunately he appears to have little inclination to find out much about the world around him, declaring an aversion to “foreign” and a reluctance to engage with those beyond a small and equally insular coterie.

In citizenship lessons, I’m afraid Donald fares no better. Earlier this week his class were asked to write an essay on the significance today of those magnificent words from Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. I am sure you know them well, but let me just remind you:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Donald took a novel approach to this task by producing an extensive list of exclusion clauses. I won’t trouble you with the detail, particularly as his reasoning was at best flawed and some might well say deranged. However, it would appear that Donald sees no place in the “Land of the Free” for those of the Muslim faith, journalists with disabilities, Mexicans, gay couples or others who may be in dire straits and currently sleeping on the streets of our cities. Furthermore, the recent expressions of ignorance that have poured from his mouth have even disappointed his English pen friend Boris who has announced the cancellation of an intended visit to our school in fear that he might feel obliged to soundly box Donald’s ears.

Despite our continued efforts to accommodate his eccentricities, Donald remains isolated from most of his peers in school and appears to have aligned himself with a particularly disreputable and unsavoury group of youths who congregate outside of the school gate using offensive language, much of which is directed towards other students as they leave the premises. Whilst many of the staff here see Donald as a hapless buffoon, rather in the nature of Homer Simpson, I’m afraid I take a rather less charitable view and see him as being more in the vein of Rasputin or Cruella DeVil.

I trust you will recognise that we have gone the extra mile in tolerating Donald’s bizarre nature. We have been flexible in the administration of our no animals in school policy, allowing him to bring his pet gerbil to class each day; though we still fail to see the reason why he insists on wearing this poor creature on his head. We have made every effort to address the fact that he has difficulty making friends, but sadly his abusive use of social media has made those more respectful students wary of being associated with him.

Reading through what I have written about Donald in this letter, I suspect that what I have to say next may come as something of a surprise. I am sure that there are many schools in this district who would be throwing in the towel at this point, who would be saying enough is enough, and this boy must go. However, this is not our way at the Harriet Tubman Academy, where we pride ourselves on being an inclusive school. Here we have a philosophy of opening our doors to all students, regardless of need or ability. I must admit at a staff meeting yesterday we spent a considerable time revisiting our school principles, but after some debate we have now amended all of our school documentation, and to the declaration that stated that “we welcome all pupils regardless of their race, religion, colour, socio-economic status or sexuality” we have added a clause indicating that “we even do our very best for bigots!”

I do hope that you and your family, including Donald, enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas holiday, and that he may return in the new year with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. If you could encourage him to make a single new year’s resolution, might I suggest that keeping his mouth shut whenever something offensive comes into his mind might be a good start.

Yours sincerely

A. Lincoln

School Principal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Euphemism cannot hide the desperate plight of some children

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

I receive regular email updates from an organisation named Team Around the Child (TAC). These often provide useful information about new publications or events related to children with special educational needs, or those living in difficult circumstances. The TAC newsletter and other resources are managed by a man named Peter Limbrick. I have never met Peter, but certainly feel some affinity to his ideas and the commitment that he has given to keeping the needs of children and families in focus for all who care to listen to what he has to say.

Peter Limbrick is often referred to as an activist, working on behalf of children with disabilities and their families, and inevitably at times this places him in opposition, and even conflict with those authorities and policy makers who he perceives to be falling short of delivering effective support and services. Such campaigners are, in my opinion, essential if we are to avoid complacency with regards to the rights of children.

I usually find something of interest in the TAC newsletter, and when one arrived in my inbox yesterday I was not disappointed by its contents. I have made a note to seek out the details of a new DVD about the use of intensive interaction from Dave Hewett, which may well provide a useful teaching resource, and I forwarded details of a forthcoming conference on autism spectrum disorders to be held in New Orleans to some of my colleagues. As a source of such information, this newsletter is always welcome and I have on several occasions accessed useful teaching materials from this much appreciated newsletter.

Whilst the information contained in this latest edition was welcome, it was an item titled Collateral Damage – A Sorry Little Phrase, that grabbed my attention. Rather than announcing a new publication or resource, or highlighting a course or conference opportunity, this link took me to a personal reflection from Peter Limbrick which could well provide a useful source for debate. Limbrick opens this brief piece by stating that:

“The term ‘collateral damage’ is trotted out to make the death or damage of innocent people in conflict zones seem like an unfortunate inevitability. We are invited to think it is much the same as infirmity with old age and disturbed nights with a new baby. We don’t like it but we are persuaded it has to happen”.

He continues the article by suggesting that whenever there is armed conflict it is invariably the most vulnerable and innocent members of society who suffer most. He provides a harrowing example of a five year old child killed in a bombing raid, despite the fact that she and her family had no direct part to play in the conflict that brought about her early death, other than that of being yet another victim.

Limbrick suggests that by using the term collateral damage we are in fact accepting that such tragedies are an acceptable and inevitable part of life for families in war zones. The ways in which we define this term are almost always euphemistic, but Peter Limbrick offers an alternative view in which he suggests that we could well understand collateral damage as meaning

  • Parents who had children and now do not
  • Children who had parents but are now orphaned
  • Youngsters who had all four limbs and now have to manage without some of them
  • Babies, children, teenagers, adults and elderly people who had a complete brain and now have some of it missing
  • People whose skin used to be soft and smooth and is now burned all over and painful
  • Families broken apart, traumatised and displaced
  • Girls and boys who could see, hear, play, talk and sing – but now cannot

This is a chilling list, but sadly it is one that seems wholly appropriate at a time when I am sure children and families in many parts of the world are living in fear as their homes and communities find themselves in the front line of conflict. The debate about military action in Syria held in the UK Parliament last week was certainly to the forefront of my mind as I read Peter Limbrick’s words.

Peter Limbrick’s item in the TAC newsletter is brief and stark. I am sure that it could provide a useful stimulus for further debate, I am equally sure that it will ruffle more than a few feathers. Being located amongst other articles that provide a positive perspective on how greater support can be afforded to  children and families experiencing difficulties, I am struck by the juxtaposition of hope and despair on a page. Let us hope that the former overcomes the latter.

 

 

Good news about teachers just doesn’t sell newspapers!

 

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

When this teacher does her job well nobody will notice

Sometimes it feels like the opinions of teachers count for very little when judgements are being made about the quality of education provided for children. It is often the case that when children are perceived to be under performing in schools, or there are media reports about discipline issues, fingers are quickly pointed at teachers as the sole cause of the problems reported.

Here in England there was a time when the views of teachers were eagerly sought by education policy makers at local and national levels. Politicians and administrators were keen to obtain the opinions of those who were working in classrooms in order to inform their ideas, influence policies and bring about change. Sadly, in recent years this has become a less common approach, with a great deal of educational policy made by politicians without recourse to the opinions of teachers, who are often then seen to be held responsible when things don’t quite work out as intended.

It was therefore heartening yesterday to read a research report titled “The Voice of Teachers” which within its introductory pages states that it :-

“aims to move beyond cliché and misrepresentation, bringing to the fore teachers’ own perceptions regarding the education universe they inhabit”.

Perhaps at last, I thought, we have a report that will respect the views of those who work most closely in classrooms, and can provide insights into their professional lives, with all of the concomitant successes and challenges that typify every day school life. Indeed, within a very short time of commencing my read I found that the experiences of the 823 teachers and 441 head teachers interviewed for this research were being presented and discussed in a manner that was respectful, empathetic and realistic in interpretation. There was little evidence of rose tinted glasses in the report’s presentation of facts and figures, but neither was there an apportioning of blame where specific difficulties were identified and shortcomings discussed. Overall the document presents an honest appraisal of school life, drawing upon the perspectives of experienced school professionals alongside a review of significant facts and figures. On reaching the final pages of the report I found myself wondering, why more reports should not draw upon this rich seam of data, provided by teachers and presented in a well-balanced and lucid manner. If only I could find such a document within my own country!

Ah yes, you see, the report in question adopts an approach seldom seen in today’s English education system and comes in fact from Pakistan.

Alif Ailaan is a campaigning organisation in Pakistan that encourages public discourse around education in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is in part funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development. The organisation has a stated goal to “get every Pakistani girl and boy into school, keep them learning and ensure that they receive a quality education”. This is the kind of statement that is made by many government and non-government agencies across the globe. However, in the case of Alif Ailaan the approach to achieving such a goal appears to be considerably different from that adopted by many others. They are certainly not afraid of being critical of teachers where they feel that this is necessary, but rather than simply apportioning blame, they are committed to looking beyond the headlines to understand the conditions in schools, and how teachers can be supported to address these. This is apparent early in “The Voice of Teachers,” which reports the research commissioned by them in which a clear and balanced statement is made:-

“The teacher is at the heart of the education system. In Pakistan, however, the discourse on education often attributes to teachers virtually everything that is wrong with the system. There is little doubt that teacher performance in the classroom is below par, considering the consistently low learning outcomes recorded through examinations and assessments at all levels of schooling. But is the teacher entirely to blame for this situation?”

The research that informed this report provided data from both questionnaires and interviews, and identified examples of both good practice and shortcomings in classrooms. Among the issues which were identified as problematic in Pakistan’s schools, were overcrowded classrooms, poor quality textbooks, a lack of facilities and equipment, and inadequate professional development opportunities for teachers. The report does not overlook the impact of poverty, stating quite clearly that there are many children attending schools who are malnourished and therefore lack the energy to learn effectively.

Despite the many challenges faced by teachers, the authors of the report described them as being willing to learn and improve their performance, and certainly not lacking in motivation. Many express the opinion that they gain great satisfaction from enabling their students to learn.

The researchers identify many shortcomings in the education system within the country, but at the conclusion of the report they state that:-

 “If there is one clear message from our study, it is that responsibility for the failure to deliver high-quality education does not lie at the doorstep of teachers alone. In fact many of the challenges that teachers face daily have as much to do with their own capacities as with policies and procedures far removed from ground realities and in dire need of an overhaul. It is up to provincial governments to take on this challenge”.

Having read what I consider to be a fair and evenly presented report, which judging from the data that is clearly presented within its pages gives an honest appraisal of schools within Pakistan, I found myself wondering how it would be reported in the press. Dawn, the influential Pakistan national newspaper, often provides well written and interesting articles depicting life within the country. Surely then I would find a report within its pages that would praise the efforts of teachers, whilst discussing the poor resourcing of schools, inadequate training opportunities and large class sizes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but sadly I found only one article discussing this report and far from praising the work of teachers, this reported that:-

“Over 70 per cent of teachers in Pakistan agree with the statement that corporal punishment is useful.”

This was indeed a finding from the research, and I should not have been surprised that it was singled out for attention by the media. I too was appalled that corporal punishment continues to be seen as a legitimate means of maintaining order in Pakistan’s schools, but just for once it would have been good to see a report that emphasised some of the more positive characteristics of teachers working for the benefits of children, often under the demanding of circumstances. Reporting fairly on the findings of this research could well have provided a much needed boost to teacher confidence – but then, good news rarely makes for attention grabbing headlines!

 

Glittering Prizes?

Prize or portent?

Prize or portent?

Yesterday evening, a colleague from the university was returning to her old school on a mission. I happened to meet her as we were both walking to the carpark at the end of another busy day, and it was during this brief perambulation that she disclosed her apprehensions about the evening ahead. It appears that several months ago she received an invitation from her alma mater to present the prizes at the school’s annual celebration of the achievements of its pupils. At the time, she told me, this seemed like a good idea. Indeed she was flattered by the wording of the invitation stating that as a distinguished alumnus of the school, a well-respected historian and author of a number of key texts, they would be honoured if she would accept their invitation. However, as the moment drew ever nearer she began to wonder why she had ever agreed to this request. She had had recurring visions of staring down from the stage at the gathered masses, who would neither recognise her as anyone of significance or have any desire to be captivated by her words of wisdom. “I am sure”, she suggested, “that if it were Adele, or Wayne Rooney standing before them they would hang on every word.” I suspect that she has interpreted the situation quite accurately, and that neither bursting into song, nor heading a ball into the fourth row will be likely to retrieve the situation for her.

I must confess that I had imagined that prize giving events at schools had probably been confined to history some time ago. As I drove home I found myself sympathising with my colleague’s dilemma, and then smiling with some relief as I remembered that the ugly 1960’s school building that I had myself attended was in the recent past demolished to make way for a housing estate, and therefore no longer exists. This adds certainty to the unlikeliness of ever receiving such a daunting invitation to a similar event.

It was later yesterday evening when my mind returned to the conversation with my colleague that I found myself wondering how the event to which she had so nobly committed was proceeding. As I pondered her situation I began to realise that there are a number of items here at my home that have a close affinity to school prize giving evenings. Thinking about these mementos I began to imagine what they might have meant to the recipient of prizes at the time when they were awarded.

On a wall in our hallway hangs a dark wooden display frame which holds a number of medallions awarded to members of my family for perfect school attendance. Covering dates from 1912 to 1918 these Gloucester Education Committee awards were won by my grandfather and his siblings and were presented to encourage all children and parents in the city to value educational opportunity, and ensure that they were punctual and punctilious in their attendance. An earlier award of a book titled “The Bravest Gentleman in France” is inscribed “Gloucester Education Committee, Linden Road Council School, presented to Henry Terrett for efficiency and regular attendance during the school year ending October 31st 1910. School open 417 times, attended 417,” it is signed by P. Barrett Cooke, Sec. Whenever I open this book I cannot help thinking of the irony that my Uncle Harry received a prize, the title of which may well have returned to his mind as six years later he fought for survival amongst the mud and death that surrounded him at the Battle of the Somme.

Not all of the school prizes within my possession are of so personal a nature. A number of years ago in Norfolk, browsing a second hand book shop (the only form of shopping that seems truly to have any real purpose!) I came across a beautiful leather bound, though slightly foxed, 1934 edition of the Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke, for which I gladly parted with a five pound note. Though slightly the worse for wear, this book has one of the finest bindings of the many that cover the walls of my study. It is, however, the inscription inside the cover of this tome that gives me cause to reflect on the journey it has made to come into my possession. Written in copperplate within the cover are the words “Lancaster Rural Grammar School. This book is presented to J. Jackson for having contributed the best speech at the Whersell Society Prize Debate on Saturday February 27th 1937. J.H. Shackleton-Bailey D.D. Head Master.” J. Jackson remains a mystery to me; I wonder what the motion for debate might have been? It is apparent that like me, he had a love of words and of poetry. I wonder what became of him, and when this volume passed from his hands and those of his family to find its place alongside so many others far less distinguished, on the shelves of a shop in Norfolk?

In case you are wondering, yes I too received a couple of school prizes, though for a pastime far less cerebral than a contribution to debate. Mine were awarded for performance on the rugby field, and I remember the somewhat awkward feelings I experienced in mounting the stage to shake hands with a long forgotten alumnus of the school before he handed over a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, which I notice now on the shelf above my desk.

Perhaps the task being undertaken by my colleague at her old school last night may have triggered her own memories of prizes received as well as given. I am in little doubt that she too will have one or two adorning the shelves of her home.