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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A film that helps to keep a dream alive

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I remember many years ago I read Coretta Scott King’s account of life with her husband, Martin Luther King Junior. I recall at the time thinking how hard it must have been, living as a wife and mother to the children of a man who was constantly living under death threats and intimidation. As a man of principle and conviction, King led a non-violent movement fighting against injustice and seeking to secure a better future for an oppressed people, who looked to him to stand up against the racist cowards and bullies, wielding power in the southern states of the USA. Whilst leading the civil rights movement and campaigning for the freedom of black people and other oppressed minorities in America, King committed himself and his followers to non-violent direct action. But as had earlier been the case in a similar approach adopted in India by Gandhi, he and his fellow protesters were often confronted by opponents who saw physical force rather than debate as the means of stating their position.

I have on many occasions listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, made in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. I particularly remember hearing a recording of this being played at Coventry Cathedral during a visit a couple of years ago. It never fails to stir emotions and to make one think of the situation in which it was delivered. I suppose it is one of the most quoted speeches of the twentieth century. However, it is the quote from the great man presented at the head of this page, that has always seemed to me to most accurately sum up his life:

            “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve”.

Last night Sara and I visited a local cinema to see the film Selma, released this week in the UK. This powerful drama tells the story of the marches led by Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery in 1965. At times I found myself struggling to watch this vivid depiction of the events of those dark days in American history, as scenes were enacted in which unarmed men, women and children were attacked, wounded and in some instances killed by men who regarded themselves as law abiding citizens of the southern states. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, cannot be accused of over emphasising the level of violence for effect, but still I found myself wanting to turn away from the screen as the appalling assaults were so vividly portrayed.

The film has masterful performances from all the cast, but particularly from David Oyelowo who plays King, Carmen Ejogo his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the bigoted and somewhat sinister Governor George Wallace, and as with all good films of this nature I found myself immersed in the story line and emotionally drawn in right from the start. Even knowing of the historical events depicted and having read the accounts of the marches as reported by writers such as Clayborne Carson who was close to the King family, I was unable to relax for more than a few moments at a time throughout the film.

Whilst I suspect many other film goers from my own generation will be very well aware of the civil rights struggles led by Martin Luther King Junior, there may well be a younger audience for whom the horrors of this time, perpetrated in a country proud of its constitution and democratic values,  will be a source of shock and disbelief. I certainly hope so, because to simply write this off as a historical account would be to fail to appreciate the important messages within the film.

Two specific themes within this drama seem to me to have been particularly well addressed and might easily have been passed over in a more superficial telling of the story. The first concerned the personal anxieties and doubts of Coretta Scott King, as she feared for the life of her husband and family, and the tensions she experienced in balancing what she saw as her duty to a cause and these more personal responsibilities. Within the depiction of this complex and loyal woman, superbly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, there was a perpetual nervous frisson that penetrated the film, and conveyed the message that within any struggle for justice, personal sacrifices are inevitable. Sadly, the worst fears of Coretta Scott King were eventually realised in April 1968 when her husband was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39 years.

Equally evocative is a second theme, that of the duty of action, which is referred to several times in the film. The point is strongly made by Martin Luther King Junior and several other leaders, that whilst those who oppress their fellow men and women are guilty of an unacceptable evil, others who simply stand by, refusing to speak out or take action are equally culpable of perpetuating crimes against the oppressed. Throughout the film it appears that a silent majority, including many who were in positions of power and authority, believed that the civil rights campaigners had a just cause, but lacked the moral courage to speak out or stand with them as they were being abused and denigrated. Standing next to Martin Luther King Junior must often have been an uncomfortable place to be, but as he himself said:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I can’t help thinking that whilst this film is set within an historical context, the messages that it contains are as important today as they have ever been.

The film link below will enable you to hear the famous “I have a dream.” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Junior in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Whose curriculum is this?

 

Is this really the kind of "resource" we want to see children handling in schools?

Is this really the kind of “resource” we want to see children handling in schools?

Shortly after the introduction of the English National Curriculum in 1989, I was fortunate to be selected as part of a group  charged with the responsibility of providing guidance and materials, to ensure that the content of this new framework was accessible for pupils with special educational needs. I often reflect upon this formative time in my career, when I worked alongside a dynamic team of colleagues from whom I learned much, sharing our experiences and given the privileged position of time to debate curriculum issues, and explore a range of pedagogical initiatives. From our base in Cambridge we had opportunities to work in schools in many parts of the country as we developed and trialled resources and approaches to differentiated learning and providing access for pupils with diverse needs.

In a highly charged atmosphere, where at times professional differences and tensions came to the surface (though enduring friendships were made), we often disputed ideas and argued about curriculum priorities and children’s needs. As a team committed to improving education for children who were often marginalised, I believe that all of us anticipated that the curriculum would continue to change and recognised that priorities would shift according to national requirements and political whims. We also felt that such debate was a healthy process within any education system that exists within a democratic country.

I still uphold a strong belief, that in order to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all learners, it is critical to keep the content of the curriculum and the ways in which it is delivered to the forefront of our thinking in schools. There will always be differences of opinion with regards to whether greater emphasis should be given to one subject over another, or about the place of the arts or sciences in the education of children, but yesterday I read a news item which felt more like an excerpt from science fiction rather than the product of a serious educational discussion. Sadly, having probed the report further I find that what I had hoped was some strange form of fantasy, is in fact a chilling account of a discussion currently taking place in South Carolina in the USA.

A proposal currently being considered within South Carolina would see December 15th each year celebrated as Second Amendment Awareness day. For any reader who is unaware, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. This, unsurprisingly has been a source of considerable debate within the United States for many years, with both pro-gun lobbies and those who would like to see the abolition of this right, locked in fierce arguments. Yet it is not simply this altercation between factions holding polarised views that caught my attention yesterday, but rather a suggestion that amendments should be made to the State school curriculum to ensure that all children are taught about their rights to bear arms and the handling of guns.

Chuck Scott from the Gun Rack Range, in Aiken, South Carolina states that:

“The earlier kids learn to be safe and have proper instruction the safer they’re going to be and the less accidents they’re going to have.”

He further stated that:-

“Kids need to know what it’s about and why it’s so important and that’s what sets us apart from other countries.”

The article reporting this latest potential curriculum initiative on WRDW News (Sunday, December 28th, 2014), tells us that “In 2010, 15,576 children and teenagers were injured by firearms across the country, (USA), guns kill twice as many children and young people than cancer.”

Mr Scott is of course right, if people are to be encouraged to carry lethal weapons, then it is to be hoped that they are taught how to handle these safely. I am sure that members of the armed forces and police officers undertaken stringent training in this regard as part of their professional development. However, this proposed addition to the curriculum is not advocated for those for whom it could legitimately be argued must be appropriately trained for when they may be called upon to use firearms, but for children, the majority of whom will hopefully never have such a need.

Clearly, as I am not an American citizen I can express an opinion of this situation only as an outsider with limited experience of the context. There are nonetheless, several issues here that give me cause to question the appropriateness of this proposal. Firstly, according to Mr Scott the National Rifle Association (who describe themselves on their website as  “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization”), will develop the curriculum to be applied in schools. I find it strange that such an important and presumably controversial educational initiative should be placed in the hands of an organisation that sits outside of the usual educational legislative process. Are democratically appointed education policy makers in South Carolina prepared to abdicate their legislative responsibilities to an unelected interest group? If so, it seems to me that this could be a dangerous precedent and may open the floodgates for other interest groups to exert pressure for change.

A second factor within this report that I found particularly interesting was Mr Scott’s notion that the right to bear arms is “what sets us apart from other countries.” I am sure that for many of us who live in these “other countries”, when we think about what is good about that nation, the carrying of guns comes a long way down the list (if indeed it appears at all!). Is this really what Mr Scott and his friends would wish to single out as a distinguishing feature of his proud nation? I suspect that there are many other citizens of his country who may feel less than comfortable with this suggestion.

I am aware that within the United States of America, there are many who in challenging the proliferation and greater sophistication of publically held weapons are held up to ridicule and abuse. Should you doubt this to be the case, you might be interested to follow the stream of vitriol aimed at Cliff Schecter, an American journalist who wrote an article titled “Learning Nothing? The Gun Battle Since Newtown 14.12.14) http://linkis.com/XmsjA . In this article he provides a chilling list of eighty eight education establishments where students and teachers have been killed or maimed in gun incidents in recent years. As of yesterday, 365 responses to his article (many of which are abusive in nature to say the least) had been posted, the majority suggesting that his attitude is unpatriotic and misguided.

There is no doubt that all children in schools need to be taught about the dangers surrounding firearms. But perhaps if these potentially lethal devices were not so prevalent in society there might be opportunities to address other means of creating a safe, just and more equitable world within the school curriculum. It does seem to me that the Second Amendment that is so treasured by some individuals has done little to inspire confidence that children in schools may remain safe from harm. Personally, I believe that those who carry guns pose a greater threat to the safety of children than those who choose not to do so.