Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Much more than a good read

One of the most powerful texts I've recently been working on with my students is Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. It has triggered some curious, thoughtful classroom discussions and allowed us to venture into analysing propaganda posters and persuasive speech. For Level 3 - 4 students, it's proving a real hit in terms of their engagement and developing their higher-level thinking skills.

For our next step we are going to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of Tommo Peaceful on his return from the frontlines in 1918, based on the premise that he may feel a calling to speak for his fallen brother, Charlie, who previously expressed strong views about the nature of the conflict before he was charged and shot for desertion. The speech will serve primarily as a counter to the recruitment speech portrayed in Chapter 7 of the book, although they will be encouraged to also consider Tommo's earlier pro-war views and whether he might retain some of them.

The story of Private Peaceful is a thought-provoking one on a wider level given the recent news about government initiatives to bring former military personnel into schools as teachers - and thinking ahead, with the upcoming 2014 commemorations to mark a century since the start of 'The Great War'.

I have a close friend in the military and he has talked about becoming a science teacher when his time as a Royal Marine medic comes to an end. I can see he would have a lot to offer young people in this capacity but I feel his suitability is more based on his personal qualities rather than his military experience. I think the same could be said of many soldiers and other armed forces personnel - with thorough training, via a PGCE or GTP-type route, they could build on their personal qualities and be transformed into fantastic teachers.

However, my concern over recent proposals is that the government sees their entrance into schools as being more about simply parachuting in tough Rambo-types, fully kitted out with military lingo and boot-up-the-backside behaviour strategies. I share the view of Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who was quoted as saying, "...a military ethos belongs in the military - schools need a learning ethos..."

Having worked for the past three years in a fantastic Salesian school, I have come to see the value of having a well-rooted, missional ethos - but one that seeks to impose a power driven, no questions hierarchy goes against much of what education should stand for. And whilst I recognise there is a need for clear expectations and boundaries within a student community, a military-style approach to discipline is likely to prove counter-productive for those students with autism, ADHD, attachment issues and other more-unique personalities.

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, hit the nail on the head with his observation, "There is a distinction between the skills and expertise required to maintain discipline among adults in the armed services with that required to ensure there is positive behaviour in schools. “To say you can simply transfer the skills from one to the other is an oversimplification of the complexities of dealing with pupil behaviour in schools.” 

A more appropriate initiative for schools who are genuinely failing to manage challenging behaviour, which is likely to be rooted in both social-emotional and learning difficulties issues, would be to return to the learning principles of Orton-Gillingham and to hook into the Nurture Group approach towards promoting social-emotional well-being.

In terms of how I choose texts to use with the young people I teach, I have recently written a short guide for The Guardian's Teacher Network website on the key things I look for. Some time ago I also put together a list of 'books to engage teenagers reading and get them thinking...' via Amazon's Listmania! feature (although you can obviously buy them elsewhere).

As we approach WWI commemorations next year, I will be looking to go further with Private Peaceful and the themes it raises. For me this is not about brainwashing young people into becoming pacifists, but it is about nurturing their critical thinking skills and awareness as well as their reading - particularly as we know lower-attaining students, boys in particular, are often the ones who go on to make up the rank and file of the armed forces.

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