Today’s blog is by Mick Haining. This post is one he recently contributed to Extinction Rebellion. As with all our guest blogs, the view’s expressed are the author’s.
As Naomi Klein puts it, “this changes everything”. This particular climate change is a product of human ways of living and, if it is to be slowed in order to give our children and theirs a better chance to live lives on a habitable planet, then human ways of living must change. So, eating whatever we want whenever we want has to change. Going wherever we want however we want whenever we want has to change. Party politics have had their day – they create division rather than the co-operation this crisis requires – they have to go. And, most crucially, the way we prepare children for their futures, i.e., education in its broadest sense, has to change both form and content. That x squared minus y squared equals x plus y times x minus y is no preparation for growing trees. The imperfect subjunctive of the French verb ‘vouloir’ won’t help you recycle. Lecturing children has always had fairly limited success but implying that adults always know best is a downright deception – ask Greta. Those features are not without value – but it’s their value in relation to the current emergency that makes them less than a priority.
I write from the perspective and luxury of being a retired Drama teacher. [It certainly is a luxury – unlike in other parts of the world, I am given money for not working]. I didn’t often teach children theatre skills, though, nor the importance of Restoration Comedy in the development of the theatre. Here are two examples of the kind of stuff I did.
Working with classes of Year 9 students [13/4 years old], I regularly did a piece which I called ‘Enemy of the People’ since it was based on a dilemma explored by Ibsen in his play of the same name. For a few lessons, I invited the students to get used to being inhabitants of a spa town where tourism was the main source of the town’s prosperity. They were not particularly serious about this stage of the Drama – that didn’t matter because it was part of what that marvellous and inspirational educator, Dorothy Heathcote, would call ‘building belief’. When I was satisfied that the students were sufficiently familiar with their roles and the background, I then arranged a meeting of the town council – the students – and, in my role as Mayor, set about congratulating them on the successful season we’d just had thanks in part to the opening of the brand new upgrade of the public baths. Again, it was all fairly light-hearted. Then a student, pre-briefed by me, held up an envelope and suggested I read it aloud. I ‘tried’ to delay it, but the student insisted and gradually the other students joined in and so, ‘reluctantly’, I read it aloud. It contained details of a laboratory analysis which declared that the spa water was being steadily polluted by chemicals from our town tannery on the hill above the underground spring and that the water supply should instantly be stopped. The light-heartedness disappeared. The question was, of course, do we stop the water and go public and thus bankrupt the town or do we keep it secret in the hope that not too many people would suffer and possibly die while we searched for an alternative solution. The arguments raged back and forth, almost as if the children genuinely owned businesses in a real town. In the end, the Drama over, I explained to the classes that they had been considering more or less the same decisions facing the adults in charge of the Camelford Reservoir in Cornwall a few years before when seriously polluting chemicals had been accidentally added to the wrong supply pipe. The students were outraged to be told that the adults in question delayed both stopping the water supply and informing the public.
In the next example, I took one of my GCSE students to a local junior school to be in role for me. We worked with a group of 9 year-olds in the school hall. I invited the children to be inhabitants of a small island with a lovely beach and, after we played around with that for a little, we went to the ‘beach’ in another part of the hall – I can’t recall the excuse I used for us to be there. When we ‘arrived’ we noticed my student lying there as if washed up on the beach. The children were a little unsure about this change and I wondered aloud if maybe we should see if the person was OK. Someone went to investigate and came back with the news that the person was ill and could not speak English. There was a discussion about how we might help and a decision was reached to take them for medical help. Then I introduced the dilemma – what if the person has a disease that we can’t cure and which might spread to your families? The discussion was intense and my job as teacher-in-role was to occasionally challenge the solutions offered. It all resulted in a girl saying that she would take him to her house and look after him.
In both cases, the children dealt with social and moral ‘adult’ dilemmas that are relevant to modern living – pollution and unofficial immigration. They were not being fed facts to try to recall for exams – they were practising discussion, co-operation and compromise and, in a sense, rehearsing for the kinds of responsibility they might have in future as members of society. The latter was enhanced by the teacher taking on the role of someone who did not know what was best in the circumstances, a role which some teachers might find challenging. [For teachers who might be alarmed, this role was adopted only within clear signals of when the Drama began and ended.]
Just yesterday I took part in Whitby’s school strike march. I am 72 and met Chris, also on the march, a man who used to organise exports from India – he is now 92. We had nothing to do with the march organisation, though – that was handled by a 15-year-old girl who also addressed the crowd with spirit, intelligence and lucidity. It is high time that society genuinely recognises the enthusiasm, energy and abilities that youth can bring to the essential transformation of that same society which, after all, belongs to them, too.
Mick Haining has taught French, maths and (mostly) drama in schools in England, and is now actively retired. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org