Tag Archives: education

Raising revolutionaries

Sorry things have been a bit quiet over here lately, but I have some news!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to streamline my blog – focus in on a more specific area rather than the scattergun approach I’ve used so far. It’s been fun, and it’s been kinda important for me to work out where my head’s at.

But after more than three years, it’s time for a change…

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So I’ve started a new blog. It’s called Raising Revolutionaries, and it focuses in on an area that is becoming increasingly important to me as the world gets more and more difficult to fathom: that is, the ways in which the choices we make as parents and educators can influence a better future. I’ve borrowed from my archives here to chart my growing ideas in these areas since I began this blog back in January 2013, and I’ve finally written my first new post today too if you’d like to have a read.

I’ve been doing lots of reading about parenting and education, building on the masters degree I completed forever ago and thinking seriously about possibly moving towards a PhD. But in the meantime I’m going to play around with some ideas in this new little corner of the internet.

There will be politics, and some strong opinions on parenting (generally of the respectful and progressive variety) and on education (generally with a democratic and child-led air). There will be ongoing reflections on my journey as a mother, and the things that Arthur is teaching me along the way. And hopefully there will be lots of learning – for me, and for you if you’d like to join me.

It feels more than a little bit scary to be starting again from the beginning, so if you’d like to pop over and say hi then I’d really appreciate that. I have a new Facebook page where I’m currently rather lonely, so feel free to link up there too.

I’m going to keep ‘Sophie is…’ online for the foreseeable future but I’m not envisaging any new posts here. So if you’re interested in what I have to say about parenting and education then you know where to find me! And if you’re here for more writerly rambles then watch this space… Hopefully I should have my new writing website up and running very soon!

Global gaslighting

We are living in a world where the truth no longer holds any sway in the pursuit and consolidation of power.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sordid beginnings of Donald Trump’s America: in the run up to the election the lies were so blatant that it seemed impossible that anyone could take them seriously, but they were dismissed in the name of political rhetoric.

Now that he has taken the reins of the presidency, these lies have become an accepted technique amongst those heading up his regime. There are his tweets, of course – dismissed all too easily as the ravings of a lunatic – but these are given brazen validation by the claims of his team. Sean Spicer insisting that Trump’s embarrassingly small inauguration crowd was the biggest ever seen. Kellyanne Conway inventing a massacre to terrify people into accepting their draconian travel bans.

These outright lies are bad enough on their own, but when combined with accusations of fake news levelled at those who disagree, and the patronising, scathing delivery with which Trumps and his allies address their critics, this segues neatly into classic gaslighting – and gaslighting on a global scale.

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Too many people I know – liberals, intellectuals, people concerned with truth as a foundation for society – are beginning to doubt their sanity. It seems almost impossible to believe that people in such positions of power can lie so brazenly and not get called out for it. This is, of course, part of the point – and is something which has been explored at length in publications as diverse as The Washington Post and Teen Vogue.

Something that I’m not sure people are admitting quite so openly is the extent to which this is happening on this side of the pond too. We all raged at the lies printed on the sides of buses during the Brexit campaign. We all shook our heads in disbelief as Michael Gove dismissed the opinions of experts, repeatedly calling into question the very value of expertise. Doctors rallied against Jeremy Hunt over the false statistics he used to support his calls for a seven day NHS. And then this week, when Jeremy Corbyn is still being hauled over the coals over his decision to whip his party into going against their instincts and vote in favour of leaving the EU, Theresa May sends a letter to the electorate in the run up to a crucial by election lying about both Labour’s clearly stated intentions and the voting behaviour of local Labour MPs.

Increasingly, as in the disunited states of America, our politicians refuse to acknowledge these untruths even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. And even if they do, the damage has already been done.

The media, with its almost entirely right-leaning benefactors, whips up these lies into something bigger than themselves, and our democracy is left gasping for breath at the heart of it with no-one knowing what to believe any more.

Increasingly an ability to analyse the media and move beyond the role of unquestioning consumer is a vital skill – and yet Media Studies continues to be sidelined and ridiculed. The internet provides us with almost endless news sources, yet at both ends of the political spectrum these twist and subvert the truth: even if you want to question the status quo, to seek out some sort of integrity at the heart of it all, it is all too easy to get dragged down someone else’s rabbit hole.

And actually the reality of the direction our education system – and thus our society – is taking could not be further from harnessing that ability to question and challenge. Our childrens’ minds are being suffocated with pointless facts, their teachers’ creativity and professionalism stifled with the relentless drive of ever-increasing ‘standards’. Schools themselves are in very real danger of becoming nothing more than factories which churn out young people chastised into obedience and so desperate to carve out their own little place in the world that they will sacrifice all their dreams of a better world in order to do so.

We owe our children more than this.

We have to give our young people – our society – the tools to survive, morally and intellectually, in this post-truth world.

Of course this is not in the interests of those in power. As parents we need to act, to show the young people in our care that they are valued, they are important – and they are powerful.

So much of what is accepted – expected – in modern parenting is about championing compliance above all else. We need to fuel the fire in our children’s bellies, give them the strength and the confidence to be active members of society, and above all move away from the idea that it is by being ‘good’, and by doing what we say, that they are most valued, most loved.

It is pretty clear that, however much it might be painful to accept, our generation is not doing such a great job at building a society that we are happy to live in. I’d like to think, though, with thoughtfulness and care, that there is hope our children might.

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

We went to the Advent Fair at South Devon Steiner School at the weekend. It was a lovely event, and a real reminder of how different education can be.

There are still several things about the Steiner approach that make me doubt whether we could embrace it entirely, but Arthur was most definitely inspired. Whenever we’ve talked about school before he has been adamant that he doesn’t want to go, but when I explained to him that this place was a school too his eyes widened: “It’s just like a big boy’s forest school”, he exclaimed. Needless to say, he LOVES forest school.

The highlight of his day came towards the end. I’d got distracted by the stalls, and emerged to find Leigh and Arthur peering through the gate of the forge whilst the school’s blacksmith crafted something in the flames. It turned out that Arthur had got chatting to him and asked for a sword, and the blacksmith cheerfully agreed.

So Arthur watched, fascinated, as the metal was heated and twisted and sculpted into shape, and when it was cool he held it in his hands.

We’ve had some serious chats about the responsibility that comes with such a gift – its end is blunted, but it’s still a solid lump of metal. Arthur chose a hook for it in the kitchen, and we’ve agreed that he will only handle it when we’re there – that he can use it as a prop in his imaginings, but it is not for play fighting.

So far he’s risen to the challenge, and handles his very own sword with the utmost care. It is wonderful to see what these little people are capable of when we trust them.

Writing at the end of the world

Let’s just take stock of where we’re at.

The UK is hurtling towards an ungainly Brexit, voted for by just over a third of the adult population and headed up by an unelected Prime Minister who is swiftly making Margaret Thatcher look like some sort of socialist saint.

The US, not to be outdone, has voted in a billionaire who openly gloats about tax avoidance and assaulting women. The percentage of the population who are happy about this is even lower than the ‘overwhelming mandate’ leading our country into disaster, and both of our nations, who can thank for their successes generations of immigration and open-mindedness, are battening down the hatches for an extreme right-wing orgy of which Hitler would be proud.

Alongside this, the world is still facing (if not yet facing up to) the worst humanitarian crisis since World War One, military leaders from Russia to China are seemingly putting things in place for yet more global conflict, and our media is having a field day in this post-truth age which has never been less interested in the facts of the situation where there’s a good story to be had.

And don’t even get me started on the travesties that are quietly being played out on our doorsteps behind this international shitstorm. The health and education services that are being dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder, the fat cats getting fatter whilst the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are living hand to mouth, or dying behind a smokescreen of spin.

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It is hard to know what to do.

It is hard to know what the point is of doing anything.

And yet…

I was reminded the other day about why it is I am a writer: why I love books, and art, and culture. Why it matters even more when everything else is falling apart. It was one of those rare moments when the different parts of my life collide: I was at a Torbay Culture Forum meeting to discuss ideas for the future of Shoalstone Pool, and I found myself surrounded by a table of inspiring, talented people who have an unshakable belief in the ability of culture to affect change.

I do, too: that’s why I was passionate about teaching literature and drama and film as well as the more functional elements of literacy and media studies. It is why I trained as an actor many moons ago, and is why I have spent so very many hours over the last few years carefully crafting three novels whilst learning what it is to be a mum.

It is easy to forget, though, at times like this. It is easy to think that it is only by addressing politics head on that you can really make a difference, and that artistic endeavour is frivolous and self-indulgent. I think I’ve been stuck in that space for a while now.

But it’s time to break out. Something clicked when I was away last week, and I have come back with a renewed sense of what I’m doing and why.

I have an idea for a collection of short stories, inspired by this impending sense of doom but altogether more hopeful than that sounds. I’ve been putting pen to paper, playing around with words, and finding the whole process quite therapeutic. As stories emerge I’m planning to set them free into the world and see if any of them can find a home, but I’m feeling strangely liberated by the fact that I’m envisaging this as a collection too, a cohesive work that I might be able to put out there myself someday soon.

I say soon, but I still have no idea where that bigger picture of submissions is taking me. What I do know, though, is I need to own this writer hat, to separate it out from the new-mother angst that spawned this blog. So I have a separate writing blog in the works, which hopefully will be ready to launch in the new year.

This links in to another realisation I’ve had, about what it is that ties together all the stuff on this blog that isn’t about writing – and that is, surprise surprise, linked closely to that sense of creeping armageddon too.

It’s all about changing the world, basically. About nurturing a new generation – as a parent and a teacher – that will do things differently. Do things better. And I think I want to explore this more explicitly, with a blog dedicated to this idea of child rearing as a quiet and determined revolution.

It fits quite neatly with all my thoughts already about parenting and education, but I think the time has come to own that side of me too – not just to voice my thoughts and apologise afterwards for failing to embrace the status quo.

So.

Change is afoot.

Time to silence that demon who has taken a break from criticising my writing to laugh at me for believing that I can make a difference, however small that difference might be.

Because if not me, who? And if not now, when?

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What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.

 

Writing Bubble

Very hungry caterpillars

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-five

After the success of our tadpole project, I’ve been on the lookout for another opportunity to explore metamorphosis in action. A couple of weeks ago one appeared, in the shape of several very hungry caterpillars eating their way through our lettuces.

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We picked out two, and created a little habitat for them in the fishtank, complete with the remains of one of the lettuces they had been munching so that they could continue to prepare for their transformation.

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They were already pretty big when we found them, and it wasn’t long at all before they each settled into a crevice in their new home and began to spin a web of silk around themselves.

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This was fascinating to watch, as was the way their bright green bodies slowly went brown and hard as they pupated.

Whilst we waited for them to hatch, we read up about the process – Usbourne Beginners ‘Caterpillars and Butterflies’ had lots of interesting facts, and of course we re-read Eric Carle’s classic. I also did a bit of googling to try to find out what sort of butterflies we might expect, and discovered that actually the silk cocoons suggested that we were more likely going to be welcoming moths.

And indeed about ten days later first one then the other broke out and spread their wings.

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We watched them for a couple more days, and when we were sure that their wings were strong enough Arthur reluctantly agreed to let them go.

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Once they had flown away, he was keen to have a closer look at the empty cocoons. He felt the sticky silk, and prodded at the shell of the pupa within.

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And after that, whilst I attempted to tidy up our overgrown veg patch, he even washed out the tank, ready for his next pets.

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As it happened, he didn’t have to wait very long. I had a feeling that the latticed spinach and calendula might be hiding some more little creatures and, in fact, it was teeming with them.

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It made for some very interesting conversation, around how these bugs are interesting to watch and study but are also pests, especially when they’re competing for our vegetables! We transferred some of the caterpillars we found to another part of the garden, but because they looked different to the first ones we’d found we decided to keep a few back so we could observe the metamorphosis process again and see if we noticed any changes.

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After this lot I think we’ll be done though, at least till next year…

Anyone have any ideas how we can make the remains of our crops slightly less attractive to the very hungry caterpillars? After all, it would be quite nice to be able to enjoy some of our vegetables too!

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

I love watching Arthur play, especially outdoors.

He is becoming so imaginative and agile and brave: balancing and climbing and reaching and exploring. Even when he is playing on his own – in fact especially when he is playing on his own – he buzzes with the energy of all that he is discovering about the world.

He fell not long after I took this picture, balancing on the beams that spanned the brook, reaching down for his bucket that had tumbled into the water. He managed to catch the beam before he got too wet, and though he needed help to right himself he never lost his calm. Once he was freed from his precarious position he quickly re-found his focus, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

I’m not sure you can teach skills like that.

 

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project.