Barbarians: who knew?

What does a teacher do when a student calls another a name that is just plain wrong?

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Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.

So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.

The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.

It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?

Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.

Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised.  Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.

Barbarians
The Barbarians. https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/416794140495615038/

Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?) 

The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.

The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth”  was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf,  as told in the oldest English poem in existence.

Scandinavia at the time of Beowulf.
Map Prepared by Louis Henwood for ‘The History of English’ podcast, episode 42

They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.

Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.

It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way.  Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.

By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.

 

If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing. 

Two-sday Surprises.

Sometimes, a small surprise can mean a whole lot more than its face value might suggest.

This morning didn’t seem any different than most when I left the house to head to work, but it proved to hold two lovely surprises.

The first surprise came in the form of a shop assistant who remembered me as her teacher from a number of years ago, and happily recalled the things she had studied and learned with me. An adult now, and with a different hair colour, I had not recognised her, but she knew me straight away.

It was nice to hear that she thought the books we read and the lessons we drew from them were valuable, and that history classes were interesting. It was wonderful to see that she had grown up into a confident, friendly and polite young woman with a lovely personality.

Of all the fond memories she recalled, though, one in particular had a profound effect on me: “You were the one teacher I ever had who showed me that it was okay to just be me, because that’s who I was meant to be. It’s something I have never forgotten.”

Wow! What a privilege to hear a former student say those words. I have struggled for many years with self acceptance, and as a teen I knew full well the agony of not fitting in with a particular crowd. Even then, I had the strength of will to resist peer pressure and not buy into many of the pitfalls that offered themselves to me at bargain prices and opportune moments. But that didn’t mean I was free of the wish to be someone or somewhere else – a desire that has recurred several times since.

Yet, somehow along the way, I managed to communicate something valuable about self acceptance to at least one teen in a similar situation.

I wonder if that knowledge would appease or satisfy those who think I push too many boundaries. Being part of a fairly conservative school, church and family, I take both pleasure and pride in not exactly looking conservative. I don’t intentionally break the rules, but I don’t mind testing their limits. My opinions often differ, and my willingness to assert them can make others uncomfortable. I don’t see that as a problem, though. There is merit in challenging people to see different perspectives and to accept differences. I’d like to think that people might become so used to my differences that I will need to think of something new to do to keep them on their toes.

My second surprise was a note on my desk from ex-students who had a reunion on Saturday night. I attended the reunion: it was a lovely evening of catching up and reminiscing. I didn’t realise, though, that they had left me a love letter on their tour of the school. How gorgeous that they still know how to make their English teacher happy and proud.

There’s no business like show business!

It’s wonderful to be able to honestly say that the show was spectacular.

Every year, this week is one of the busiest of my teaching year. It’s right up there with report writing in terms of stress, but it’s much more enjoyable.

It’s Production Week.
I’m the director/producer of my school’s musical each year, and this is the week where we hit the stage and everyone is wowed by the students’ performances.

The weeks leading up to the show have been demanding. There has been fear, elation, exhaustion, laryngitis, delight, and excitement in fairly equal proportions. Even so, there has been an overriding confidence – at least, most of the time – that the show would be great.

In every show we do, the kids are always amazing, and I’m always proud.
But during the first performance of ‘Les Miserables – School Edition’ last Friday night, I was so proud that I cried. For someone who doesn’t cry much, that says a lot.

It’s wonderful to be able to honestly say that the show was spectacular.

In saying that, I don’t mean to brag. This has been a group effort by singers, actors, orchestra, sound and lighting crew, set construction teams, backstage crew, parents sewing costumes, hair & makeup teams, vocal coaches, musical director and myself. A show like this doesn’t happen without every part of the machine running.

Most of you reading this won’t get a chance to see the show, so here’s a little article from today’s Warrnambool Standard, complete with a totally-unrehearsed-for video that shows you how talented, and how delightfully funny, my students are.

It’s no wonder I’m proud. They’re fabulous.

Out of the mouths of… teenagers.

My Year 10 English class studied John McCrae’s WWI poem “In Flanders Fields” yesterday. In our discussion, we contrasted it with some of the more brutal poetry about the war that we’ve been studying, such as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est”.

When I asked them what we could learn from the contrasts in the poetry.
one student answered, “Canadians are awesome and generally more polite about things than the English!”

Sorry, English people. He’s getting an A+.

Why Pronunciation Matters #43

While teaching senior high school can be challenging, I have often found it to be highly entertaining. 

This morning in my  Year 12 English class, I was in the process of assigning roles for my students to read as part of our study of Bertolt Brecht’s play “Life of Galileo”.  

Student 1: “Can I be Galileo?”

Me: “Sure! Any other requests?”

Student 2: “I’ll be the Doge.”

Student 3: “That’s pronounced ‘douche’!”

General laughter ensued. 
What a great way to start a Friday.

Man, I love those guys! 

Alternate ed.

While in Detroit staying with my cousins, I spent a day visiting the school where my cousin David teaches.  It’s an alternate ed school on the same campus as a regular high school in the suburb of Birmingham. Classes are open age and not organised by grade level. 

I’ve had some interaction with one of the Hunanities teachers here before, as we have set up some interaction and communication between our history classes. It was great for our students to share their experiences and perspectives, and to find out their similarities and differences in the ways they view and understand world events and the ways in which they enjoy recreation, sports and entertainment. It was wonderful to meet with Mallory and continue our collaboration in person. 

I took the opportunity to share with several classes about the similarities and differences between the USA and Australia. Geography, politics, government, food, popular culture, flora and fauna, and history have all been topics of conversation. The students have been really interested and keen to discuss things, so I’ve really had a lot of fun. Talking with teens comes naturally to me, so I have been very blessed to have these opportunities. 

I also had the chance to watch my cousin teach geometry to a student who hates math. In his words, “Every moment of this is agony for her.” By the end of this one-on-one instruction time, she is mentally exhausted but she has achieved two learning goals and shown that she is making progress. She takes a nap for the remainder of the session: this is both her reward and essential recovery time after a lesson in which she has fought to achieve mastery of skills and knowledge that many students might take for granted as “basic”. 

I can understand where she is coming from. I hated math too: I found it very difficult, and my teacher was neither patient nor understanding of my weaknesses. I have to say that if my math teacher had been as gentle and encouraging as my cousin is with his students, I might have leaned more. There really is a art to teaching “math as a foreign language”, as David so neatly puts it. Other students in the room are more self-driven and work quietly in the relaxed learning environment where there’s blues music playing and the communication is casual and comfortable, even though the expectations and academic standards are maintained.  

I am so impressed. The students here are getting a chance to succeed and graduate where the regular classroom did not work for them. The staff are very proactive and constructive in their communication. In that, they are very much like the teachers with whom I work and, I’m sure, most teachers the world over.  It’s not really a unique thing that we do, but each of us has incredible opportunities to impact every student’s day, every student’s willingness to learn, and the outcomes of that in every student’s life. Here, where the kids face other issues in addition to those generally faced by teens in regular schools, there’s some powerful work being done to engage and mentor young people who are at very real risk of otherwise “falling through the cracks” or dropping out altogether. 

As David and I walked out at the end of the day, I was struck by the difference in appearance between his school and the one upstairs, which clearly gets more funding and attention than the other. It may look nicer up there, but I have developed a very soft spot for the students and the staff at Lincoln St Alternate Ed. What happens there is very, very special indeed. 

They think what???

Remember the old joke where Billy says, “But I don’t want to go to school! Nobody likes me!” and the punch line follows: “You have to go… You’re the teacher!”

I always thought it was pretty corny, but that’s exactly how I felt this morning.

As a teacher, it’s a really awful feeling finding out from a third party that some of my students think that I don’t like them.
I know there are people who probably shouldn’t be teachers because they make their students and colleagues feel that way all the time.
I’ve always been sure that I was not one of those people.
Now I’m left wondering if I am.

I have no idea where all this came from.
Yesterday was bad enough before my boss dropped the bombshell: long, frustrating and plagued with physical pain.
Since then, I’ve been questioning myself and wondering where I’m going wrong.

I’m not trying to sound self-righteous or indignant.
I’m so incredibly hurt, and I’m fearful that I have had that same effect on other students who were just too nice to say so.
Whether or not it was what they intended, I’m devastated.

When criticism filters down from my boss and people prefer to not be named, it’s hard to know how to react because you don’t know if it’s one, two, or seventeen of your students who feel that way.
It’s hard to not take it personally. It leaves you questioning yourself and, at the very least, your professional integrity.
Am I not really the teacher or the person that, until now, I believed I was?
How did this happen?
Am I one of those hateful, hurtful teachers?
Is it even possible to be one of those people when I actually like my students and enjoy my classroom interaction with them? Or without even realising?
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Is it so hard to say something to me?
Am I that unapproachable?
Am I past it?
Do teachers have “use by” or “best before” dates?

If only they knew how much I really do like them.
If only they knew how hard I work for them.
If only they knew how I agonise over marking their work and writing constructive comments to help them improve.
If only they knew how much I want each of them to do their best, not for me but because it’s an investment in their own future.
If only they knew the level of physical pain I endure without ever letting them know what’s going on under the surface, simply because that’s my problem, not theirs.

And how am I supposed to fix this?
Walking into the classroom and saying, “Hey guys, I hear you think I don’t like you. Well, you’re wrong. I do…” is just going to look and sound phoney.
If they can’t tell from the way I try to encourage them and give positive feedback, faking a smile when I’m hurting isn’t going to convince anyone.

Besides, smiling wasn’t really possible today. I was proud of myself for just holding it together and not crying in front of them. Talking about this with them in class wasn’t an option.

Maybe I should just give them the link to this blog. Or maybe that’s too impersonal.
Maybe I just can’t do anything right anymore.
Maybe I need to sleep on it… again… and hope that tomorrow is better.

Encountering Inspiration.

My students are discussing various ideas about the ways in which people encounter and respond to conflict as part of our Year 12 English course.

As I observe their interactions and tune into different conversations around the room, I am so impressed by the maturity and thoughtfulness they are bringing to these discussions. They are taking this really seriously. They are asking questions that I might never have thought to ask.

I had hoped that they would inspire and encourage each other to extend their thinking through this exercise.
They have gone further than that – they are inspiring me.

I am a very blessed teacher.