No teacher is madly keen about going ‘on record’ to declare that they wish to bring misery into pupils lives. Today, I did. In the unit we put together on Global Citizenship for my Year 5 Class, I have very self-consciously wanted to bring the realities of the modern world to the children. What I have found so far is something powerful.
Hopemongering. It is a term I have taken from the writings of Herbert Kohl and it is central to my teaching of ‘the big questions’. To be a Hopemonger as a teacher is to ensure that even in the darkest of times, you indicate the potential for things to get better. Part of me thinks that children should be protected from the woe of the world – the seemingly immovable forces that as adults we have come to see as unalterable reminders of the grimness of existence – but then another part of me thinks that these ten year olds, if they are to have a chance of remedying the ills of society, are going to need to be fully informed.
It is not exposure to the facts of inequality, human rights abuses, exploitation and injustice that harms children. What harms them is the feeling of utter powerlessness.
Today in the class we have been learning about how name and identity relate to citizenship. We began by dissecting our own names – looking at the beautiful meanings behind many of our names, looking at how they can characterise our nature, how they proudly declare our religion, heritage, nationality and culture.
I presented them with a contentious thought experiment. I explained that as a white teacher, the dominant majority in our country, it has been decided that my role ought to be to sort of many of the problems borne out of difference and conflict. The kids nod along. I explain that there are huge community divides around religion and ethnicity – they agree. I go on to say that having names which declare your religion is intentionally divisive, so what is proposed is that all children with names that are not of typical English stock must be changed. This way, we can begin to mix together without prejudice.
The responses were raw, despite the shared appreciation of the conventions of. Thought experiment. It was an attack on their culture. It was offensive. It was against their rights. A name – one boy argued – is more than a name: it’s an entire history.
Then I dropped the first bombshell. This happens. This happened. We looked at the example of the Bulgarian Roma whose citizenship was to be revoked if they did not surrender their traditional Islamic Roma names and adopt Bulgarian names. I spoke of the phenomenal children’s book ‘My Name Was Hussein’, to illustrate the point.
The children we’re passionate at the relatively cosy level of the thought experiment but by tipping over into ‘by the way… This is happening in our world for real’ they had been jolted.
The risk is there because the emotions of a child are volatile and unpredictable, varying wildly child to child. The insulating factor is the persistence of hope, no matter how small. Lessons can be learned, complaints made, protests staged and laws changed.
The children were enthused but the thirty year gap between the Roma issue in Bulgaria and the pupil’s world of 2015 was too wide. They need to see an example of the battle for the right to a name from right now.
The Rohingya are often described as the most persecuted minority of any. A Muslim group living in the Arakan/Rakhine state of Myanmar, they are not accepted by the new democratic government. The Rohingya, despite having lived in Arakan for centuries, are classified as illegal settlers. The first recent census explicitly excluded the Rohingya group despite acknowledging over a hundred minority groups. The Rohingya represent over a million. In the face of incendiary local politics, tensions have grown over time to he point where the plight of the Rohingya is considered to be a genocide. Many have attempted to flee on overcrowded small boats to Bangladesh and Thailand. Many do not survive the journey and many of those that do we’re turned away at the coast and left to drown or starve out at sea.
They are unrecognised, persecuted, officially stateless and nameless. The Myanmar government do not say the word Rohingya as to do so is to recognise their existence.
A veery carefully selected and analysed video produced by Al Jazeera outlined the scale and horror of the conflict in enough details to paint a picture, whilst sparing them from any traumatic images or details of suffering.
We discussed for a long time what it means to be stateless. We discussed how the Rohingya must feel but also tried to appreciate the justificatory logic behind the Myanmar decision to deny them citizenship.
The faces in the room were not happy faces. These were contorted – some with thought, some with anger and some with incomprehension. The next question was vital.
“I can see from looking at you that this has affected many of you. You don’t come to school just for me to upset you. Why am I doing this? Why do I want to share this with you.”
Their answers. “We need to know what is happening.” “It means we can help if we know.” “Things don’t always be nice.”
In our lesson about the right to a name, they were questioning things constantly. At times many were thoughtful and talkative, and at others, many were lost in thought. At different points many experienced a range of different feelings – when talking of the theft of name and identity, a boy asked fearfully whether this could happen to him as a British Pakistani – but what they were not is hopeless. They have their UNCRC and their desire to tell the story, to protest and to advocate for change.
If we really mean it when we talk about the kids being the future, then we need to do more than embroider it on tea towels and view it as a hollow mantra. If they are actually going to dignify them with a belief in their growing autonomy and real potential to make the change, they need knowledge, conscience and consciousness and the thread that ties them together – no matter how frightening the foe – is hope.