One day to go!

Disclaimer: As always I am writing here as a citizen and parent of three pupils at the SEEH, not as a representative of the school’s management, teachers, or PGA.

There is now less than a day left before the meeting of the European Schools Board of Governors in Sophia, Bulgaria. Have we got the Minister’s signature?

Well, if we have, we haven’t been told. Now, I won’t mind at all if I find out that the ministry simply forgot to tell us, or that they regarded it as premature to inform us before the meeting (though I think the parents, teachers, and especially the students deserve better, especially after such a difficult year).

That is, I am not bothered in the slightest, provided the Minister has actually given the explicit confirmations he promised. As long as confirmation is on the table along with all the other papers for tomorrow’s meeting, I won’t be upset. In fact, I’ll be delighted.

But will a document from the Minister be presented tomorrow? And if so, will it say the right things? Perhaps the thing I fear most – almost more than closure – is another fudge, a compromise that keeps the school going but doesn’t solve its underlying problems. I fear this because our children, and therefore we too, simply cannot bear a repeat of this situation next year. We cannot have another year in the same building, with a late start and the same old problems, and with another inspection that the government won’t take seriously. It is demoralising, unsettling, and degrading to us all. And in “us” I include our partners in the European Schools network and all those people who signed our petition (nearly 3,000 worldwide), shared the word about our campaign, and sent us messages of encouragement and support. We owe it to them too not to accept half-baked solutions.

There is another aspect to this. Some of us fear that those responsible for the school, while unwilling to close it outright, may actually want a half-baked solution. They may think that if they keep the school running under unsatisfactory conditions, the psychological pressure on parents will be so great that they will give in and transfer their children to another school. Similarly, teachers and management may become so demoralized that they quit their posts. In this way, the school would collapse of its own accord and the burden of blame for closing it would not fall on any specific individual or group.

I hope no one in authority is thinking in this fashion, but, if they are, then I think they should reflect on the events of the past two weeks, and reconsider their strategy. Parents, teachers, and pupils have shown themselves highly resilient and deeply committed to their school – more so, I suspect, than anyone bargained for.

For myself, I am committed to the school for somewhat selfish reasons — for the sake of my three kids and myself. But I am equally committed to it for the sake of my students, the local community, the region, Greece, and Europe. We would all be poorer if this school were forced to close. I feel I have a duty to do my best for the school. And I know that I am not alone in this – the other parents and teachers and the school management feel the same. We won’t just let the school go. So, no closure, and no half-baked solutions either, please.

We need real solutions, and if we are to get them, we need more students. That way, the problems will start to resolve themselves. The school will be seen to be far more economical, and it will be in the government’s interest to support it. And then the authorities may finally realize that the SEEH, far from being a burden, is a terrific asset for Greece, whose ethos and practices should be adopted throughout the country.

So of all the changes, opening up enrolment may be the key one. If you would like to see it happen, and to register your own children at the SEEH, please come and talk to the school management when registrations open in June. Then all sides will win!

Six days to go!

Wednesday was a wonderful, inspiring day.

Pupils, teachers, and parents marched through Heraklion to the City Hall, where they put their case to the city authorities. The Mayor of Heraklion promised to help guarantee our school’s future and the Governor of Crete affirmed his support for the SEEH.

Our campaign got a lot of press coverage, and our petition passed 2,000 signatures.

Our campaign received strong endorsement from many leading academics, including Professor Evripides Stefanou (Rector of the University of Crete), Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis (Head of the The Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB-ITE), Heraklion), Dr Christos Tsatsanis (Vice Dean of the Medical School, University of Crete), and Dr Eleni Vasilaki President of the Department of Primary Education, University of Crete.

Our case is strong and we certainly making an impression! Let’s keep going until we get the Minister’s signature too!

Nine days to save the SEEH!

Who would have thought that during the Greek presidency of the Council of Europe, the Greek government would allow the only European School in the whole of Greece to face closure? It’s scarcely believable, yet it’s happening.

We are petitioning the government to see sense and act to save the school. Please sign our petition and ask your friends and colleagues to do so too. (There are buttons at the bottom of the petition page to share it on social media.)

Please act: There are only nine more days until 8 April, when the school’s fate will be decided. Let us help the Minister see that he should make the legal changes needed to keep the school open. He promised to do it, and it is the right thing to do – right for the children, parents, and teachers of the school, right for ENISA, right for Heraklion, right for Crete, right for Greece, and right for him, as a member of a government that believes that Greece’s future lies at the heart of Europe.

We can all help him do it. Our last meeting at the school was a wonderfully warm and supportive one. All of us — parents, teachers, and ENISA – were united and spoke with one voice to support the future of our school, the future of our kids, the future of Greece in Europe.

Once again, please help. Here are some ways you can show your support:

Sign and share the petition.

Leave a message of support. (Please spare a moment to write a few words. We will show the comments to the Minister.)

Follow campaign updates on our blog.

Read more about the school.

There are more relevant links at the bottom of the petition.

Even though I and the other parents and teachers have a personal interest in keeping the school going, we do genuinely believe that its survival is important for the future of Crete, Greece, and Europe.

Thank you!

Photo of classroom door with poem

News on the School of European Education Heraklion

Disclaimer: I am writing here as a parent of three students at the School of European Education Heraklion. The views expressed are mine and are not intended to represent those of the school’s teachers, management, or PGA.

Since my blog post on Philhellenes about the School of European Education in Heraklion I have received many messages from parents who are thinking of sending their children to the school and who want to know my views about its future. Naturally, they want reassurance that its future is secure before they make a commitment. I have replied to most of these privately, but I thought it might be helpful to make a general statement here.

The first thing to say is that I am delighted to have received so many messages. This in itself confirms what all the school’s parents and teachers already know – namely, that there is wide interest in the school and strong support for it.

As to the future of the school, I’m simply not sure. The school has a lot of potential, but there is uncertainty at the moment. To some extent this is a sign of the times in Greece. Currently, almost everything here is uncertain. But it is not only that. Despite the positive attitude from students, teachers, parents, school management, and European inspectors, there is a sense that the school is not sufficiently supported by the regional and national authorities.

Whether or not this is the case, it makes sense to think that the school will be kept open if it is seen to fulfil a need. I don’t just mean the needs of ENISA (the European Network and Information Security Agency, which is based in Heraklion and with which the school is associated). Heraklion is a large and cosmopolitan city, and there are many families here who, for one reason or another, would like to send their children to an international school.

However, there is a vicious circle here. We need more students to register in order to secure the school’s future, but parents are reluctant to register their children while the school’s future is uncertain. Insecurity lowers registrations, and lower registrations increase insecurity. So I would ask you to keep registering your children. The school has vacancies and would love to welcome new students. I can’t promise you that the school’s future is secure, but you can help its prospects by making a commitment to it. Certainty will come from within!

Now for some news. Last term the school underwent inspection by the European Schools inspectorate, and their draft report was supplied to parents this week. It contains good news and bad news.

The inspectors praised the dedication of the school management and teachers and remarked on the school’s warm pedagogical atmosphere and stimulating learning environment. They commended the structure of lessons, the use of ICT, and the range of extra-curricular activities provided. They noted that students are very positive about the school, feel privileged to be part of it, and believe it will give them a good start at university. They praised the school for its openness and for taking the lead in local cultural and regional projects and for building contacts with other schools across Europe. This part of the report makes very encouraging reading indeed.

However, the inspectors also highlight some serious problems which they want to see resolved as a matter of urgency. They highlight three issues: (1) Lack of continuity for teachers, who are on yearly contracts only, (2) Low pupil numbers, especially in the English section, and (3) The school building, which is not large or well-equipped enough for a school of this type.

The inspectors note that these problems seriously threaten the existence of the school.

Clearly, these are not issues the school management and teachers can resolve; they are matters for the regional and national authorities. The inspectors urge the Greek authorities to find solutions and save the school.

The inspectors go on to make six specific recommendations, concerning teacher recruitment and contracts, student enrolment, the relationship with ENISA, and other matters — all with the aim of addressing the problems identified. They indicate that the future of the school depends on these recommendations being accepted and implemented by the Greek authorities.

Where does this leave us? Well, it leaves us with an excellent school which desperately needs support: support from politicians, from parents, from the community. The SEE is a precious resource for Heraklion and Greece, and we must all act now if we are to save it and safeguard its future. If you support the school, please join with the parents and teachers in lobbying the government to implement the inspectors’ recommendations.

And if are you thinking of registering your children with the school, please do it. Perhaps the biggest factor in all this is student numbers, and increasing registrations at the school is the best way to help it. Yes, there is some uncertainty, but if you wait for the uncertainty to end then you may lose the chance altogether. (And you can always change your mind later, if things don’t work out.) So please, act now!

Thanks again to all those who have written to me, and apologies to anyone to whom I haven’t replied (life has been hectic recently). I hope to see you in school either as a fellow parent or as a teacher of your children.

Update: My partner has created a petition calling on the authorities to save the SEEH. If you support the school, please sign the petition and share it.

PS. A note on the school building: There are already plans to construct a new school building on land supplied by the University of Crete, and in 2012 the School Buildings Organisation of Greece ran an architectural competition for the design of the building (here are details of the competition and prize winners). The winning design looks excellent. However, work on the project has still not begun. The decision to move forward lies with the authorities.

 

Photo of classroom door with poem

Drawing of what look like bird footprints

Science teaching in Salzburg

Last week I travelled to Salzburg to attend a week’s training on teaching science in primary schools, run by Pri-Sci-Net. It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed seeing the city, met some lovely people, and learned a lot about science teaching.

An example of the many interesting sessions was one on Teaching the Nature of Science by Christian Bertsch from the University of Education in Vienna. The session was on method rather than content, and Christian focused in particular on the distinction between observation and inference and on the nature of scientific theorizing. He illustrated these with some practical examples. I’ll mention two of these.

First, Christian gave us sheet like the one below and asked us what we saw.

Drawing of what look like bird footprints

Most of us said we saw two sets of differently-sized bird footprints, moving from left to right, converging, and meeting, and then one set (the bigger) moving off again. Christian then asked us to interpret what we saw: What had happened? Most of us said that the footprints were of a bigger bird and a smaller bird. The bigger bird attacked the smaller and ate it, and that was why there was only one set of footprints walking off. Christian suggested we could use such examples in class to illustrate the distinction between observation and inference: we observe certain marks, and then we make an inference or interpretation to explain them.

I liked this example and will use it in class. But I would want to take it a bit further. With younger children I would probably do two things. First I would ask them to try to think of other interpretations of the scene. Maybe the smaller bird flew off; maybe it was tired and the bigger bird gave it a ride; maybe the marks weren’t made by birds at all, and so on. Second, I would introduce the importance of context and background knowledge. For example, an Austrian child looking at the white paper might assume she is looking at snow, but a child from a desert country might think of sand. Again, I would try to get students to think of more examples.

For older children I would focus on the observation/inference distinction. Can there really be observation that is completely devoid of interpretation and independent of background knowledge? After all, the observation statements we offered in the session were not completely neutral. People said they observed bird footprints, not geometrical shapes, and in doing so they were drawing on background knowledge of avian anatomy. Could there be a completely neutral description of the scene? Would a description in geometrical terms do? What about real-life cases? I might ask students to describe other scenes (say, photos from a magazine) in as neutral terms as possible.

The second of Christian’s examples involved a model — an opaque box with two ribbons passing through it parallel to each another. Christian encouraged us to play with the box, without looking inside. The interesting thing, of course, was that the ribbons did not always work as expected. For example, sometimes pulling the top ribbon to the right would cause all the other ribbons to retract; sometimes it would only make the top one retract. Christian asked us to formulate theories about how the box worked, make predictions, and then test them by pulling the ribbons in different orders.

Again, I thought this was a great way of introducing children to the idea of scientific investigation and the cycle of observation—theory-formation—experiment—new observation. Christian also suggested that the model could be used to illustrate the difference between scientific theories and scientific laws — the former, unlike the latter, being provisional.

As I understood it, the moral of the example for us as teachers was that we shouldn’t simply state scientific theories as established facts to be taken on trust, but rather present them as the product of a process of theory formation, just like that we go through in theorizing about how the box works.

Philosophers in the making

Another amazing day with my third graders, full of lovely surprises. We discussed rights.

We started with a comprehension lesson. We read a story set in Tudor times. It was about a little boy with a lame leg whose dream was to work on a famous ship with a wealthy captain, so that he could help his widowed mother and his many siblings. At last, he gets a chance to go on board and leaves with the ship without having had a chance to let his mother know.

To begin with, the kids were thrown by some of the words in the story and said they understood nothing. There were only about a dozen unknown words, but the kids were put off. After some dictionary work we went through the story together, discussing it a paragraph at a time. Suddenly, they couldn’t stop talking about the story: what they thought of the characters, disabled people’s rights and the way able-bodied people treat the disabled, how the boy’s mother would feel when one of her children didn’t return home, how their own mothers would feel if they didn’t…

During Ethics we talked more about rights. I begin by asking whether jellyfish have the right to stand up, a pig the right to vote, a man the right to give birth. The majority say ‘Yes’, but Jamie says ‘No’. She explains that a jellyfish can’t stand up, a pig can’t think or talk or hold a pen to vote, and men don’t have the right stomach to have a baby in. ‘So,’ I ask, ‘if someone cannot do something does that mean they don’t have the right to do it?’ ‘Yes’ she replies.

‘OK,’ I say, ‘now some group work. You know, in some societies couples are allowed to have only one child. Because of this some couples want to stop pregnancies when the mother carries a female baby in her belly because they want a boy.’ (I try using ‘foetus’ instead of talking tendentiously of ‘the unborn baby’, but the kids don’t take to it and revert to talking ‘the ‘baby in its mummy’s tummy’. I don’t push it, for now.)

There is sharp intake of breath from the class, but it’s more surprise than shock. I ask what they think about this. The parents obviously feel they have the right to choose the sex of their baby. But doesn’t the unborn baby have the right to be born? Whose right is stronger? I break the class up into groups and let them discuss the topic. I leave the class for a few minutes and wait outside the door. All I hear is the sound of eager voices.

I re-enter the room and ask them to tell me what they think. They all say that the unborn baby’s right is the important one. One of my students shares their personal story. She says that her dad wanted a boy but he ended up with three girls. ‘But he never thought of stopping us from coming to life!’ she says. We spend some time discussing this.

They are doing well – so well that I decide to challenge a little more. ‘But,’ I say, ‘the unborn child cannot think, cannot decide whether it wants to come to life, cannot express its right to life, so why should it have such a right? Earlier, Jamie said that if someone is not able to claim a right then they don’t have it. You all agreed with that. So what’s different now? Perhaps the unborn child doesn’t have a right to life and so the parents should be free to choose whether or not to stop the pregnancy.’ (I consider returning to the point about whether it’s right to call a foetus a ‘baby’, but they don’t seem ready for this and I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the discussion. I decide to leave it for a separate discussion with some facts about development.)

‘Yes,’ another student says, ‘but the jellyfish could never stand up, and the pig would never be able to vote or the man be able to give birth. But the unborn child will one day be able to choose for itself if it is not stopped from developing in a normal way. And no one has the right to stop it. That’s the difference.’

‘OK,’ I say, ‘but now imagine the pregnant mother receives some very bad news. She is told that she has a very serious disease and that being pregnant is making her even more seriously ill. She needs to stop the pregnancy and take some very strong medicine if she is to survive.’ The kids gasp again, and spontaneously break up into groups to discuss this scenario. Again, I leave them to talk for a few minutes.

Now they have all decided that the mother should not be allowed to terminate the pregnancy, since if she is so ill she will die anyway. The child would be able to live with its father and have a full and happy life. As one of the class is the child of a single parent father I don’t push it, but I admire their consistency and readiness to bite the bullet.

‘OK,’ I go on, ‘now imagine that this is a mother of four other very young children. This mother has no relatives and no partner. What about that?’ Again, there is a gasp. They still think that this baby has the right to be born, and they suggest that, if the mother doesn’t make it, the newborn baby and its siblings could all go to the same orphanage. I’m tempted to push them further and start talking about the mother’s rights, but I decide to leave this for another session. They are getting tired now.

One thing that struck me about the session was that the children seemed clear in the minds that parents (and, I guess, other adults that attend to them, including teachers) are only there for the kids’ sake. Do they just see us as means to their ends? Do kids naturally think like that, or are they brought up to believe it? Did I think of my parents like that when I was seven? (I can’t really remember, but I don’t think I did.) It’s an interesting question.

During Discovery of the World we talk more about the Tudors and watch some Horrible Histories videos. We discuss how people were different back then, how the times seemed more cruel, and how people dressed, looked, and behaved differently. A student said that if they Tudor people saw us today they would think we were ugly, poor, and not educated. ‘Perhaps rights were different back then,’ someone says. ‘Did Tudor people ask whether unborn babies had the right to birth?’

These were some of the thoughts of my third graders. I was proud of them. What impressed me was how well they engaged with this difficult topic, and how maturely and seriously they discussed it. A great start, I think, for children so young.

Charlie’s Mirror

I walk into the class with my third-grade students and ask them to sit down. Jamie and I had come into an agreement at the end of the previous day. She would sit in the front row so as to have as much of my attention as possible.

The kids sit down and Jamie picks an argument with her friend who has asked to share the desk. I turn to Jamie to remind her of our agreement and say that sharing a desk with a friend can be fun. Jamie makes a face at me. I reproduce the facial expression to the class and ask them what they think it means and how they would feel if they were on the receiving end. They say it is a hurtful face, an indifferent but angry face, an ‘I’ll pay you back’ face…

Soon they begin to list complaints they have against Jamie. She kicks us, they say, and pushes past us; she stabs us with pencils and is rude to us; she always wants her own way.

Jamie listens surprised. I’m not sure whether she is surprised because so many of them are complaining, or because of the long list of negative things, or because of what she is being accused of.

I turn to Jamie and say: ‘You do not really want to be this way, do you?’ ‘No’, she says. Then I turn to the class: ‘Jamie says she wants to be friends, but perhaps she is not very clear about the way she can do this. Can you imagine any situations where someone might behave like Jamie and not mean it?’

Yes, they say, if the person is shy, or worried about how they look, or afraid that people don’t like them, or if they are unhappy or lonely. I ask them what they could do to help her understand the situation. Be nice to her, they say. Remind her that she is not behaving like a friend when she is like this, that she is not being herself. Tell her that she upset our feelings.

Then a hand at the back goes up. It is Charlie, a child who hasn’t spoken before. ‘Yes, Charlie’, I say, ‘what do you think?’ Charlie says, ‘We should tell her that life is like a mirror.’

Wow! This is intriguing. I turn to the rest of the class and ask them what they think Charlie means. They are eager to reply, explaining that if you want to see how you look and are not sure, you look in the mirror. Then you’ll know. ‘So should Jamie carry a mirror with her?’, I ask. ‘No!’, the kids reply in excitement. ‘Her mirror is us! We show her what she looks like.’

‘But,’ I ask, ‘can a mirror show you how you would like to be? Because Jamie would like to be different from the way she looks to you.’ ‘No,’ they say, ‘you need to work at it. You look into the mirror to see what you want to change, then you make some changes, and then you look again to check that you now look the way you want. So it needs work from the inside.’

‘A mirror doesn’t lie,’ somebody adds, ‘it shows things how they are. If Jamie is nice, as she wants to be, we her mirror will be nice back to her. If we are not nice, then she may be doing something wrong.‘

I suggest that the children draw something with Charlie’s theme that life is like a mirror, and they take to it with enthusiasm. Then another student says: ‘I’ll draw myself just how I am, because I’m happy with who I am!’ Ah, bless!

And Jamie drew a really pretty picture of herself, looking very happy…

What a lesson, what bunch, what a day! I’m so lucky to have them all!


Here are some of the children’s drawings. (Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.)

Conversations and Contexts blog

Welcome to my blog, where I post on on educational practice and policy, philosophical topics, and other things that interest me. Please note that the descriptions of classroom moments in this blog, though rooted in reality, are not literal records. Some details (including all names) have been changed to protect students’ anonymity, some characters are composites, and some events have been altered, compressed, or conflated for the purposes of story telling.

The School of European Education, Heraklion

Back in September I wrote a post for www.philhellenes.org, a website which celebrates Greece and Greek culture, and which is run by my partner Keith Frankish. The post is about the School of European Education, Heraklion, where I work and where my children study.

At the time I wrote the post, the school was going through a difficult phase, owing to administrative problems outside the control of the school’s management. I am happy to report that this difficult phase has now passed. The school is now functioning normally, and the students have largely made up for the time lost at the beginning of term.

However, I am linking to the post here, both because I stand by all the positive things I say in it about the school, and because I want to remind everyone how precious this institution is, and how important it is that it survives and flourishes.

Here is my post on the school.