Welcome to my blog, Conversations and Contexts, 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.

Fragments of meaning

It’s the first day of teaching literature to my year 1 secondary school class. I choose several poems, chop them up into individual sentences, and divide the fragments among the students. Each student gets eight to ten sentences, and their task is to create their own poem out of them. I encourage them to be creative. They can transform words, add or take away words, use different tenses, but they must keep the same basic structure and meaning.

I then ask each student in turn to take the floor and read their poem in the most dramatic way they can. They are all excited, but also anxious. One says, ‘I wrote a poem and I’ll read it but it makes no sense’. I say not to worry. I didn’t say the poem had to make sense immediately.

She reads her poem, and as she finishes there is a show of hands in the class. The students are eager to offer their interpretation of her poem. They are very inventive and constructive. The reader was so happy. I ask her which was her favourite interpretation. ‘All of them!’, she says.

The bell rings. For homework, I ask the students to rework their poems and prepare to perform them tomorrow. I say they can act them out dramatically if they like.

Tomorrow, after they have acted their poems out, I’ll have a debriefing session with them and get them to reflect on the word choices they made and to think about why they chose to perform their poems in the way they did.

Then — and this will be the big reveal! — I’ll read them the original poems and get them to talk about them too. Hopefully, the work they have done will stimulate them to engage with poems in a way they couldn’t have done before and to think about the power of words. Let’s see how it goes!

Seeking your linguistic intuitions!

Are you a fluent speaker in a language other than English? If so, may I ask for your intuitions on a linguistic matter, please?

In English, if someone says, ‘I injured a leg’, we would take them to mean that they had injured one of their own legs. Similarly, if they say they injured a finger, a toe, an ear, etc. But if they say, ‘I injured a nose’, we would take them to mean that they had injured someone else’s nose—not their own. Similarly, for a head, a heart, a chin, etc.

In short, in English, when someone refers to a body part in this way, if the speaker has more than one of the body parts in question, then we take them to mean that it was their own. But if the speaker has only one of those body parts, then we take them to mean that it was someone else’s. (At least, that’s my intuition; if you don’t share it, please post a comment saying so!)

My question is, Does the same apply in other languages? If the sentences in bold above were translated into your language (in the most natural way), would the same principle hold? That is, would ‘an X’ imply ‘my X’ if the speaker has more than one X, but ‘someone else’s X’ if the speaker has only one X?

All I need is a Yes or No, but if you would like to add any comments or thoughts, that would be great.


Young Greek philosophers

Greece is going through difficult times, but I try to remain optimistic. And one thing that makes me optimistic is meeting Greek students.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting a 17-year-old high school student and helping to prepare her for the second phase of Greece’s 5th National Student Philosophy Competition. Only twenty students (out of over 800 who took part in the first phase) will enter this second phase. Next week, they will travel to the University of Patras, where they will experience university study and write two extended philosophical essays — one in Greek, one in another language (English, French, German) — on themes in ethics.

It was a great pleasure to talk to the student. We talked about virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, discussing Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. She was smart and quick-thinking and had clearly studied hard in preparation for the competition. She summarized philosophical views accurately, analysed them clearly, and drew on different theories in developing her own approach. But more than this, she had a wonderful enthusiasm for philosophy — something not always evident in academic philosophers! It was clear that she loved the subject.

I’m sharing this because after my session with this young person I returned home with my batteries recharged, full of admiration and hope for the next generation. I’m certain that there are many more young people like this in Greece (there are another 19 of them at least!) and this gives me great hope.

I wish them all luck in the competition — the best two will then go through to the International Philosophy Olympiad in Ghent. I also wish them best luck for the future — though they probably don’t need it and neither do we with people like them around us.

I also came out with a lot of admiration for the Greek system and the student’s teachers. Obviously, they have been doing great work to fire their students’ interest, and to maximize opportunities for them. Finally, I was very happy to see a Greek University reaching out to schools and promoting philosophy in such an engaging and stimulating way.

I’m so proud and privileged to have met this student.
Image by Matt Neale from UK – Greek philosophersUploaded by NotFromUtrecht, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12858253

Good news about the SEEH!

SEEH children doing a Cretan dance

Friends of the SEEH have been very worried about the accreditation of the school, which was up for renewal. If the European Schools organization did not renew it, then the school could not continue — at least not as a European School.

So I was delighted to hear today that the school has had its accreditation renewed. We friends of SEEH are very grateful to the European Schools organization for its support and its belief in our school.

So one hurdle has been cleared. But more remain. Accreditation is necessary for the school’s survival, but it is by no means sufficient. Accreditation merely gives permission for the school to continue. But without the support of the Greek authorities, local and national, the school will not have the means to keep going. (It is, after all, a Greek state school.)

In the past the Greek government was under a legal obligation to keep the school open; it was a condition of Greece hosting ENISA (the EU cyber security agency). But with ENISA’s recent decision to move away from Heraklion, this obligation will lapse. Now the Greek government will no longer be required to keep the school open; instead, they must want to do so. This is why it is so important for all interested parties to realize the importance of the school for Heraklion and Greece, and to make their case to the Greek authorities.

As I have said before, although it is sad that ENISA is leaving, it is may a blessing in disguise for the school. It cannot be desirable that a school’s existence should depend on the presence of a single, relatively small agency. There were never enough ENISA children to fill a school, so many local children had to register in order for the SEEH to be viable – committing themselves to an educational programme quite different from the standard Greek one. Yet these non-ENISA students were in an unenviable position. They were committing their education to an institution that had been created for another group of people and which might disappear if those people suddenly decided to leave. It will be much better to have a school that there is there for all its students equally and that is there simply because they need it.

So, we have good news. The European Schools organization is backing us. And we have a great opportunity to re-establish our school on a new basis, serving the community in Heraklion and no longer dependent on ENISA. We just need to make the case!

The European Schools have done their bit; let’s do ours!

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #10

#10 Everyone wants one!

European Schools are well established and much valued by people across Europe and the world. Ministries of Education are keen to secure new European Schools for their countries, and city authorities are eager to welcome them. (See, for example, this recent blog post by the Secretary-General of the European School system Kari Kivinen – especially the last paragraph.)

So why is the future of our own European School still uncertain? Are we in Greece less smart than people in the rest of Europe? Is Heraklion going to let go of something that other European cities are fighting to obtain?

We are lucky to have a European School in our city and country. Yet, over the years, the school has not been well supported at local or national level, and many in the SEEH community feel that they are ignored or even resented by their fellow townspeople.

But things are changing, I believe. I know that many of our current local politicians do believe in the school and recognize its potential. Perhaps we are at last ready to see the SEEH for what it is – not a foreign, supposedly elitist institution, but a neighbourhood state school with a European vision. It is a great asset to our city, something we need and can be very proud of. Are we at last going to pull together and agree to set the SEEH on a stable foundation, so that it can flourish and provide the many benefits that a European School can bring?

I hope we are. I hope we are going to wake up before it’s too late. If we don’t, we will look back with shame and regret for having thrown away a precious educational gift to our children – a gift that many others would love to have.

SEEH children at an end-of-year celebration
SEEH children at an end-of-year celebration

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #9

#9 It connects teachers across Europe

Teachers in the European School Heraklion have opportunities to visit colleagues in other European Schools across Europe, to observe, share ideas, and develop common projects. We share know-how, learning strategies, curriculum ideas, and, most importantly, our love for what we do.

As a teacher at the school, I was privileged to visit European Schools in Mol, Brussels, and Helsinki, and many European colleagues have visited us in Heraklion, joining our teachers in their classrooms to observe, learn, brainstorm, compare notes, and, of course, meet the students.

Just this week, Philippe, a primary school headteacher from Brittany, is visiting the school on an ERASMUS+ project, shadowing the French teachers. I was lucky enough to work with Philippe five years ago on a Comenius project, and he has been a keen supporter of our school and its ideals.

We support each in times of need too. We were deeply upset by the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. To us, they were not taking place in foreign countries but near the homes, schools, and offices of our dear friends.

In this way, European School teachers build up networks of advice and support extending across the continent and develop a genuinely European teaching outlook. We learn about our cultural differences, of course, and celebrate them, but at the same time we become closer and grow together because in the end we all care about the same things — our students and their future.

I hope such connections will continue and flourish in the future. May we always grow together and support each other, both in happy times and less happy ones!

What can you do to help the European School Heraklion?

Some people have asked me what they can do to help the European School in Heraklion. Should they write to the European Schools organization, for example?

To answer this, I need to say a little about the nature of the problem. In order for the school to remain open, two things need to happen. First, the European Schools organization must extend the school’s accreditation. Second, the Greek government must continue to support and fund the school. (I suppose, in theory, the school could continue as a private one without any government support, but that’s not my preferred option.)

I’m hopeful with regard to the first factor — accreditation. The European Schools organization has been very supportive and I believe they understand the importance of the school and its potential. A decision on accreditation will be taken in April.

I’m more worried about the second factor — state support. Up till now, the Greek government has been under a legal obligation to fund the school as a condition of hosting the European Agency ENISA, which has been based in Heraklion since 2005. But ENISA seems to be in the process of withdrawing from Crete and perhaps from Greece as a whole. This is, I think, a pity (in many ways Heraklion is the ideal base for it), but I’m not hopeful that ENISA can be persuaded to stay.

Moreover, I don’t think it is good for the school to be dependent on the presence of a single, relatively small, institution. Although ENISA staff have been wonderful supporters of the school, people in the city have always worried that one day ENISA will leave, and this has limited the school’s development. Parents have been reluctant to entrust their children’s education to a school and educational system that may have no long-term future here. And, as I have already argued, there is a very strong case for having a European School in Heraklion, quite independent of whether or not ENISA is here. (I could say much more about this.) This, I think, is the case we need to make right now. And we need to make this case to the Greek authorities, local and national.

If you want to help, then I suggest you contact people in the local authority here in Heraklion and in the Ministry of Education in Athens and tell them why it is so important to you that the school stays open. Below I’ve listed some of the people you might like to get in touch with. (Some of these are already supportive of the school, so messages from you will encourage them and strengthen their hand in negotiation.)

George Terzakis, Regional Director of Primary and Secondary Education in Crete (the person with immediate responsibility for the school.) Tel: +30-2810-302440 Email: mail@kritis.pde.sch.gr

Stavros Arnaoutakis, Regional Governor of Crete. Tel.: +30-2813-400300/305 Email: gram.pkr@pkr.gov.1gr

Vassilis Labrinos Mayor of Heraklion. Tel: +30-2813-409101/2/3 Email: mayor@heraklion.gr

Nikos Filis, Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs. Tel: +30-2103-442000 Email via this online form.

Theodosis Pelegrinis, Deputy Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs. Contact as previous.

Costas Fotakis, Alternate Minister for Research and Innovation and President of FORTH research institute, based in Heraklion. Tel: +30 2810 391316 Email: fotakis@iesl.forth.gr

If you are a Greek resident, please also get in touch with your local Greek MP.

If you are a citizen of another country, you might also like to contact your embassy in Greece. (The British Embassy has a Twitter account, as does the British ambassador John Kittmer.)

Please join this former student in helping to make the case for this school!

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #8

#8 It creates citizens of the world

The Greeks have a saying: παπουτσι απ’ τον τόπο σου κι ας είν’ και μπαλωμένο (shoe from your own place even if it’s mended). It means that a partnership is more likely to succeed if it’s with someone from the same background. People sometimes use it to advise against mixed marriages. The idea, I suppose, is that people from the same background will understand each other better, have similar habits, and work together more smoothly.

I doubt if this was ever true (though perhaps it made sense in the past, when Greeks were under foreign occupation and needed to rely heavily on each other). But even if a shared culture does helps people work together, it’s not something our children will be able to take for granted. With globalization, multiculturalism, and mass migration, they will have to learn to get on with people from very different backgrounds. They will need to walk with others’ shoes.

It’s vital, then, that we introduce our kids to new situations and that we equip them with the linguistic, social, and cognitive skills needed to build partnerships with people who have different languages, beliefs, and habits. (Indeed, there’s evidence that linguistic and social skills reinforce each other.)

And this is exactly what the European School does. There, students, parents, and teachers from many different backgrounds come together on a daily basis to learn, work, play, and socialize. It is a unique community, which works precisely because it draws on the different skills each member brings. We have many shoes, from many different places, and we walk the better for it!

Why do I care about the European School Heraklion?

A friend has asked why I’ve been writing posts in support of the European School. After all, I’m not working there at the moment and my children do not currently attend the school. Why am I still bothered?

Well, I want to see the school survive and flourish. Selfishly, I would like to return to work there, and my kids miss it very much. (The reasons we left are complicated. But, as those who know them will testify, they didn’t reflect any lack of belief in the school itself.) But I also have other reasons for wanting it to flourish – I want it for the children, parents and colleagues who need it, for the city of Heraklion, for our shared European future.

And I’ve started writing about the school again because I’m very worried about it. As many of you know, its future is uncertain, especially given the latest developments at ENISA — the EU agency which the school was founded to serve and which is (sadly) in the process from withdrawing from Heraklion. Parents, teachers, and students are anxious and dispirited, and many fear that closure is imminent.

I don’t believe that. But if the school is to survive, it must be re-established on a new basis independent of ENISA. And this will require good will, determination, and powerful arguments from all those who believe in it. It will be hard work, and I am writing these posts to show my support and to remind everyone of what’s at stake and why it’s so important we succeed.

This is a crucial moment for the school and we must keep our nerve, focus on our objective, and not give up. I want the European School to be there for all us in Heraklion and for all those who may come to Heraklion in the future.

The school has supported me and my family and I want to support it.