Billys Count: the kindness of connected communities

This is an essay written for the first issue of Pastoral Periodical published by UKPastoralChat collated and edited by Maria O’Neill

kes_1

Barry Hines’s modern classic A Kestrel for A Knave is so much more than a powerful story of survival in a tough, joyless world. Hines wanted to write about the wickedness of disregarding pupils who failed the 11-plus, thus branding them with inferiority complexes. Hines was a teacher. He modelled the school in his book after the school at which he taught, St Helen’s. Billy Casper (the boy) is treat as a failure at school; bullied by staff and class mates, alike. And then bullied mercilessly at home by his older brother. Billy has nowhere to turn. He seeks solace in the Kestrel hawk he finds, naming it Kes. Ken Loach (he of I Daniel Blake fame) made a film of the book, Kes. For those of you unfamiliar with this work, and for those of us seeking a reminder, here is a taste of Billy’s world.

Barry Hines took the inspiration for his character, Billy, from his brother, Richard. Richard Hines kept a hawk, as a boy. Richard was interviewed on Radio 4’s Diverse Conversation programme back in March 2016. Fascinating in the way that Richard brings Billy to life. Clearly, Richard’s experience at school remains raw. “I was an 11-plus failure.” “It was awful in the way that people were written off.” Richard says that there were many clever people at his school but their talents went to waste. Richard offers insight into his particular interest in hawks. He speaks of their “intransigence”, and “absence of understanding of social hierarchy and social subservience”. And then, the thing. Although a kestrel never loses its wildness, it can be reached by kindness; no good comes from shouting orders at it or trying to make it conform. Richard’s source for this information? The Gentleman’s Recreation by Nicholas Cox (1928). The young Richard Hines had found his passion. This led to him developing, he says, “a voracious appetite for reading”. He went on to become a teacher, an academic, and made documentaries for the BBC.

What of Billy? There is a scene in the film where Billy attends an appointment with the school’s careers adviser. Billy attends the appointment alone, unlike another boy, sat waiting outside with his mother. Billy’s discomfort is tangible, he cannot get out of there fast enough. “What kind of job have you got in mind?” “You want to start off on the right foot don’t you?!” One thing Billy is sure of is that he “wouldn’t be seen dead down t’pit!” Billy flees from the appointment. Billy only ever seems to be running from school.

Richard Hines suggests that “all of us have a latent talent, if we can find it”. Richard found something for himself and that set him on his way. Barry Hines knew he did not want to be down t’pit, like his father before him. He became a teacher. David Bradley, who played Billy Casper in the movie, attended St Helen’s School. He knew he didn’t want to be down t’pit, like his father before him. He became an actor. Billy? We don’t know. Although, I find it eerily poignant that David Bradley himself penned a sequel in which Billy runs away to London and gets into trouble, sniffing glue, washing car windscreens at traffic lights, but is adopted by a couple and ends up converting a narrowboat. David’s idea for a sequel went no further.

Professor Diane Reay says, amongst a growing number of others, thankfully, that what UK society needs, more than anything else right now, is greater equality and less social and economic distance between its citizens. Reay cites R.H. Tawney and his saying that no class is good enough to do its thinking for another. Reay concludes that now, more than ever, the ruling elite has no knowledge of, or interest in what that other actually thinks.

So what? I do wonder if the system itself is as big a bully now as it ever was, if not bigger. Are our schools, because they sit within the system, failing the Billys of our world just as catastrophically as that school in Barnsley where Billy Casper’s voice remained unheard? Unheard, that is, except for his fifteen minutes of fame when asked to share his interest in falconry with the rest of the class by Mr Farthing. Mr Farthing was the sole, stand out teacher who showed interest in Billy’s world, and Billy’s voice.

When Saul Alinsky (Community Organiser in the US) was asked why he was so provocative, stirring up activism in marginalised communities with no voice, he replied, “I can’t stand to see people get pushed around.” I cannot imagine that the physical and verbal abuse levelled at students in schools such as that featured in Kes exists in our schools today. But should we stand by as so many of our young people get pushed around; failed by an unjust system? If those in power have no knowledge of, or interest in, what that other actually thinks, are we as educators powerless to intervene? I say no. But it is an all of us together thing. Our young people need the sort of kindness hinted at in The Gentleman’s Recreation (How ironic!). The sort that Richard Hines read of, recognised and exercised. As did Billy. But the lone voice of kindness received by Billy, offered by Mr Farthing, was not enough. Still Billy fled. The networks of support our young people need now are just as important as they ever were, arguably more so. Those networks must encompass families, school and community. We can be better at that, and must be. Schools can work on building such capacity, placing themselves with and within their communities. But, as Saul Alinsky said, “The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community.”

For Billy Casper, there was a devastating disconnect between family, school and community. The real life Billy, Richard, achieved his dreams, regardless. Too many others did not. Too many do not. Arguably, it is harder now than it was in the days Billy Casper was set to leave school. If the system shouts down our young ones, let us respond with kindness, as connected communities. We must believe that all schools, in embracing their communities and fostering solidarity can shape a better and more socially just world. To do so, we must address the needs of all those orbiting around our communities by listening to their stories and addressing traditional lines of power. And let’s hear it for the Mr Farthings of this world.

I explore these ideas further in a blog series here

REFERENCES

Libby Purves interview with Richard Hines, Midweek : Diverse Conversation, Radio 4 – Wednesday 16th March 2016 (begins 24 minutes into podcast) http://live.audials.com/en#!podcast/midweek-58985

Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Random House.

Reay, D. (2012) What would a socially just education system look like?: saving the minnows from the pike, Journal of Education Policy, 27:5, 587-599.

Shultz, A. and Miller, M. (eds) (2015) People Power: The Community Organising Tradition of Saul Alinsky, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

 

Listening, Thinking, Conversations: It was all danger in there! #SLTChat Footprint Part II

I am not sure I have ever seen anyone look quite so determined and focused. Moments earlier, the school caretaker had unshackled the school gates. Mr S, without hesitation or deviation, headed for the main entrance. I followed. Mr S demanded to see the headteacher, Mr M. He explained why. I asked if I could be present.

The previous day, we had taken a large group to Ormesby Hall as part of the study we were doing across school; each year group focusing on a particular level of our fictional family tree and their societal level. We walked there and back – forty fives minutes each way. It had been my idea. It was wet, and got wetter.

I sat in Mr M’s office with Mr S, as Mr S scolded me, describing the dishevelled state that his twin girls had returned home from school in the previous day. He was alarmed by the foolhardiness of walking to and from our place of visit. Mr M, speaking calmly and respectfully, defused the situation. I learned so very much from Mr M and the way he engaged with parents and community. I felt the need to say something. I am not sure how well advised what came to mind actually was but I said it anyway. “I am taking a group up the Eston Hills next week that includes N [one of the twins], would you consider joining us?”

Last Sunday I hosted #SLTChat; the theme, Community Engagement. I set two questions:

  1. Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?
  2. How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?

I focused on the debate around Q.1 in an earlier blog here. This blog focuses on Q.2.

In the interests of a more complete record and a resource for anyone interested I have attempted to capture all tweets tagged #SLTChat, from all participants here. I have made no attempt to categorise, they are listed in the order they came through. Where tweets are in response to a tweet, the earlier tweet is shown. I apologise now if I have missed any. I may also have duplicated some.

As I did in focusing on Q.1, I have attempted to prise out key themes and ideas, acutely aware that my choice of words might impact on any given reader’s receiving of them. I make no attempt to anonymise, as such. Rather, I paraphrase or use my own words. Where I feel it is appropriate, I quote directly and attribute credit.

The key messages / responses shared by participants:

  • Parents want the best for their children and strong relationships can be forged if school is sensitive to reservations (whatever they may be) parents/carers may have around engaging with school.
  • It is for school to invest in the relationship, coming from a place of compassion rather than judgement, so building trust.
  • Schools must work with those parents who may be disengaged with education and/or school so that they recognise the value of their child engaging with school.
  • Standing with parents, as a friend and advocate, a constant, will assuage any fear had of engaging.
  • Patience has to be exercised and time given to breaking down barriers such as the carrying forward by parents of negative school experiences, seeing school as an extension of authority.
  • Strong partnership comes through trust building, relationship building, and that takes time. Trust is not a given.
  • Parents must be seen and engaged with as equals.
  • Every minute invested in partnerships, persevering, whatever, is worth it. This leads to a tipping point. A movement.
  • Schools must remember to ask parents what they want, and not make their own assumptions.
  • Engaging communities where there is an absence of trust is challenging but must be done. That requires good leadership, with the leader(s) taking responsibility.
  • A non-judgemental approach is absolutely critical, with no suggestion made of there being a best ‘way’.
  • Parents can be seen as hard to reach if we adopt a “school-centric mindset”.
  • If conversation focus is solely on homework we are not accounting for more important other issues. A child’s education reaches past our gates. Are we aware of what learning goes on outside?
  • Having a designated family support officer, who is there to give a wide range of support to families, is a great way to learn about what families want and need.
  • Take the opportunity to show allegiance by appropriately sharing your own experience as a parent; maybe of growing up yourself in ‘challenging’ circumstances. “Be prepared to show our hand.”
  • Parents need to see school leaders on the school yard, engaging with them.
  • We (schools) do not know everything. Conduct a needs analysis and be proactive.
  • Deficit models – implicit or explicit – do not make for true partnership. Ask parents what they want, not what they need help with.
  • Consider the implications of power and who is seen to be holding that.

As for Q.1, shared in the first blog, I will not draw any conclusions or attempt to project my own thoughts or experience on what has come from this, the second part of this Community Engagement debate. As said,  I think that would be an abuse of privilege. The privilege being that so many participants gave up their time to engage in this debate, addressing an agenda set by myself, and myself having a special interest in this field. More on my interest and what I offer here.

I will, though, now focus on something more specific that featured in the #SLTChat debate. As for Q.1, I had given some considerable thought to the wording of Q.2.

How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?

The key word for me is ‘listen’. I noted with interest one of the contributions made by @nfowles5   

It’s important to set specific meetings that are focused on listening and feedback. To do this you need structured processes like Susan Scott Team Conversation model or Nancy Kline Thinking Environment

Something I intended returning to, to find out more. By pure coincidence I found out a whole lot more when participating in the ‘Coaching in Education: why bother?’ event, this week. Having been ‘in conversation’ myself, I then passed the baton to @LouMycroft and marvelled as Lou talked of the power in the Thinking Environment coaching approach. This was further revealed when modelled by Lou ‘in conversation’ with @CollectivED founder, and inspiration behind the event Professor Rachel Lofthouse.

Subject to Rachel’s approval, along with fellow participants and colleagues Lou Mycroft, Ruth Whiteside, Jo Flanagan and Rebecca Tickell, I would like to draw on my learning from the event and compose a discrete blog on the place for a coaching approach to community engagement. That is for another day. For now, I repeat the words spoken by Lou as she explained the Thinking Environment approach: “The hardest bit is keeping your mouth closed.” And later, modelling the approach, “What do you think?” Maybe the power of the approach is in its simplicity, if difficult to enact, for some?

My question is, How difficult is it for schools to keep their mouths closed and listen to what parents/carers think? Step forward @GilchristGeorge in response to Q.2 posed during the #SLTChat debate:

We have to listen with desire to understand the stories and how they impact on holistic development, then demonstrate hearing what is said by ethical actions

George explores what he means by ethical actions here.

Without that, we cannot, for sure, follow through in the way @Southgloshead suggests:

Getting our parents to really talk to us about their family situation has had a huge impact. However, you only get 1 chance to prove to them that you have the power to help them. This is how trust is built.

In the course of the debate I was thankful for @2106Head ‘s contribution:

We use Structured Conversations with guidelines that are adhered to and ensure most of the conversation can be steered by the parents and not us., this way they more happily open up and sometimes we find out things about the family we didn’t know.

 

“Because they work!” Bretta says. And they do. I know that from personal experience. I share my experience here and here (note the comments to the blog posted by a parent and a teacher (fairly new to the profession) and their thoughts on the process).

The structured conversation, introduced and advocated by Achievement for All, incorporates approaches of active listening, solution orientated psychology and problem solving within a clear four stage framework (explore, focus, plan, review), ‘as a means to understand the parents’ hopes and concerns for their child and to engage them in a collaborative relationship that would support their child’s greater progress and achievement’ (Day, 2013, p.36).

National evaluation evidence based findings are very positive about the Achievement for All structured conversation model. Parents reported feeling more included in the process of their children’s education, more empowered, and have sensed a change in the dynamic of their interactions with school staff.

And where might the conversations – structured or otherwise –  take place? Here is an interesting thread from Sunday’s #SLTChat conversation; one between Janet Goodall of the University of Bath  (@janetifimust) and ex-headteacher Chris Chivers @ChrisChivers2

@SLTChat: Absolutely. Is there ever such a thing as a ‘hard to reach family?’ Is this about language and mindset?

Chris: Have visited schools that took meetings into the community, including a room in a pub, to break barriers.

Some schools have buddy parent interpreters on playgrounds to share newsletters or pass on information; harnessing available expertise.

Janet: One school called it “Using the wise women and men of the community” – particularly those who already work in/around the school – they see how much teachers care about children and can pass that on!

Chris: Yes. One school brought a community lead onto the Governors and used this link to transmit essential information.

Janet: Yes – such a good idea.  One group of HTs asked me to talk about how they could integrate more with the community – my reply was to stop just talking to other heads and talk to community leaders!

Chris: Essential to know your community if you want positive engagement.

There really is so much we can learn by listening to one another isn’t there? Or to put it another way…  Lou Mycroft’s preferred Thinking Environment way, “What do you think?”

I was grateful, on Sunday, for two friends who offered an international perspective: Jenni Donohoo (@Jenni_Donohoo) and Dr Steve Constantino (DrSConstantino)

Amongst many valuable contributions by those two, these stand out for me:

Jenni:

From M. Wheatley’s ‘Willing to Be Disturbed’ – when we listen with less judgement, we always develop better relationships with people.

Steve:

Every family desires that their children exceed them in their quality of life. Family engagement ensures that can happen.

Hear hear! I am acutely aware that this has turned into a very lengthy blog but I do feel bound to share all of this with the many participants who made Sunday’s debate such an interesting and useful one. If you are still with me… thank-you. I will finish by returning to the event shared at the very beginning of this blog.

Over a significant part of the school year, made possible by the flexibility and cooperation of my colleagues I had been taking groups of children out in the local area. I had passed my minibus driver test and we hired a 17-seater minibus, as required. Inspired by local film-maker, the brilliant Craig Hornby, I had devised a programme of learning that, essentially, had learners working as historians and film-makers themselves. Our focus was Cleveland’s ironstone mining heritage. With input from Craig and the help of Teesside Archives, Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, Dorman Museum, Pannett Park Museum and our local authority ICT experts, we embarked on one amazing road trip. A road trip in which I was expertly supported by one of those extra special teaching assistants (HLTA) that you only ever come across once in a blue moon; Mrs C. Our trail started at our local cemetery, at the graveside of Frank Bates, husband of Hannah Bates, ‘tragically killed in Eston Mine on 26th November 1936’. We picked up on Frank’s story at Teesside Archives and went from there. The children made a film of our findings, presented a docudrama to parents and local community (captured on film by Craig) and, we were thrilled to win an award for our efforts come the end of the year…

Courtesy of http://www.pancrack.tv/news2006.html

My reason for raising this? Mr S did go out up the Eston Hills (site of what was once the largest ironstone mine in the world) with us the week after our conversation in Mr M’s office. What is more, he joined us on several occasions, learned with us, and contributed much. Mr S was with me, too, one day towards the end of our mission, sitting with a group, having our lunch, looking out across the Tees Valley, by Eston Nab…

We were approached by two elderly gentlemen, walking their dogs. I can still hear the voice of one of them, “Do you know what, kids. There used to be a mine right under here!” He did not get any further than that. He was stopped for twenty minutes or more as the children told him and his mate all about Frank Bates, his life as a worker in the mine, and his death in the mine. Their excited telling of this was punctuated by direct quotes from ex-miners interviewed by Craig, such as: “It was all danger in there!”  

The two men turned to a beaming Mr S and I. They shook us both by the hand and thanked the children for making their day, and more.

Partnership! Thank you, Mr S!

Attention à l’Écart: Whose gap is it anyway? #SLTChat footprint

April. Paris. Gare Montparnasse. The early morning train from Le Mans pulls into the metropolis. Forty two very excited children plus eight equally excited adults arrange themselves for disembarkation. The doors open and the group flows onto the platform. A yell from the boy immediately behind me. I turn and look down to see the upper half of a disoriented T above the platform, his lower half, not visible, down between the train and the platform. I helped him up. T, being T, brushed himself down, turned to an astonished assortment of onlookers and laughed it off. I gulped, took control of myself, and we headed for our first stop, the Eiffel Tower.

Gare Montparnasse, Paris

I was asked a few weeks ago if I would consider hosting #SLTchat on Twitter. I said yes, I would welcome the opportunity. Last week I was asked if I was available to host on the upcoming Sunday. Of course I would. What a wonderful opportunity to encourage and broaden a debate that receives far too little airtime, in my opinion; Community Engagement. I did not appreciate just how challenging hosting ‘chats’ actually is; trying to track and contribute, in the moment, to a myriad of conversation threads. That aside, it was an exhilarating experience. What I did not anticipate was the footprint that is left behind after these events. A rich source of responses, opinions, thinking and ideas contributed by all participants.

Prior to the event, #SLTChat participants are encouraged to help shape the debate by voting for one of three given options. The 25 character limit for each of these is restrictive but I pitched three distinct areas into the mix. The poll results (263 votes) were as follows:

  1. Hard to reach schools? 20%
  2. Closing gaps together? 47%
  3. More than learning? 33%

I was required to set two questions. I thought long and hard about what they should be. I thought about language (admittedly, UK parlance) and what it was I hoped to achieve and where I hoped the debate would go, whilst leaving it open enough to encourage broader contributions. I settled on the following:

  1. Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?
  2. How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?

This blog focuses on Q.1. I will blog on Q.2 in due course. I largely avoid directly quoting participants. Rather, I will pick out key themes that illuminate the debate.

The first question…

Every word selected with good reason; four very deliberately used key words and one key phrase: ‘attainment’, ‘gap’, ‘limit’, ‘partnership’, and ‘attainment gap’.

20:00 hrs, Q.1 posted… And they’re off, at a fair old gallop!…

Words used have meaning. Particular words used in this sentence (question) resonated with some more than others, foregrounding responses given. I have attempted to winkle out key themes and ideas, acutely aware that my choice of words might impact on any given reader’s receiving of them. I make no attempt to anonymise, as such. Rather, I paraphrase or use my own words.

  • If partnership is desirable then that should be the focus, over emphasis on the attainment gap detracts from partnership potential.
  • Knowledge of the gap offers a desired comparator for parents to know where their child is placed overall, and so future progress be gauged.
  • Use of such language (gaps), along with such a strong focus, by schools, and then deliberate sensitising of such language in conversation with parents serves to widen the gap between families and school.
  • If we become too fixated with comparisons/attainment/gaps etc then the individual child can get lost. It’s why the challenge of parents is a good thing. It grounds us and reminds us that these are children, not numbers on a spreadsheet.
  • Knowledge for parents is essential so they can advocate for their children and use information to inform decisions such as changing of setting.
  • Transparency around school knowledge sharing with parents empowers and respects parent right to advocacy.
  • Knowledge of any gap is a right for parents and it is wrong to think otherwise.
  • Focusing on ‘gaps’ just promotes more deficit models of development rather than the positives that exist with true partnerships.
  • If the focus for schools is the attainment gap, with parents an afterthought, that needs challenging.
  • Our children and young people are growing up in a world where comparison is made as a matter of course and we need to prepare them for that.
  • Encouraging our children and young people to be aware of and celebrate their uniqueness, what they have to offer, and how they relate to others, should trump how they compare to others.
  • Securing parental engagement and contribution is critical for closing gaps.
  • Working in partnership on progress and potential is just as important as the addressing of any academic attainment gaps.
  • Whole child development must be the partnership focus so that they have the social as well as academic competence to face a challenging world.
  • Working in partnership promotes different thinking on how we go about closing gaps.
  • Schools serve communities so they must factor partnership in when setting priorities such as closing of attainment gaps.
  • Working in partnership  with parents pastorally too – expectations on community behaviour, online presence, attitude to culture etc. – is equally important.
  • Academic and social ‘gaps’ are present prior to a child starting or attending any one school. Schools cannot address these alone and should not be “scapegoated” through accountability measures.
  • Our best resource in securing better learner achievement and attainment, outside the school, is parental and community engagement.

I have absolutely avoided categorising statements in any sort of ‘for’ and ‘against’ way. The conversation is riddled with nuance and, so, exceedingly complex. It is clear that some responses come from a parent perspective, others from a school perspective, some from teacher/parent perspective. Other participants, indeed, flip between the two.

In the interests of a more complete record and a resource for anyone interested I have attempted to capture all tweets tagged #SLTChat, from all participants  here. I have made no attempt to categorise, they are listed in the order they came through. Where tweets are in response to a tweet, the earlier tweet is shown. I apologise now if I have missed any. I may also have duplicated some.

I will not draw any conclusions or attempt to project my own thoughts or experience on what has come from the first part of this Community Engagement debate. I think that would be an abuse of privilege. The privilege being that so many participants gave up their time to engage in this debate, addressing an agenda set by myself, and myself having a special interest in this field. More on my interest and what I offer here.

I welcome challenge on anything missed out or misconstrued. I very much welcome further comment and opinion on what I have pulled out of the rich data generated by Sunday evening’s conversation, courtesy of #SLTChat @SLTChat. If you could post that as a comment on this blog, for all to see and think on, then so much the better. To do so, click on ‘Leave a comment’ at the top of this blog, just below the title. Maybe we can extend the debate still further.

 

Returning to Paris. T was there as a result of him closing his personal gap. He was a long way from meriting a place on that train alongside his peers. Let us just say that challenging behaviour featured. Zero tolerance has never been in my lexicon. I worked with T, his mother, and extended family, over a significant period of time. T did very well in the SATs a few weeks after we returned from France. He made a very successful transition into secondary school.

One evening during the week spent in France, I played T at Pool; fulfilment of a promise made many months before, should T make it. Best out of three. I was the victor, two frames to one. None of that ‘It’s the taking part that matters’, nonsense for me!

Fast forward to the final day of term. T approached me holding out a glittering trophy. He handed it to me and said, quite simply, “Thank you, Mr Feasey.” The trophy was engraved with, ‘I will beat you at Pool one day!’ and his name. Mother stood in the background, smiling. Proud of her boy.

 

Thinking on T, his mother, and our partnership in supporting T with his needs, I will finish with a comment made by Chris Chivers (Twitter: @ChrisChivers2) in response to Q. 1. Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?

The focus should be on the child, aware of current and future needs, to fine tune the journey, coaching and mentoring as needed to encourage and guide.

 

I hope you will find the time to comment on this blog post. To do so, click on ‘Leave a comment’ at the top of this blog, just below the title. I will post a further blog, reporting on the second half of the Community Engagement #SLTChat debate in the next few days.

 

Palmyra, Art Making Animals, #ARTCONNECTS, the Jarrow Marchers, and Ethics

Courtesy of Catch Up T.V. I watched the first episode of Civilisations: Second Moment of Creation on BBC2 this weekend. The historian, Simon Schama is a magician. He speaks with an authority and allure that instantly places you under a spell, drawing you in. Schama announces the series by looking at the formative role art and the creative imagination have played in the forging of humanity itself. I have now watched the first five minutes of that episode several times. The gravity of the opening moments will not escape you. We endeavour to protect the treasures of civilisations so that we pass on their revelation to the future, Schama says. But then, every so often, something comes along to shake them from our grip. Schama gives us the example of the ancient city of Palmyra, in present day Syria – 130 miles northeast of Damascus, known by Syrians as the ‘Bride of the Desert’. Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a place of significant interest because it is a place where the cultures of Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Jews mixed and merged. Last year, the ISIS militant group took over Palmyra and razed some of the ancient ruins to the ground. The militants captured the site’s Chief Curator Khaled al-Asaad and publicly beheaded him when he refused to say where some of the site’s treasures had been taken for safe-keeping. Schama muses on the fact that we might talk about the value of saving and cherishing treasures passed on as civilisation but then, How many of us would give up our life for it? Schama offers help in defining civilisation by helping us recognise its counterpart.

When its opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction we know what civilisation is. We know it from the shock of its imminent loss as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.

And then, for me, the nub, with Schama declaring, “We are the art making animal”. It defines our place in the world. Wow! The meaning behind the programme’s subtitle is revealed. ‘The Second Moment of Creation.’ The dawning of human creativity.

A couple of weeks ago it was Rae Snape (Twitter: @RaeSnape ) who drew my attention to a national 3 day festival to showcase Creative Schools, Work and Lives. A collaboration with venues and organisations across Kings Cross, London; The #ARTCONNECTS Festival of Creativity organised by @ST3AMC0 and @People4Art .

You know those flyers that edufirms weigh down the friendly school postie’s sack with? The ones that announce event dates and then suggest audience make up? Often they begin (always in perceived hierarchical order) with headteacher, deputy headteacher, senior leadership team, and finish somewhere deeper on the page with ‘the boiler service engineer’. Well, the #ARTCONNECTS organisers stated that the event was for ‘Parents and other Carers like Artists, Parents, Teachers, Techs, Creatives, Students and Business People’. I know that because I have just looked it up. I rather pathetically replied to Rae that because I live 250 miles north of London I would not be attending. I should have done. I wish I had. I would have been better persuaded if I had registered the target audience at the time.

I followed the event with interest, courtesy of Twitter. It is well worth spending a bit of time trawling through the #ARTCONNECTS thread. At the event, Geoff Barton (General Secretary ASCL) gave an excellent and heartfelt talk on the ‘arts as a social mobility birthright’.

Geoff highlights the fact that the squeeze on creative art subjects in state schools is not happening in independent schools. It is not, because it is seen as an entitlement, what parents are paying for. Geoff suggests that we change tack in our line of debate. This is not about funding, it is about values and social mobility. What is more, “Through art, humans become more human.” It is, therefore, “a birthright”. This really does take us back to Simon Schama’s viewpoint does it not? We are the art making animal. It defines our place in the world. The Second Moment of Creation was the dawn of human creativity. This is an ethical issue. It is.

If you do not follow George Gilchrist’s (Twitter @Gilchrist George ) blog I suggest you do. Always challenging, insightful and interesting. This week, George posted this, Speaking of ethics . George argues that, often, those issues we see as located around values do in fact raise questions around ethical working. George says that if we do not take the time to discuss and consider such issues, it is so easy for us to take the path of least resistance, taking action or making decisions that best meet the needs of the system rather than the learners and families we work with every day. And then, the big question, we all recognise:

Is it ethical to spend time narrowing the curriculum and spending more time preparing young learners for tests, just because they are high-stakes for us? Is it right that we coach learners in how to pass exams, rather than continuing to educate them holistically?

Twenty plus years on from that TED Talk, Do schools kill creativity , Ken Robinson spoke at an event held in Minneapolis on 22nd February. A huge misconception amongst adults, according to Robinson, is that kids don’t like to learn. On the contrary, “my conviction is that kids love to learn. That’s not the problem,” he shared. Rather, “it’s the construct of school” that beats a love to learn out of students, he says.

We have to reframe the abilities of our children. We have deep natural talents, but we have to discover them and cultivate them. If you have a narrow view of ability, you generate an enormous amount of inability.

Geoff is right, of course it is a question of values. Although, George has me thinking that it is more than that. It is an ethical issue. Who are we to deny our young ones their birthright? I agree with Geoff, through art, humans become more human. For, after all, as Simon Schama says, we are the art making animal. The dawning of human creativity, Schama contends, equates to the Second Moment of Creation. If we heed Ken Robinson’s warnings on adopting a narrow view of ability, condemning those simultaneously branded as unable, whilst observing a creeping narrowing of the curriculum, we are working unethically.

It is worth hearing again Simon Schama’s reflection on civilisation:

When its opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction we know what civilisation is. We know it from the shock of its imminent loss as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.

I do not wish to disrespect Khaled al-Asaad and his family by comparing his making of the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the treasures he saw as his duty to pass on to the next generation to the, let us call it the identified birthright issue, in our schools, but it is worth thinking on. It is an ethical issue.

Something else to contemplate… we are getting very clever, it seems, at creating automatons, and new ground is being broken in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Does this mean that non-humans, created by humans, are shifting on the spectrum, closer to where humans currently sit? Another question… If we continue to take the path of less resistance, not challenging ‘the system’ as it currently stands and works, stripping children of their creativity in our schools, are we humans actually shifting towards those non-humans on the spectrum; a convergence? Now that is an ethical issue!

I would like to finish on a brighter, more promising note. Those of you who are kind enough to find the time to read my blogs know that my passion is community capacity building and working for more authentic, socially engaged, family-school-community partnerships. Ken Robinson challenged the idea that many of our young ones are apathetic and do not like to learn. Rather, he says, school systems are failing too many children. I would like to add to that by dispelling the myth that families in those communities that I have been lucky enough to work are apathetic where the Arts is concerned. On two occasions, I have had the absolute pleasure to be one of a group of 180 plus children and adults (parents/carers + staff) from two of the schools I have led in, journeying to London to take advantage of what the Big City has to offer. On both occasions (two different school communities) we spent a full day in the Tate Britain exploring the work of William Turner. The evening we spent at The Lyceum, watching The Lion King. The following day, the Victoria and Albert Museum. We worked with the children and parents prior to the visit, in school, and post-visit. Don’t tell me there isn’t an appetite for the Arts in communities such as those I have served. I will never forget the sight of one dad sitting two seats down from me in the Lyceum, perched on the edge of his seat, transfixed, his face a picture of sheer enjoyment. I cannot say how many times he thanked me after the show, on behalf of his son, and himself, when it was for me to thank him.

Wreck-of-a-Transpo_2746157b
The Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810) by JMW Turner

I have spoken in previous blogs of schools encouraging parents/carers to be activists, change agents. Geoff is right to say that we cannot stand by and allow the squeeze on arts to go unchallenged. I say we enlist our parents and community and have them stand with us to demand the birthright of our young ones.

Returning to the matter of delegate menus. Reading that list of suggested attendees for #ARTCONNECTS awakens in me memories such as that described above. That is why I should have listened to Rae and got myself down there. After all, if the Jarrow Marchers can walk to London, I could have caught the train or driven.

Twelve Guinea Pigs in a Fishbowl, a mid-Vacation Break, and Wenger (not Arsène)

I have just written an article (yet to be published) telling of and then expanding on an example of a moment in my career when all that I believe in as a person, an educator and a school leader broke the surface. I have another one. I want to share it.

This blog post might have sat in the holding area if it was not for a Twitter exchange I had this morning that set me thinking. One of the responses I gave was motivated by something somebody said to me last night, used in a different context. A modification of what was said to me but used in the same vein, ‘A river will flow between two banks. Take one away and you have a problem. School and families must pull together, I agree.’ Which takes me back to the opening paragraph. And so…

As a school, we had engaged with the research and work of Dr Russ Quaglia and the Quaglia Institute in the U.S.; more here and here. We had worked with Russ’s Aspirations Profile and explored School Voice (Student, Teacher, Parent) over a good period of time. The Quaglia Institute’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr Michael Corso, let it slip that he was journeying to Scotland for a family holiday. Now, we are based in the north east of England, so Scotland ain’t too far off. And yes, I do know that Scotland is a sizeable lump and, indeed, boasts a physiognomy that is made up of many sizeable skyward pointing lumps that require circumnavigation. So, as the crow flies, we are not that far away. Mickey was easily persuaded to hop on the train and lead a day of professional development for us Sassenachs.

I will not go into the content of the training. Accept that it was exceptionally good stuff, provoking thinking and good conversation. Skip forward to the morning break. Mickey says to me, “Can we borrow some of those children out on the field?” It was our field, the school field. We had laid down one of our Baker day chips but we had quite a lot going on that was being run by external providers. “Well, of course, Mickey, whatever you want!” I did ask why, and I did phone home to gain consent for each of the 12 guinea pigs. Am I allowed to say that? I guess I just did!

Fast forward to the beginning of the afternoon session. The 12 were sat in a circle, Mickey alongside. The 13 were encircled by us (whole staff – 40ish). We, in turn, were corralled by a mixture of parents/carers/grandparents who had asked if they could attend, when called earlier. Mickey had asked if it was alright for him to conduct a focus group interview, “in a fishbowl”. It might prove uncomfortable, he warned. All those surveys we had diligently served and chased in were to be tested, in the moment, in the raw, with an audience. I think it is fair to say that we all sat spellbound as Mickey, with consummate skill, drew narrative from our Likert-styley surveys, through the children. He had done his homework. And he had done his homework! Words from the morning session flooded back. ‘Taking surveys is the first step.’ ‘It is the next steps that really matter.’ For a full ninety minutes, Mickey teased and provoked. The young ones loved it. They gave voice. We were enthralled, regardless. The other adults in the room listened attentively, and then chipped in. The conversation had is one that will stay with me always. Even more so, the fact it happened in the way it did. There existed a magical connectedness that was truly special. Far from being an uncomfortable experience, I think we found it decidedly liberating. I learned so very much that day. Experiences like that have informed my outlook and my belief in the importance of connected communities, transparency, and good, honest, wholehearted conversations.  

The event also flooded back as I watched Rabbi Dara Frimmer pointing out that what we care about is deeply connected to who we are, our life experiences, our pain and disappointment as well as our greatest joy. Rabbi Frimmer says that if we can just remember to get at those sorts of stories and share those of our own we are far more likely to create a network of committed people who are ready to bring about social change. For, “Surveys are not stories.” Rabbi Frimmer suggests that surveys will never be able to reproduce the feelings and the emotions and the sense of connection that people receive when you sit together and listen to people telling their stories. “Surveys are not stories.” Stories remind us that what we think are deeply personal, private issues are in fact shared public concerns. Imagine, Rabbi Frimmer says, if we began to work on any of these shared issues together. I share more on this here.

Etienne Wenger’s brilliant work on Communities of Practice identifies three dimensions that he says are the source of coherence of a community of practice: mutual engagement; a joint enterprise; and a shared repertoire. Might thinking on a more authentic home-school-community partnership benefit from the drawing of parallels with Wenger’s conceptualisation? For, in such a model, group members are engaged in actions which meanings they negotiate with one another in actively participating. Wenger’s second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise:

It is defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it. It is their negotiated response to their situation and thus belongs to them in a profound sense, in spite of all the forces and influences that are beyond their control.
(Wenger, 1998, p. 77)

If we accept that every school community is unique then it follows that community capacity building calls for active negotiation of family-school-community partnership in your context. I believe that school communities aspiring to be full potential communities of practice simply must invite families and community into the room. We had our eyes opened by Mickey when he took a mid-vacation break to share his light with us.

It is testament to Mickey’s skill and expertise that so many teachers expressed the view to me at the end of the day that it was the best professional learning day they had ever experienced. Most notable, was the number of young teachers who felt moved to say so. It thrills me to think that they carry that learning forward with them.  

Dr. Michael Corso now serves as Department Chair in Theology at the Catholic Memorial College, Boston, Massachusetts; a post he took up back in September 2016. Dr. Michael (Mickey) Corso’s transition from the frying pan (Quaglia Institute) to the fire (high school teacher) was the inspiration for this blog series, “Walking the Talk: The School Voice Chronicles.” Italics, Dr. Russ Quaglia’s, in his foreword. Mickey begins:

Having flown to dozens of schools and entered hundreds of classrooms, I spent last week driving to just one school—where I will be a department chair—and organizing just one classroom—the one I will share with my four classes of students. Last week for the first time in a long time I attended a faculty orientation at which I was not the keynote speaker. I participated in professional development and was not among those providing a workshop. I did not get to leave when the administration turned to handing out schedules, class rosters, and the binder full of policy-rich, procedure-laden practicalities. I finally had to sit through a discussion about cell phone policy. This week I will greet my students for the first time. And, although my friends say I am crazy, I am looking forward to all of it!

 

I urge you to take a look at Mickey’s blog, recording, with honesty and integrity, his return to the classroom; “a rookie teacher in his fifties”. In it, Mickey embraces vulnerability and peels back the layers… Just as he encouraged us to do on the day described above.

Thank you, my friend!

Walking the Talk blog series…

Walking the Talk: T Minus One Week

Walking the Talk: Like Riding a Bike… Almost!

Walking the Talk: One for Three

Walking the Talk: Under the Hood

Walking the Talk: Square Peg, Round Hole

Walking the Talk: The Effort to Relate

Walking the Talk: Investing in Social Capital

Walking the Talk: Enthusiasm Spasm

Walking the Talk: Examining Heads

Walking the Talk: Halfway Pay Off

REFERENCE

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: CUP.

Hope + Aspirations: Pope Francis, drinking gin and SOLIDARITY

The future is made of yous, it is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others. Life is not merely time passing by, life is about interactions.

His Holiness, Pope Francis

I had an encounter this morning that will sound familiar to those of you who have ever taught young people. On our way home, my wife and I called in a local supermarket. As we approached the checkout I noticed ‘A’ straight away; a former pupil at one of my previous schools. When our turn came, he looked up, smiled broadly and said, “It is you, isn’t it? Mr Feasey?” For those colleagues who work in secondary or tertiary education the leap is not so great, I imagine, but seeing the young man (or woman) version of the boy (or girl) you remember as primary school age is always quite something, often stunning. I extended my hand, ‘A’ shook it firmly, and then (as he whipped several items across the scanner) told Gill and I of his plan. He was working when he could to earn money as he attended college. I leapt in with, “So you will be going to university then?” ‘A’ put me right. He is working hard to get good grades and hopes to secure an apprenticeship with a firm in the sector he is interested in. That, so that he does not have to saddle himself with a big debt. I walked out of the shop smiling inwardly, and outwardly, no doubt. I earnestly hope that ‘A’ achieves all of his goals, and more.

Not so long ago I had the privilege of being a guest speaker on a webinar led by Dr Russ Quaglia. Russ (Twitter: @DrRussQ) has spent decades researching Student Voice and Aspirations with his team at the Quaglia Institute in the U.S. – working with and supporting schools in the U.S. and nationally.

Russ is probably the most passionate, committed and articulate academic/practitioner I have ever come across. His work on School Voice (Student/Teacher/Principal/Parent) is grounded in deep and extensive research, over a considerable period of time. What draws me to Russ’s work is that its core intention is to offer agency, hope and purpose. Russ says that school voice isn’t just about asking and listening – it is also about what happens next. The Quaglia Institute define Aspirations as the ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams. Aspirations are both “then” and “now.” They involve both dreaming of the future, and doing in the present. They are made up of a vision of where we want to get and, at a minimum, a willingness to do what is necessary to get there.

I would place ‘A’ squarely in the top-right quadrant. I cannot take credit for that, other than knowing that, as a team, we offered ‘A’ the very best we could at our school. I cannot remember his attainment levels but I am confident that he would have done well. I remember ‘A’ exemplifying all that we valued and celebrated in our school. I remember ‘A’’s parents as supportive of school, of their son, and wanting the very best for him. I do not know how secondary school went for ‘A’ but I would hazard a guess that ‘A’ has largely driven himself to where he sits right now, in the top right quadrant of the Aspirations Profile. That said, I have no doubt that certain stand out individuals would have given ‘A’ a nudge in the right direction from time to time. We all need that.

Did you know that His Holiness Pope Francis has given a TEDTalk? He has. In 2017, Pope Francis’ talk was transmitted live from the Vatican to an audience attending a TEDTalk event named ‘The Future You’. His Holiness stressed that he aimed to give out the message “the only future worth building includes everyone”. He said that he liked the event title because:

While looking at tomorrow, it invites us to open a dialogue today, to look at a future through a “you”. The future is made of yous, it is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others. Life is not merely time passing by, life is about interactions.

He reminds us that we all need each other, none of us is an island, separated from the other, and “we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone”.

Pope Francis talks of Science and how it points to an understanding of reality, as a place where every element connects and interacts with everything else. “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.” He wonders how good the world would be if solidarity became the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.

His Holiness offers a stark warning on the issue of power, saying that the more power you hold, the more your actions will have an impact on people, and so, the more responsibility you have to act humbly.

He tells us of a saying in Argentina. Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach. You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness.

The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognise the other as “you” and themselves as part of an “us”. And we all need each other.

How wonderful would it be if in all our school communities solidarity became the default attitude in the relationships among students, their families, school staff, and extended community members? How many of us drink gin on an empty stomach and fail to join the community dots? Not wilfully, I might add, but dizzy perhaps with the ever increasing demands placed upon us. We have the power to do good work here. And God forbid we leave the future of mankind in the hands of our politicians and big business!

‘A’, the fine young man who served us this morning has Hope. He has Aspirations. Returning to Dr Quaglia’s definition:

Aspirations are both “then” and “now.” They involve both dreaming of the future, and doing in the present.

His Holiness, Pope Francis:

We all need each other, none of us is an island, separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.

I say it is not naive to believe that all schools, in embracing their communities and fostering solidarity can shape a better and more socially just world. To do so, we must address the needs of all those orbiting around our communities by listening to their stories and addressing traditional lines of power. Together, we can multiply Hope and drive and guide those young ones we are all there for; their Aspirations “then” and “now”.

Whether or not ‘A’ needed a safety net, I know not. You will have a store of similar encounters and stories of your own. I do wonder how many more young people would have hit that top right quadrant if, typically,  solidarity marked family-school-community partnerships.

I offer a coaching service to schools and school leaders on community capacity building. The approach I advocate is one based on relational leadership and lessons drawn from the field of community organising. I begin by listening and seeking to understand both school narrative and community narrative. We then work on bringing the two together by designing and embedding a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach that works for your school community. This process is bonded by the connections between people that are based on values of respect, trust, mutuality, reciprocity and dignity, and which result in conviviality, compassion and cooperation. Collective efficacy and action grow in strength as individuals form groups, groups identify issues and develop projects that recognise and harness the potential in the overlapping spheres of influence in the lives of our young people: family, school and community. We build school community partnership and generate this sort of activism by bringing people together and adopting a number of tried and tested, and impactful, techniques.

As an outsider I can bring a fresh perspective to issues. This is particularly useful where the issues are highly charged. In the first instance, my relationship with parents and community is established by directly seeking out their stories.


If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at simonmfeasey@gmail.com

School Community Jigsaws (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar)

I usually give significant time and thought to any one blog post, returning to texts and other media as I travel. But today I feel moved to tread the road less travelled by, just as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar did a couple of thousand years ago.

This morning I attended the early mass, as usual, at our local church. The mass was said in celebration of the Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas – 6th January) – the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (the 3 wise men).

Monsignor began his sermon by talking of a visit he made to the home of a member of the parish, this week. Monsignor was drawn to a picture on the wall, one that he recognised as a Canoletti; a view of Venice. He said that he moved across to it, sensing there was something odd about it. Monsignor discovered that it was in fact a jigsaw. Intrigued, he asked about it. The parish member told Monsignor who had completed the jigsaw and then went on to tell him of those people; their stories. Monsignor went on to artfully put this tale to work as he extracted his message from the words of today’s gospel.

The whole episode got me thinking. Truth be told, it doesn’t take much to trigger a line of thought in me. Ask anyone who knows me, I am apt to jump around a bit in conversation.

To the point…

It strikes me that our school communities are jigsaws and every piece has a story to tell. Every piece is key to the bigger picture. Indeed, if all pieces are not accounted for the picture cannot be complete. Accept that and we have to say that no one piece is more important (more powerful?) than any other.

Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

John 13:16

Equally, every picture represents a moment in time. Time passes… The view may shift, affect an altered hue, or even be transformed. Even so, the law holds, the jigsaw is incomplete without all pieces on the table.

With the three magi in it, the nativity scene at the foot of the altar in our church now looks complete. The jigsaw is complete. We would do well to think on our school jigsaws as being incomplete without accounting for the many pieces representing families and community members. And they all carry their own stories. Much as those who assembled the jigsaw that drew the attention of Monsignor carried stories, as shared with him.

This short thinkpiece relates directly to Friday’s post…

Surveys are not stories and school leaders are not superheroes

Who somebody is or was we can only know by knowing the story of which he himself is the hero.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Every now and again I enjoy sticking a key word in TED Talks search facility, select a talk and open my mind to what the presenter has to say. I guess the experience offers relief from the printed word and allows one to connect with the communicator in a different way. Whatever, listening is the thing, like all good stories.

Recently, I particularly enjoyed two talks where presenters shared their belief in and experience of the empowering aspects of community organising. The presenters were Gerardo Calderón and Rabbi Dara Frimmer. A bit on both.

Gerardo Calderón was born and raised in El Salvador. Calderón suggests that many of the large social movements throughout history are strongly marked with the central leading figures, those who we call heroes. But real social movement comes from the supporting community that stand in the shadow. In his talk, Calderón, drawing from his personal experiences in social movements, discusses what he calls the real heroes of social justice. Calderón begins his talk by sharing his inner and outer response to a question once posed by one of his American friends. He was asked “Which kind of superheroes do you guys in El Salvador have?” Calderón says that he responded with, “We don’t really have superheroes down there.” Then he thought on his own response. He realised that in his country:

… since the very beginning in the family and in schools we are taught that if we want to see change, if we want to foster change, we have to get together with other people, build relationships and act as a family, act as a community. That’s why we don’t really feel the need of superheroes.

Dara Frimmer is a Rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. Rabbi Frimmer was recognized in 2014 as the Human Rights Rabbi of the Year by T’ruah, the national Jewish justice organization. The award recognised her leadership at Isaiah, among interfaith communities in Los Angeles, and nationally, on issues of health, environment, education, hunger and human rights. Rabbi Frimmer’s talk poses two questions: Can true change be made by one person? Or does change occur more efficiently when others are involved? For, one of the biggest challenges we face as agents of social change is that we forget to learn people’s stories as we attempt to enlist them in our cause.

Frimmer points out that what we care about is deeply connected to who we are, our life experiences, our pain and disappointment as well as our greatest joy. She says that if we can just remember to get at those sorts of stories and share those of our own we are far more likely to create a network of committed people who are ready to bring about social change.

For me, the stand out point that Frimmer made is this.

We live in an age of surveys. The problem is that surveys don’t work for social change”

Wrestling with this issue – after being just as prone to issuing surveys as we in schools are – the Temple Isaiah community focused on sharing stories and experiences connected to those stories. For example, the struggle to care for ageing parents as well as children.

Rabbi Frimmer suggests that surveys will never be able to reproduce the feelings and the emotions and the sense of connection that people receive when you sit together and listen to people telling their stories. “Surveys are not stories.” Stories remind us that what we think are deeply personal, private issues are in fact shared public concerns. Imagine, Frimmer says, if we began to work on any of these shared issues together

Sharing stories out loud gives a chance for us to see ourselves differently, as well as other people, and they can even begin to change how we see the world. Frimmer claims that such connections lead to a sense of accountability on both sides. We share stories and we reveal something powerful and important about what we really care about, and if we can remember those stories then we can offer people a real opportunity to act on their self-interest. Further, that this is the accountability you need if you want to turn people out for your events… “I need you to show up for me and you are far more likely to say yes if I know your story.”

Rabbi Frimmer acknowledges that sharing your story may well be an expression of vulnerability and be completely counter-cultural. She says that If you want to use your story for social change you must exercise calculated vulnerability. This challenges you to consider what you are prepared to share about yourself, who you are and what you care about so that the people listening really understand you and your interests. More importantly, that your story will invite others to share a story as well.

In her treatise on the Human Condition, the eminent philosopher Hannah Arendt declared:

Who somebody is or was we can only know by knowing the story of which he himself is the hero.

Arendt posits that stories connect us to actions, not abstractions. Stories connect people directly with one another with a power that generalities (surveys?) miss.

So what? For me, this is what…

Gerardo Calderón’s friend’s question triggered an inner interrogation that led to a response that drew on his own story. He was raised in a place that saw no need to seek superheroes, for family, school and community recognised the power of WE. A community and culture that would recognise the sentiment expressed in the union song…

Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
And by union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill
Singly none singly none

Rabbi Frimmer and the Isaiah Temple community in Los Angeles embraced a sharing and weaving together of community members’ stories. These personal experiences, memories, and motivations solidified the group and drove purposeful action and social change. Personal issues became shared public issues. Exercising of calculated vulnerability led to community organising and action. A community, too, that would recognise the sentiment expressed in the union song.

So what? And to the nub of it…

I have an ever growing interest in the question, How can parents and families be involved in schools in ways that benefit both their own empowerment and their children?

Recognising that:

  1. the roles that schools offer parents are often limited and may not tap into many available strengths and resources;
  2. the issue is compounded by the reality that a general tendency of parents to act as individuals rather than as a group will dilute the impact of family involvement in schools.

It is my view that we must create and develop new roles for families, making use of their strengths and expertise. If schools genuinely seek engagement with families and community they must create democratic mechanisms for empowerment and participation. Parents would do well to question the assumption that schools automatically and fully understand the best interests of their families and local community. They may well ask themselves, From what source did school derive our story? A story that informs their (school’s) actions – remembering that surveys are not stories. School leaders are NOT qualified superheroes (Who is?). Parents should expect leaders in the school they have chosen for their child to exercise calculated vulnerability and practise shared story-telling; listening to family and community narrative, in turn. Parents way to this should be eased by the democratic structures erected and protected by school. School leaders need to recognise that democratic family participation in schools may not always be the most efficient way of decision making and planning. However, the benefits for children make it worthwhile. Creating opportunities for respectful and democratic engagement in and around our school communities must surely be one of the most pressing and important issues in the world we inhabit today. We can set off on that road by sharing our stories. But we need to know one another’s first…

I offer a coaching service to schools and school leaders on community capacity building. The approach I advocate is one based on relational leadership and lessons drawn from the field of community organising. I begin by listening and seeking to understand both school narrative and community narrative. We then work on bringing the two together by designing and embedding a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach that works for your school community. This process is bonded by the connections between people that are based on values of respect, trust, mutuality, reciprocity and dignity, and which result in conviviality, compassion and cooperation. Collective efficacy and action grow in strength as individuals form groups, groups identify issues and develop projects that recognise and harness the potential in the overlapping spheres of influence in the lives of our young people: family, school and community. We build school community partnership and generate this sort of activism by bringing people together and adopting a number of tried and tested, and impactful, techniques.

As an outsider I can bring a fresh perspective to issues. This is particularly useful where the issues are highly charged. In the first instance, my relationship with parents and community is established by directly seeking out their stories.


If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at simonmfeasey@gmail.com

Community Capacity Building: an organic ecological approach, no hothousing

For children and adolescents, the most critical ecological transitions and intersecting connections are the interactions between home, school, and peer groups.
Soo Hong, 2011 p. 24

In earlier blogs I have explored the process-oriented field of community organising in seeking clearer strategies for how we can build meaningful relationships between families and schools. Typically, standard parent involvement approaches avoid issues of power and consign parents to support the status quo. In contrast, community organising approaches to school reform in the US, where there is a long-standing tradition of community organising, explicitly focus on power, intentionally building parent power. In my work with schools, I advocate the joining together of school narrative and community narrative, encouraging new points of connection through important conversations. Participants in these conversations learn that relationships can be stymied by a lack of understanding, distrust, or individual fears and anxieties. And so, by adopting and embedding a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach we root authentic home-school-community partnership in the realities of power, inequality, and a desire for social change.

Consider this…

In March 2017, the Māori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island of New Zealand celebrated the fact that the Whanganui river had been granted the same legal rights as a human being. The tribe has fought for the recognition of their river – the third-largest in New Zealand – as an ancestor for 140 years. Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi [tribe] said all Māori tribes regarded themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas. The new law, passed by the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington, now honoured and reflected their worldview.

Just one week later, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand ordered that the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, be accorded the status of living human entities. The judges cited the example of the Whanganui river. The decision means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person. The court sat in the Himalayan resort town of Nainital. I add the last sentence for no other reason than to mention my father was born there on 14 May, 1929 (Michael’s father served in the Army. My dad spent the first 18 years of his life in the foothills of the Himalayas!).

In the language of the Lakota cosmology, water is mni, an action of living. Emphasising commonality and connectedness rather than separation, instead of being something outside of ourselves that needs to be owned, protected and managed, mni is part of us and we part of it. Lakota rejection of the modernist understanding of water as a resource and insistence that it is a source of life resonates with the Whanganui iwi worldview, as stated by Albert:

We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.

In the interests of harmony throughout this piece, let us adopt an ecological perspective

Warren and Mapp (2011) provide us with a tree metaphor in sharing their understanding of how strong forms of community organising work. They chose the metaphor of a tree because, they say, organising is a phenomenon that grows and develops. That organising efforts take time to mature, and they need to be intentionally cultivated and nurtured. Further, that strong organising efforts have deep roots.

Strong organising has deep roots in tradition. It draws on collective values and extant ties.

For as much as context very much matters, strong organising efforts share fundamental features. Warren and Mapp show these core processes  building relationships and power – in the tree trunk. New relationships are built, and identities expanded. Relationships for long-term change, no silver bullet or top-down reform.

Organising efforts also respond to their environment, to the opportunities and constraints presented by changing political and educational contexts. Organisers must be sensitive to local experiences, needs, and knowledge.

By enacting these processes, organising groups work to transform communities, individuals, and institutions.

Warren and Mapp point out that groups that follow similar organising traditions will grow differently depending on local contexts; the context being the soil, shaped by local social and political history. This, they say, is because organising groups start where people are. They bring people together to share their concerns as well as their wants and dreams.

Soo Hong (2011) does indeed expressly call for an ecological view of parent engagement. In a core of three strands (2011), Soo Hong discusses the work of the developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and his urging us to understand human development through an ecological orientation that considers the individual as embedded within multiple spheres of influence. He describes the environments within which individuals interact as nested structures.

It is the interconnectedness of individuals within and across sections that shapes an individual’s ability to learn, grow and develop. Soo Hong, rightly, in my view, highlights the fact that the home and school environments are hard to bring together. It is critical, she says, that we understand the interaction between environments.

For children and adolescents, the most critical ecological transitions and intersecting connections are the interactions between home, school, and peer groups.
Soo Hong, 2011 p. 24

 

I always enjoy reading the work of people who are bold enough to just say it. Enter stage left, Andrew Morrish:

The purpose of education is not to effect sudden transformations, but to foster gradual growth… To achieve this, a stand out leader has but one aim in mind: to create a culture that provides these conditions for growth so that the organisation can thrive, gradually and continually. No force-feeding or chemicals. No polytunnels or hothouses. Just good honest muck.

I guess that takes us back round to the idea of adopting an ecological view as we foster relationships, authentic partnerships, and drive community capacity building. An organic one, at that!

Finishing with a Whanganui proverb…

Ko au ko te awa. Ko te awa ko au.
I am the river and the river is me.

This Whanganui proverb describes the relationship between people and the environment, and in this context, the tangata whenua and their ancestral river. The mighty Whanganui river provided oranga (sustenance and wellbeing) to the people who resided on its banks. This was the source of their livelihood, their local ‘supermarket’, their ancestor. Without the river and all its bounty, life would become increasingly difficult. Without the river flowing freely, the land would soon become barren and unworkable. This whakataukī encourages people to be cautious in the way we treat Papatūānuku, the land, sea, and waterways. We are the kaitiaki (guardians) of this world. In our role as kaitiaki, people need to care for and respect our environment and our environment will care and provide for us.

The new status of the Whanganui river means if someone abused or harmed it the law now sees no differentiation between harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same. Thinking on our school communities and the overlapping spheres of influence impacting on the lives of our young people, it may not be possible to match the wonderful achievements enacted in Wellington or Nainital, but we would do well to appoint ourselves as fiercely protective guardians of that particular ecosystem, nested or otherwise. Further, whichever metaphor we chose to represent the system in our school community context, might we take a leaf out of the Lakota cosmology and view community as they view mni. Emphasising commonality and connectedness rather than separation; an action of living.

I work with schools, in a coaching capacity, supporting them in community capacity building. More here

 

REFERENCES

Hong Soo (2011) a core of three strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Morrish, A. (2016) The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond. London: John Catt: Woodbridge.

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform. Oxford: OUP.

Defining our school communities: curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humour, along with a bit of a blurred vision about a better world

Community is a desire, continually replenishing itself as people seek voice and connectedness, in all their imperfections.
(Brent, 2004, p 213)

In this blog series to date I have shared my thinking on communal leadership and how school leaders have a key role to play in community capacity building. I have suggested that school leaders adopt the learning on offer from and stance taken by outstanding people in the field of community organising. In this blog I return to the concept of ‘community’ itself, its complexity and why defining it is problematic in itself.

In Blog V, I introduced the work of the late Jeremy Brent. I draw on Brent’s work because I believe that Brent is better qualified than most to offer perspective on community. Brent worked for 30 years as a youth worker on the Southmead Estate, Bristol, starting in 1975. He took a Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1992, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of West England, Bristol in 2000. Brent described his research as ‘a search for a way to understand and engage with community, both in general, and specifically in Southmead’.

It is said that Brent refused ‘promotion’ because he wanted to stay on the ground, in the community. Those of us who enjoy or have enjoyed the privilege of serving as school leaders recognise the thrill of being on the ground, in the thick of it. It seems to me that Brent is a classic example of praxis in action. Praxis being a unity of theory and practice, which, in community development, involves theory generated in action.

In advocating a critical approach to community development, Margaret Ledworth (2011) raises concern about the divide between theory and practice that results in ‘actionless thought’ and ‘thoughtless action’. Further, that we have a tendency to emphasise ‘doing’ at the expense of ‘thinking’ (p. 3-4). Some have had a lot to say on this issue in the field of education. The issue of knowledge production is an increasingly charged debate, fuelled by claims posited by ‘knowers’. I am not going there. Brent did the hard miles! And observed:

Ideas can give you the run of the world – action is limited.

What I would say is that I do not think that we think hard enough and deeply enough about what we mean when we speak of, and make statements about, ‘community’ in our schools.

My thinking is tested by Brent in the way he argues that community is best understood in terms of the processes by which it comes about. Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, Brent says, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created.

Brent offers a fascinating personal reflection on the term ‘community’ in a paper published by Community Development Journal in 2004, entitled ‘The desire for community: illusion, confusion and paradox’. He finds that ‘dictionary-style definitions do not untangle the complexity of community in practice’ (p 214). He argues that, much to the dismay of community utopians, division and unity are part and parcel of community politics. Further, that the times of the strongest community activity have not been times of calm, eschewing definitions describing comfort, such as:

It is like a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain, like a fireplace at which we warm our hands on a frosty day.
(Bauman, 2001, p. 1)

Brent considers arguments about the ‘illusionary nature of community’, based on three sets of ideas:

  1. that illusion does not have a role in the tough world of social reality;
  2. that community is too static to cope with the flows of the world;
  3. that globalisation and its partner, individualisation, are totalising forces that undermine all other forms of social organisation.

As a parent, a citizen, and as a school leader, I sit bolt upright and take notice at this point. And then take some solace as Brent suggests that there is a flip side to the suggestion that community be denied by globalisation, rather that it contests what can equally be criticised as the illusions of individualism. He argues that communities that are dynamic and complex can exist in global conditions.

This anti-definitional approach gives those involved in community activity the possibility, not having to build something that is already defined, but of creating new changes of their own to social life. Perhaps strangely, deconstructing community gives more scope for community action than does definition.

There may be no exact truth to the term, yet, as Wittgenstein points out, ‘[“inexact”] does not mean “unusable”’. Further, that incompletion is a dynamic concept (p. 219).

My interest is piqued. I am drawn back to the world of community organising and the dynamism that pervades messages shared by and the work carried out by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a “prophet of power to the people,” someone who “has possibly antagonised more people… than any other living American.”

Beck and Purcell (2013), in surveying the roots of community organising, highlight Saul Alinsky having described in detail the characteristics of exceptional community organisers. I have pulled five of those characteristics out here:

Curiosity: they are constantly curious about the way things are and how things could be different. They are also the provokers of curiosity in others; “for a people asking ‘why’ are beginning to rebel” (p 71).

Irreverence: they have a profound dissatisfaction with dogma and all repressive ideas and practices.

Imagination: they have the ability both to imagine a better future and to enter into the experience of other people

A sense of humour: they have the ability to recognise and come to terms with the contradictions in the world.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world: they have the ability to see how small actions and projects link into broader movements for social change.

Is it just me or does the description of such traits, and the liberty on offer if we accept Brent’s suggestion that there is no exactitude around the term ‘community,’ a whet to your appetite?

If so, consider this…

Community is the continually reproduced desire to overcome the adversity of social life, and it is community as desire rather than community as social object which commands engagement.
Brent, 2004, p. 221

Bear in mind, as Tocqueville argued in his observations of civic life in America in the 1830s, organisers bring individuals together in a way that creates a collective capacity not present when individuals act alone. Organisers do not simply aggregate individuals but also create new relationships between them that generate new commitments and resources.

If you have stuck with my line of thinking and its presentation, thank-you. I would be interested to know where that leaves you so far as your thinking on community and community capacity building is concerned.

I repeat, I do not think that we think hard enough and deeply enough about what we mean when we speak of, and make statements about community in our schools.

I do think Jeremy Brent’s authoritative and quite brilliant insights throw up a positively thrilling opportunity that schools and school leaders would do well to embrace.

I confess to watching the Pride of Britain Awards, broadcast this week. I admit to being decidedly dewy eyed watching the piece on Dr Paul Stephenson as he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr Stephenson changed the face of race relations in the UK, taking on institutionalised racism, setting up a sports association with Muhammad Ali. As a young social worker in 1963, civil rights campaigner Stephenson led the successful 60-day boycott of a Bristol bus company that refused to employ black or Asian people, paving the way for Britain’s first race laws. His campaign, inspired by Rosa Parks, directly resulted in the company revoking their colour bar. Eighty years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Dr Stephenson continues to speak out against the effects of discrimination. On taking the stage, Stephenson took the microphone and simply reminded everyone that we owe it to our children and our grandchildren to hand over a society fit for them to live in.

Let us not allow our school communities to be an ‘illusion’ within the globalised world. Rather, let us go with Jeremy Brent’s line ‘Communities that are dynamic and complex can exist in global conditions.’ Let us seek to understand the complexity inherent to our own school community context and exercise curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humour, along with a bit of a blurred vision about a better world.

All the while, minding this dramatic description of living in modern times by Marshall Berman:

To be modern … is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.
Berman, 1983, p. 8

Not on our watch, eh?!

REFERENCES

Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Random House.

Beck, D. and Purcell, R (2013) International Community Organising: Taking Power, Making Change. Bristol: Policy Press.

Berman, M. (1983) All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Brent, J. (2004) ‘The desire for community: Illusion, confusion and paradox’, Community Development Journal, 39 (3): 213-23.

Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, power and action on an urban estate. Bristol: Policy Press

Ganz, M. (2009) Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Strategy and the Organisation in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ledworth, M. (2011) Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: Policy Press.

Tocqueville, A de. (1969) Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perennial.