Assemblance of key ideas

11th December 2009 at 00:00

I love my job. I enjoy teaching, but it would now be self-indulgent to do a lot of it. I'm a spoiled actor and am always up for a performance. Amid the sometimes demoralising aspects of being a headteacher in these troubled times, it's relating to our young people which keeps me sane. But recently I did more than maintain sanity: I had a moment of epiphany.

We had engaged with the charity Anne Frank Scotland, to show its exhibition on the life and times of Anne Frank. A group of S1s would be trained as peer educators to take our students through the experience of the display. Our associate primaries all visited. Various departments had agreed to make their contribution in class time to teaching the period and Anne's Diary. Our library set up its own show and purchased extra copies of the diary to meet the expected demand.

We reckoned, however, that, although many of our learners would have some knowledge of Anne Frank, some background had to be offered. I agreed to deliver assemblies, explaining inter-war Germany, the rise of the Nazis and anti-semitism, and some background about the Frank family.

I was to deliver assembly for each of S1-2, S3, S4 and S5-6. I produced a PowerPoint. It covered Germany's defeat in the Great War, the rise of Nazism and of anti-semitism, the treatment of the Jews, the Frank's family history and escape to Holland, their perilous position after the German occupation, the heroism of their Dutch friends, their arrest, and the deaths of the girls.

The same core material was used for each, although it was differentiated to take account of each group's maturity. Each text was well illustrated to make the meaning clear. Even so, having produced it, my fear was that it was too complex, that the ideas and concepts would go over too many heads, that the language was too demanding.

I could not have been more wrong.

Four days, four assemblies, jaw-dropped silence and total attention at each assembly: it would have been nice were it my dramatic skills which held them. That was not the case, but I re-learned some things I've always known, and I knew for absolute certain why I was a teacher.

A powerful story always grabs the imagination of young people. The power of the tale can bridge decades. Human sympathy and concern remain powerful among young people, even those who find it hard to exhibit these traits openly. The most complex and abstract ideas can be grasped if the relationships to the present are made clear. A hatred of injustice is as powerful a force among today's teenagers as it was in past generations, including mine.

If, as a result of these assemblies, at some point in 30 or 40 years' time, one of our students, remembering Anne Frank, stands out against violence, tyranny or oppression, then these assemblies were time well spent.

I also reconsidered the practice of assemblies. Perhaps, instead of drafting a year's calendar of them based on key topics which we believe are essential, a far more productive approach would be to determine which topics would best grasp our students' imaginations and deliver these. It was a thought-provoking week, for everyone involved.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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