29 June 2012

Heroes of the Republic of Ireland

An Open Letter to Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins:

President Higgins:

In May of this year I was privileged to be invited to Ireland to speak to, and work with, the fabulous educators of your nation. At the ICT in Education Conference|Comhdháil ICT san Oideachas
at the Limerick Institute of Technology campus in Thurles, County Tipperary, and in schools from the center of Dublin to the shore at St. Finan's Bay in
Baile an Sceilg, we met, conversed with, and worked with many transformational educators who are seeking to create a future full of possibility for their students, for their nation, for their Europe, and for their world.

But what we also saw was a national government, if not a society in general, forgetting that most basic axiom of Irish history... when times are tough we worry first about our children and our future.

And we saw these wondrous educators, among the finest on this planet, struggling to understand how that could axiom could be forgotten.

Children play outside at the An Scoil ag an Ghleanna|Glen National School at St. Finan's Bay
On the edge of the world in County Kerry we found one tiny Gaelscoil leading a small group of rural students both into the future and deep into the collective past. The words were in Irish, the storytelling as ancient as the rocks on which the Atlantic crashed outside the windows, but the children were connected to the world through both technology and their committed, devoted teachers.

At a Shehy Mountains pass in County Cork we found an even tinier school, Cuppabue National School, which has won, in the past year, national awards for everything from maths and sciences to film-making, but whose teachers, students, and parents fear Ruairi Quinn's policies ("Very few young children now would walk to school. Many of the schools in rural Ireland were located because of the fact that people walked to school. The arrival of traffic… makes it virtually impossible, certainly not safe, for people to walk to school. The face of Ireland has changed, not just urban or rural Ireland. We have to reflect that change.") will shutter a school which has educated students brilliantly since the Catholic Emancipation.

St. Mocholomog National School/Cuppabue National School has been a place of learning
for as far back as the stories recall. That students "could go elsewhere" according to the
Minister of Education and Skills should not shutter a fabulous school.

(below) the (pre-K-grade 6) students' award-winning film on the fiscal crisis
In Dublin we found Bridge 21 Learning offering secondary students with few traditional paths to opportunity coming to a "school" on their off-hours just to participate in collaborative community learning, yet euros are short, and the program can only reach a small percentage of the adolescents who desperately need this support.

In Thurles the Presentation Secondary School, a beautiful place filled with higher level thinking, arts, and music struggles with furnishings so old, and classroom spaces so tight, that students are wedged into desks with, yes, inkwells.

St. Martin de Porres N.S. multiage choir says it all.
(below) students at St. Martin de Porres know how to leverage technology to
overcome learning issues.
And in Tallaght we found the remarkably diverse and exciting St. Martin de Porres National School with an incredible technology program powering every learner which needs newer equipment and greater bandwidth if they are going to continue their children's growth.

Before I began the visit I wrote...
"Ireland is wasting time and energy worrying about “efficiency,” “saving money,” “teacher pay,” and battles over the Junior and Leaving Certs, instead of investing in imagining, and moving towards, a lifespan educational structure which will carry Ireland into the future. In this, this nation is hardly alone, but perhaps the stakes are much higher for a small island nation which knows the ability of education to transform a society, which saw the changes of the 1970s and 1980s, in all levels of schooling, lead a societal and socio-economic revolution... we will not focus on “rigour” – the making of things difficult for the sake of difficulty, nor on “efficiency,” an odd concept to embrace as we discuss the raising of our children, nor on “standards,” which involve statistical tests originally designed to ensure the consistency of barrels of Guinness. Instead we will begin with the idea of creating “learning space,” real, virtual, even imagined, where every student, at every age, has the opportunity to not just succeed, but to thrive."
And just last week, Ireland's Secondary Teacher of the Year answered in an impassioned address, which included this:
"Obviously I have a personal agenda here - I want to save my job. But I don't have a political agenda.

My grandfather was a proud Fine Gaeler and I have many friends in the Labour party. I want to believe that Fine Gael and Labour can find a way to be better than the idiots who got us into this mess in the first place.

Some positive things are happening in education: our minister Ruairi Quinn is determined to bring about changes in our in-many-ways antiquated educational system - and for this I admire him.

The proposals for the new Junior Cert have the potential to bring about real and meaningful change (but the department need to listen to the teachers) and this is a change I want to be a part of.

But we need to make sure we're making things better not worse. Destroying the morale of the teachers who will be implementing this change is not the way forward.

Minister Quinn will no doubt throw his hands in the air and say there is no money.

Well I say to Ruairi Quinn and the Department of Education, if this is the limit of your creativity, imagination and passion to protect our children's education - shame on you."

Secondary Teacher of the Year Evelyn O'Connor
President Higgins, much of what I, and Dr. Pamela Moran of Virginia, saw on our visit demonstrated that Irish education - especially Irish primary education - could be the envy of the world. We saw a wondrous commitment to natural child development unhindered by the panic over "grade-level standards" which have threatened to destroy education in the United States and United Kingdom.

We saw a level of humanity, a commitment to arts and the whole child, which should be "the standard" everywhere. We saw local control and local opportunity which allowed teachers to build classrooms around the needs and passions of their children. We saw teachers that anyone, in any nation, would want supporting our next generation of leaders.

We saw a commitment to the concept of "the public space" you so beautifully express in your book . Renewing the Republic. A belief in an unselfish dedication to a shared future that should be the pride of any nation.

Of course we saw problems. We saw secondary education far too bound by test preparation, and tests which, though in some ways excellent, are graded on the wrong parameters, are taken with the wrong (19th century) technologies, and which hold far too great a sway over both individual and national futures. We saw a lack of investment in learning spaces, a lack of investment in this century's communications technology, and a lack of support for a fabulous teaching community.

Grades 2 through 6 at Dualla National School
One afternoon in Dualla in County Tipperary we visited the Dualla National School. There we met brilliant educators working with another small cohort of children, and making the best of limited, old, technology. It was wondrous what Principal Teacher John Manley accomplished with a few old laptops and an old iPhone with a shattered screen, and how that combined with a fully inclusive multiage environment (and a heavy dose of hurling) to offer a broad path to success for every child. But their energy should be poured into their students, not concerns about how to update antiquated communications systems.

On another day we met Hellie Bullock of Limerick, a brilliant young educator who should be working every day with children - and being paid a respectable wage for that. On other days we met some of the world's leading university experts in the future of education, who should be going about their work without panicking about the ability to care for their families.

President Higgins, we must, as you know, measure nations and societies by their commitment to their children, and their commitment to a better future. Ireland, like many nations, has deep problems and little in the way of available funds. But Ireland also has a grand tradition of putting education and children first. From the ancient monasteries to the hedge schools of the worst occupation days, from the re-birth of the education system after entering the European Economic Community to, hopefully, today, Ireland has sought whatever creative solutions were necessary to protect its communal future.

Seeking creative solutions to ensure our future: CoderDojo Thurles
The educators we met, President Higgins, are the heroes of today's Republic of Ireland. They are fighting, working, and struggling every day to ensure the future of this nation, and to protect its children from the ravages caused by the greed of another generation, and they, whether Hellie, or Evelyn O'Connor, or Stephen Howell at the Institute of Technology Tallaght (who has given our children Scratch to Kinect) deserve the support of their nation, in their work and in the security of their positions and ability to live.

So I ask you to join us President Higgins in our conversations, to join us in our search for creative solutions, to join us in our drive for universally designed learning spaces which can carry all of our children into successful futures, in our attempts to bring the Labour and Fine Gael leaders into true conversation about what our children need.

I write this not as a meddlesome outsider, but because I have been welcomed into this conversation warmly by the education community of the Irish nation. I know this community views you as a hero, as a man who has stood for what is right for half a century, and so I ask you to, please, become a part of this essential discussion.

- Ira Socol

Please don't stop us now... the future can be wondrous


Simon Lewis said...

It's great to know that you were given the opportunities to visit and meet some of the teachers in Ireland that are doing great things and that they had such an impact on you. I find it heartening that you found innovative people in a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

Dan McGuire said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and insights of the Irish schools. You're absolutely right that this is about leadership in all countries and the political will to do what is right instead of what is expedient.

Maybe the Irish can learn from the Finns; it's not likely we here in the U.S. will get around to the clarity of the clear Finnish view expressed recently by Pasi Sahlberg in the Washington Post - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-germ-is-infecting-schools-around-the-world/2012/06/29/gJQAVELZAW_blog.html#comments .
Thanks, Ira, for keeping the conversation at this level.

Deirdre said...

Thanks Ira. It's great to see our system from the eyes of another looking in. From the eyes of someone who has experienced a non perfect system, wo sees the value and uniqueness of small schools dn large school system.