Philosophy: the 2013 Edition

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I know you are all waiting with bated breath for this year’s essay questions so that you can wonder what you would have written and share the topics at home or at work! So here are this morning’s exam questions.

Philosophy is a compulsory subject for all French students at the end of the high school years unless they are preparing a vocational degree. The students sit for four hours and have to write about one question out of a choice of three – two in the form of a question and one text.

– Is language a tool?
– Is science limited to recording facts?
– What do we owe to the state?
– Do we interpret because we cannot know?
– Is it possible to act morally without being interested in politics?
– Does work allow an awareness of the self?
– An extract from a letter to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia by René Descartes
– A extract from De Concordia by Anselm of Canterbury
– An extract from The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

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Royallieu-Compiègne Internment Camp

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I had intended to write about a different subject altogether before I realised that today is Yom HaShoah – or rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’) as it is officially called. To mark this day, I have chosen to write about one of the numerous French internment camps, one that is situated only an hour’s drive from where I live.

The Royallieu-Compiègne camp was an internment and deportation camp in Compiègne, France where French resistance fighters and Jews were imprisoned between June 1941 and August 1944.

About 40,000 people were deported from the Royallieu-Compiègne camp to Auschwitz and other camps in German-occupied territory. It was one of the biggest transit camps in France, from which the Germans deported political prisoners, many of whom were civilian Jewish communists. It was from the camp at Royallieu that the very first deportation train was to leave French soil on March 27th, 1942. It took over a thousand Jews to Auschwitz, as did the next one on June 5th.

The internment and deportation memorial opened on February 23, 2008. There one can learn about life in the Royallieu camp through a historic walk which leads to two of the remaining buildings. As they walk through a dozen of rooms and two corridors, visitors learn about the historical context in France and other European countries, life in the camp, deportation and extermination by the Nazis. After the barracks, one can visit the chapel, see the beginning of the escape tunnel, contemplate the wall of names and walk through the memorial garden.

One of the things that surprised and impressed me most when I visited this camp with a group of French and Swedish students last spring was how the inmates had organized cultural life in the camp. Conferences on English, Esperanto, political philosophy, history, the humanities, science and much more were given in the barracks (as is shown in the schedule above).

I can only guess but I assume that they saw intellectual improvement as a means to keep hope alive even when there was very little reason for feeling optimistic about the future. This is a message in itself. Even in dark moments, we ought never to lose hope that there will be better times.

What we are remembering today should never happen again – not to us and not to anyone else.

Never Forget!

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here is a selection of links to recent articles that are Holocaust-related. I might update this post during the day as more articles get published.

Articles on the Jewish Chronicles Online:

England stars’ DVD assists goals for Shoah studies

Politicians challenge extremism in the European Parliament

Other Web Articles:

A book review on The FT: Witness to genocide

Chiune Sugihara, Japan Diplomat Who Saved 6,000 Jews During Holocaust, Remembered, a Huffington Post article

App review on The Guardian: New photos, videos and app shed fresh light on Anne Frank’s family life

A Lens On Prewar Europe, The Jewish Week reviews a major exhibit at the ICP (International Center of Photography)

Holocaust Posts on this blog

When Clothes Make the Man

For a couple of weeks, a pupil in my school has been wearing distinctly skinhead clothes: high-laced black boots, tight jeans that are tucked into the afore mentioned boots and a black Pitbull bomber jacket on top of a white or black tee-shirt. He has also shaved his head. In other words, he looks just about as charming as a character out of This is England or if he had just attended a National Front meeting.

He has been summoned by the administration and questioned about his clothing. Apparently he explained that he is perfectly aware of the significance of his clothes but that the economic crisis has made him realise that ‘the white race is threatened’. He has agreed to remove the white laces on his boots but has kept the other items of his unsavoury garb. It would seem that since he has ‘promised’ he does not believe in violence (but would anyone be dumb enough not to), he can dress as he chooses.

In French schools, the law concerning religious and political beliefs is that ‘ostentatious signs’ are prohibited – in other words you can wear a star of David but not a kippa, a hand of Fatima but not a headscarf. The same applies to political signs. Besides any kind of proselytizing – whether it is religious or political is forbidden.

As a Jew, a Democrat, a European, a woman and a teacher, I feel offended. I find it very unpleasant and disturbing to see him in such attire on the school premises, knowing that it is tolerated by our administration. Other than go and see the head, is there anything else you would do?

Fear vs Autonomous Choice

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My frequent visits to Swedish schools with our language exchange have allowed to glimpse into the Nordic school system and to observe how different it is from the Latin approach.

In short it seems that the Nordic approach trusts the students to make responsible choices while the Latin method instills fear in the students hoping that this will prevent them from making wrong choices.

Let me illuminate you with a few examples:

Time: When we visit places with the exchange I have noticed that our attitude towards schedules and times vary. Fo instance my French colleagues announce meeting times and try to frighten the students with all the things that will happen to them (things that sometimes happen) while our Swedish counterparts will just explain the daily schedule.

Computers: My school has computers of course but in rooms that are locked unless a teacher is present. If our students use computers during a lesson, we are supposed to make sure they don’t listen to music or visit websites that will distract them from their work.

In addition a lot of my colleagues are still wary of computers and wish they did not have to use them every day. I even know a few who refuse to have a computer at home.

When we first visited Sweden, computers were at the students’ disposal in open spaces. In the school we now have the exchange with, each new comer is given a Macbook Pro for the length of her/his/ stay in the school by the local authorities. When their students are on their computers Swedish teachers trust that they are working and will rather discuss what they are doing and how than behave like policemen.

I have never heard a teacher moan about having to use the computer.

Internet access: My school has no wifi connection and a lot of websites are banned (YouTube, Facebook, email providers, etc). It seems our local authorities fear the students will either access inappropriate sites or not use the Internet wisely. Similarly I have heard colleagues say the weirdest and silliest things about Facebook, to the extent that I wonder if some of them even know what it is.

In most Swedish school, students can access the Internet via wifi from their computers or smart phones. Sure enough I have seen students on Facebook in class but it usually took place before the lessons got started. Once the students were made to work actively they forgot about Facebook.

While neither approach is perfect – and I hope I am not too naive as regards the Nordic system – I tend to believe that fear is likely to produce immature and neurotic grown-ups rather than healthy, well-adjusted adults.

For those interested in education in general – and you don’t need to be a teacher to appreciate this – I recommend Seth Godin’s latest book Stop Stealing Dreams. It is free for everybody to download.

Not Through My Eyes

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For the past few years I have been a tutor and am therefore more or less used to having a stranger (my intern) in my classroom. It is always unsettling at first but you soon forget a grown-up is sitting at the back, making notes of what you are doing. Even if this person might be critical of what is going on he/she is here to learn and you feel protected by the authority of experience.

Things are completely different when the visitor is a colleague and has been teaching for longer than you have. Things are even more daunting when she comes from a country where practically everyone is fluent in English while some of our students can barely put two words together. This is precisely what happened to me last week.

When we go to Sweden with our language exchange, we are always welcomed by other colleagues who like to have a native in their classrooms so that they students can ask us questions and practice their French on us. Of course when the Swedes visit, we reciprocate and they come to our classes too. Not to speak Swedish but to see what school is like in France.

Being the worrier that I am, I had planned literally weeks in advance what I was going to be doing with the two classes concerned. There is no point in watching French students do grammatical exercises or correct a test. If you have guests, you don’t want them to get bored.

One group was going to prepare a role play – in an IT room – while the other was expected to understand how the book cover of a crime novel functions. I had planned both lessons carefully and prepared the necessary material (handouts, photocopies, pictures, etc). I felt the students would be fine:the first class is weak but vey nice while the other one is of made up of mixed-ability students with some really good ones.

Unfortunately a week before a colleague sent a note saying that three of my best students in that class would not be present as they had a German exam. There was nothing I could do I tried not to think about it.

In the end it all went well. The weaker students were their charming selves and even asked my colleague for help when I was busy with a group. As for the others they did their best, behaved themselves and a silent (but brilliant) girl was more active than she had ever been.

When the lesson was over, my colleague commented on how “very pedagogical” it had been, which sounded to my ears like the ultimate compliment.

Finding and Settings Limits

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These past few weeks I have been very busy and stressed as a result. I am not quite sure what burn out exactly implies but I think I was nearing the danger zone.

School and the way we teach have evolved. There are lots of bright and positive aspects to the situation but also some more frightening and negatives ones.

Because my students do not work enough on their own, I have multiplied group work but also feel that everything that is produced needs marking. This means that for some classes I spend at least 50% more time grading papers and projects.

I am also available 24/7 via emails even if I do not check them on Saturdays. For instance at present, some of my students are away doing internships but they still send me work and reports to read and correct.

Thus although I have been on holiday since Friday I have marked about 100 papers in five or six days. I have also been busy writing school reports online. Today I decided to stop for a few days and step back but this is not as easy as it may sound and I keep thinking of all the things that I should/could/can do for work.

I find it very hard to set myself limits and stick to them. I do not want to appear lazy but this often means that I end up working too much for my own good. Dear readers, how do you set yourself limits and does it work?

This Year’s Heroes

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If you enjoyed last year’s post about my students’ heroes, you may wish to see who their heroes are this year.

– Coluche, he was a French comedian and actor. He is remembered for the Restos du Cœur – the charitable organisation he created – whose main activity is to distribute food packages and hot meals to the needy. (5 students)
– Martin Luther King Jr (4 students)
– Christopher Columbus
– Albert Einstein
– Michael Jackson
– Kelly Slater
– Two soccer players: Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi
– Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
– Barack Obama
– Neil Armstrong
– Frederik de Klerk
– Winston Churchill
– Nelson Mandela
– Charlie Chaplin
– Lady Diana
– Rosa Parks
– Emmeline Pankhurst

Training a Trainee II

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I was quite awed last year about having a trainee for a full year – I needn’t have been: my trainee was competent, conscientious and also very pleasant.

When September came this year, I was confident that I would probably have a similar experience and be responsible for a youngster who was eager to learn and share teaching enthusiasms and doubts. I didn’t worry – I should have!

This year my trainee is 56. When he was younger he had no desire to teach and he went to college to study economics and management. Later he specialized in IT and worked in this sector for over a decade.

At some point in his professional life, he decided to switch to teaching and because he had lived in Britain for a number of years, teaching English must have looked like a good idea. Like all potential teachers in France, he took, and passed, the very difficult exam that allows candidates to become qualified teachers – provided their training is a success.

Unfortunately the last part did not happen and he is now repeating his training period, with me as his tutor. His weakest point is class management. This man shuns conflicts and thus implicitly allows the students to test his limits. Therefore the noise level in his classes often reaches an intolerable level as the students are busy talking rather than working.

Advising trainees on class management is far from easy. The way you manage a class has to do with who you are as a person. What works for me – apart from common sense – might not work as well for another teacher. In addition my task is all the harder as this person is older than me and not always ready to acknowledge his failings and shortcomings. It does not help that he is also not very brave and will use the same lessons and tests with very different classes.

Because of this reluctance, each of my visits is followed by a short exchange and then an email where I try and clarify what went well, what went wrong and how he could improve. So far however I have seen very little change and I am not sure how I can help him in a positive and efficient way.

Gratitude in French Village

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I have already written about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a large French village but I had never been there. Driving south last week, we decided to stop there.

Unfortunately it was pouring with rain so all we saw was the Protestant temple where the people who protected the Jews during WWII worshipped and across the road the plaque that was put up to thank these righteous citizens.

“a farming village called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon made history by harboring some 5,000 refugees, most of them Jews, many of them children. A good deal of sacrifice was involved. The village basically doubled its size. Families took in children and their parents, making them feel as though they were fellow “Chambonnais” (citizens of Le Chambon), going to school, working on the farms, sharing meals, and so forth. There was great risk involved. The village became a center for the forgery of documents. It was obvious that Jews had virtually doubled the population of this remote village. The Nazis were not entirely stupid. Occasionally they would raid the village and interrogate the people, asking them about the children. But the Chambonnais stood firm.

The story gets more interesting. Almost all of the Chambonnais were Huguenot Christians. France had persecuted Protestants heavily, especially during the eighteenth century. Those who did not flee, and those who were not put to death for their faith, survived in particular pockets of the country. They kept the memories alive by meeting in worship, hearing the Bible preached by their pastors, and singing the psalms as well as folk songs that recounted their story. They felt a special affinity for the Jews. Le Chambon became the safest place in Europe for refugees from the Nazi horrors.”

The Germans knew something was going on. They had lists of the citizens, and some of the names were demonstrably Jewish. But a number of their soldiers were tired of their own disturbing tactics. At least one of them, fairly high up, decided to ignore the names on the lists. The comment in the documentary says of him, “You just never know who might get caught up in a conspiracy of goodness.”

excerpted from A Conspiracy of Goodness by William Edgar

The text of the plaque reads: “The memory of the just will always be remembered.” Psalm 112:6.

Alternate translation: “For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered for ever.”

“Tribute to the Protestant community of this Cevennes ground, and to all of those who followed its example, believers and non-believers who, during the Second World War, 1939-1945, united against Nazi crimes, in peril of their lives under the occupation hid, protected and saved all the oppressed by the thousands.

The Jewish refugees in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the nearby communities.”

More posts on the topic on this blog:
Righteous Among the Nations
Oasis of Peace