On November 9th 1989, an email message arrived at the Tynings primary school in Bristol,UK. It was from a 9 year old girl living in East Germany who had to travel, daily, through the checkpoints to get to school in West Berlin. She was complaining to her ‘friends’ in Bristol (by email, which was quite innovatory in 1989 for schools) that it took so long to reach school because of the crowds trying to get through the checkpoints.
This is how the Bristol children, and their parents, learned about the reality behind the news that would later unfold before their eyes.
Before and after the fall of the wall
During the next few days, the ‘spark’ of the email message from their friend in East Berlin set off another ‘chain reaction’ of interest in the news by the children in Bristol. Their teacher , Keith Johnson, did not have to find ways of interesting the children in learning about what is going on in the world,they were ravenous to find out why the news did not provide ‘a child’s view’ of the world. They had some knowledge of European cities, from curriculum topics, and something about history and Germany (of course an anglo-centric view based on stories of WWII), but these topics never excited them or developed the enthusiasm that was apparent now, and Keith was a great teacher.
What was to unfold during the next few days was even more momentous, to Europe and the World, but it was happening in the classroom in Bristol.
Keith wondered why anyone would want to send the school a piece of drainpipe!
On opening the ‘parcel’, pieces of concrete dropped out of the pipe and with it, a large poster. Of course the concrete was painted and was in fact a part of the broken Berlin Wall. The poster was a carefully drawn picture of the Brandenburg Gate with comments, ‘graffiti’ , by the children in the school in Berlin.
As the Bristol children saw the pictures on television of people breaking down the wall they could actually handle pieces of the wall and read the comments made by the children in Berlin. A wonderful way to learn about the world, the news , differing perspectives, media bias and history in the making!
25 years on and those children in Keith Johnson’s class must be watching the 25th anniversary celebrations of the wall coming down with some interest, thinking ‘we were there’ in spirit at least.
More news breaking – Finland and Bristol 1986
On the same theme, children’s understanding and mediation of the news, 3 years earlier in April 1986, I, (as a Bristol primary school teacher!) also received an email message, addressed to the children of my class. It was from a school in Finland with which we had been corresponding, finding out about reindeer and life in the Arctic. This time the message was a bit more serious, but curious. The children were saying that birds had been dropping out of the sky on to their school. They did not know why.
Later we found out about the tremendous explosion at a huge nuclear power plant, followed by a gradual meltdown of the reactor No. 4. in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. Of course we were ahead of the news because the explosion was kept a secret for some time.
As was stated in the Times (May3rd 1986) “In matters nuclear, one thing is certain: there is no protection in an iron curtain”.
Aerial view of Reactor no4 ,Chernobyl nuclear power pant,1986
The nuclear fallout which was to cover much of Europe and even effect sheep farming in North Wales, had hit the birds in Finland and this was one of the first signs of the large scale effects of the explosion.
As a teacher,like Keith, I did not have to develop a lesson plan on environmental issues or understanding the media, or geography, or politics or health education…the children were diving in to the atlas, reading ,listening and watching the news and asking all sorts of questions of their friends in Finland.
My students wanted to design a newspaper of their own so that they could express what they have been finding out and to report on something that was really ‘breaking ‘ news. As a teacher, you can only marvel at the depth of understanding, cooperation and motivation to learn, from children as they find their area of interest.
By the end of the week we had our newspaper, every child had participated, some had been journalists, some designers, some graphic artists, some sub editors and editors (suddenly there was a real reason to look up a dictionary,check spelling and punctuation, and measure distances on a map!). Their enthusiasm was infectious – the whole school was now interested to follow the news, know about Finland and the Ukraine, about nuclear contamination, about children and cancer and much more. Of course their parents were also ‘educated’ about new aspects of the news.
I am sure those students from my class, 23 years on , with children of their own, still watch the news of children in the Ukraine suffering from Leukemia and other cancers , and think to themselves that they know the real story behind these devastating stories.
and now, as they watch further devastating news about Ukraine, those same children from my class, as parents themselves, will be taking an extra special look at the news and how it is reported. As an aging Gorbachev speaks at the Brandenberg Gate, those adults will understand a little more when he mentions ‘a new Cold War’.
build up of troops in Donetsk , Eastern Ukraine 2014
Refugees in the news, then and now.
Schools in Bristol and the Sudan were linked together via the good auspices of Dr Teame Mebrahtu, at the University of Bristol, who organised the links when Eritrean families fled to Sudan.Children exchanged news and questions and supported the schools in Sudan, which had accommodated children in their schools, with school materials collected from around Avon. Perhaps today those children who are now adults may reflect on the news about refugees in a more positive way.
School Links International was a Bristol based project, started in 1985, linking primary schools in the Avon area and the rest of the world, to counter prejudice, increase international understanding, and to develop environmental awareness and action.
Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.