White Poppies in Schools: A Peaceful Trip to Somerset
By Blog Editor, on 4 April 2023
By Peter Glasgow Chair of the Peace Pledge Union
Every year as the ubiquitous red poppies appear, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) begins its campaign to distribute white poppies as symbols of alternative remembrance. The white poppy stands for remembrance of all victims of war, challenging militarism and a commitment to peace. Here I share my insights from a visit to a primary school where I discovered that 8-9 year olds are more than capable of reflecting critically on war and everyday militarism.
Last October the PPU was contacted by a curriculum leader from a junior school in Somerset who requested a number of white poppies for a project that the school was undertaking over the remembrance period. The poppies were duly sent and I subsequently travelled down to the school having been asked to speak to a group of Year 5 pupils on Remembrance Day. I would consider myself an experienced teacher having spent over 30 years working in further education and then for two years as the PPU’s Peace Education Officer. The thing is, although I have taught people aged between 13 years and 70 years, I have never had any experience of teaching youngsters aged 8 or 9 years old. Could someone whose formative teaching was facilitating General Studies sessions for Craft Apprentices really manage the looming task that lay ahead?
At the school I was introduced to Lauren, who had made the request to the PPU. Lauren is a deeply impressive teacher who has come to the clear perception that primary education must include significant elements of critical education. This is why the school’s remembrance events were to include a presentation by pupils from years 4, 5 & 6 on the meaning of the white poppy, the purple poppy, the black poppy, and the ubiquitous red poppy, as well as my facilitated session. Talking to Lauren I was struck how much her educational views aligned with my own and that she didn’t demur when I expressed my opinion that it’s important that young people have opportunities to challenge their and others’ common sense notions of the world. My antennae twitched when she dropped into our discussion that ‘kids of this age like stories’ – maybe a lifeline for my session.
I am introduced to a number of dignitaries assembling for the Remembrance Service. As is usually the way in these events, aspects of everyday militarism feature strongly, with the compulsory involvement of young children making me as a pacifist, feel uncomfortable. The presentation given, on the other hand, is more than a step in the right direction for critical awareness as the children showcase in creative ways their learning about the different poppies to the other pupils, the assembled dignitaries and a healthy number of parents. I take my leave of my new friends and it is with mounting trepidation that I am led to a very large room where, aargh, I find seventy-five Year 5 pupils sitting on the floor, accompanied by a number of teachers and learning support assistants standing at the back. I decide against sitting down and I commence in recounting my experience of being subjected to corporal punishment at the same age as my audience, in my junior school in late 1950s Sunderland. They are aghast but listen quietly and I am buoyed up when I get an all-round laugh when I tell them the teacher who wielded the cane was called Mr Ruff. I ask them if this could happen today and the excited responses I get, with many hands thrown in the air, shows that they are horrified. Having indicated to my audience that this behaviour was not at all uncommon and was just accepted, I then ask them to think about what other behaviour was previously acceptable and is now very much unacceptable.
There is a short pause and they are able to articulate in their own words changing attitudes including relating to sexism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia. I come back to the idea of remembrance and the earlier presence of the military and the overriding concentration on remembering British military war dead, and once we have established that they really have been taught percentages, I ask them what is the respective proportions of civilian and military casualties in wars in the Twenty First Century. The highest figure anyone comes up with in relation to civilian casualties is 13% so they are very surprised to find the average is usually over 87%.
Before I know it the 45 minute session is coming to an end so I leave them with a number of questions perhaps the most pertinent on that day: why is remembrance always about the armed forces? In my summing-up I ask them to always be quizzical and to be careful of taking anything for granted. I left the room feeling pretty good and hopeful about this group of critical and reflective thinkers.
What had I learned?
- Never be blasé when getting in front of any learners, no matter how experienced a teacher you may be.
- It’s a pleasure to work with junior school pupils just as it is with other learners
- 8/9 year olds can cope with moral questions and articulate sophisticated ideas
- Critical education as a pedagogy works with all learners
- In sessions themselves it is always best to get the learners to do the heavy lifting.
For further information about the Peace Pledge Union’s Education resources please go to: https://www.ppu.org.uk/education