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If it’s not ill-discipline, it’s falling standards or bullying. The welter of negative stories about schools in the national media is unremitting. As a teacher in an east London school I feel the impact of this every day, and frankly I resent it. Why? Because school students deserve a better deal than this. Let me give an example of what they are really capable of.

Last week, on 26th November, my school - Lister Community School, a multi-ethnic comprehensive in Newham, east London - played host to a 42-year-old American woman called Martina Correia. Of all things, she was telling an audience of 100 13-15-year-olds about how her brother Troy Davis is on death row in the US state of Georgia and how for 18 years she’s been campaigning for him to be released.

I teach English, so why should I be arranging talks like this? Because teaching students to be responsive and articulate is not something to be confined to four hours a week in a classroom. For several years my proudest achievement has been to help our students bring out a unique independent student magazine called CARBOLIC, which has unearthed priceless nuggets of subterranean literary and journalistic talent. This little publication, a work of real pride for our students, has earned plaudits from the likes of the Times Educational Supplement, and writers and poets including Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and John Agard.

Last week's Troy Davis meeting belongs to a proud and unparalleled tradition. Previous events organised by CARBOLIC have included meetings with the former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, campaigners for justice for Zahid Mubarek, the Asian teenager murdered in his prison cell, and a protest rally against the invasion of Gaza, where both Muslim and Jewish speakers spoke in solidarity with the Palestinians. Up to 200 students have stayed after hours to crowd into these meetings.

Martina is an electrifying speaker who held her audience totally rapt. People who imagine typical modern schoolkids to be always sullen or de-motivated ought to have been there as these bright-eyed students were inspired by Martina’s account of her fight for justice for her brother - wrongly-convicted, she maintains, for a crime he didn’t commit. Not only that, but they also heard from De’Jaun, Martina’s 15-year-old son, an inspiring and funny speaker in his own right, who immediately struck up an amazing rapport with his peers in east London. Amnesty speakers talked about the global campaign to abolish capital punishment and Richard Hughes, the drummer from rock band Keane, added his own insights after visiting Troy Davis this autumn.

For me the meeting had a special poignancy. It’s 44 years since Britain had the death penalty on its statute book. I know, because it was my father Sydney Silverman who, following a lifelong campaign, finally brought the private member’s bill through parliament which abolished capital punishment. The son of a penniless refugee, as a young socialist war resister during the First World War he had refused conscription and been jailed twice for mutiny and desertion. In prison he had gone on hunger strike and witnessed fellow prisoners beaten to death and carted off for execution. He went on to become Britain’s first pro bono lawyer, earning the plaudit “our biggest enemy” by the Liverpool police for his defence of evicted tenants and victimised trade unionists. For 35 years he was a Labour MP, at a time when that still meant anything.

So, in a way, this special event at our school formed a sort of historical “loop”. Recent British history and a modern US debate over capital punishment came together in a dynamic session that textbooks could only hint at.

A full hour after the close of last week’s event, it was still impossible to drag our students out of the hall, as they exchanged stories and jokes with De’Jaun and the other speakers, queued up for stickers, and eagerly collected start-up packs for the new youth branch of Amnesty they’d decided on the spot to set up.

This is no small thing. As a former full-time socialist activist, I know that mass education was only won after bitter struggle, and as a current teacher of English I have never been able to separate education from the fight for a better society.

Who says young people today have a short attention span? Who says they are non-political? Give them something worth listening to, and something worth fighting for, and they'll soon surprise us all.

Roger Silverman is a teacher at the Lister Community School, in Newham, east London


why our school is campaiging against the death penalty in the United States
rsilver100 wrote:
Thursday, 3 December 2009 at 09:25 pm (UTC)
Anyone who wants more information about CARBOLIC, the independent students magazine at Lister Community School, or any other aspect of this article, is welcome to write to me at RSilver100@aol.com

Roger Silverman
Roger Silverman: Why our school is campaigning against the death penalty in the United States
moomintroll1 wrote:
Friday, 4 December 2009 at 02:46 pm (UTC)
Do you also campaign against death penalties in other countries, such as the horrific practice of stoning in Muslim countries, such as this eyewitness report (in the Independent) of a stoning in Iran: 'The lorry deposited a large number of stones and pebbles beside the waste ground and then two women were led to the spot wearing white and with sacks over their heads. They were enveloped in a shower of stones and transformed into two red sacks.'
At least the United States would never carry out an execution in this horrific way. Or are you concentrating on the United States and Israel as the currently fashionable pariah states of the left (as South Africa and Chile once were), while taking the attitude that we have no business criticising third world states, or take the attitude that some do of maybe that will teach the bitch to keep her legs together.
Re: Roger Silverman: Why our school is campaigning against the death penalty in the United States
rsilver100 wrote:
Friday, 4 December 2009 at 08:01 pm (UTC)
Yes, of course we campaign against the death penalty everywhere. In this case, Troy Davis' family were in Britain on a worldwide tour organised by Amnesty International, and we invited them to speak at our school.

What a strange question. How about you? Do you only campaign against the death penalty in Muslim countries?

Roger Silverman
rsilver100 wrote:
Saturday, 5 December 2009 at 01:20 pm (UTC)
One private correspondent wrote to me asking whether activities like this were not a breach of the responsibility of a teacher to be impartial. Since I would not wish others to misinterpret the motives behind this,I would like to put on record my response to him.

After thanking him for taking the trouble to communicate his feelings, I wrote:

It should be clear from the whole context of my article that what I am trying to do is precisely the opposite of what you suggest. I am certainly not indoctrinating my students or imposing on them ready-made ideas. On the contrary, my aim is to stimulate and challenge them into developing original ideas of their own.

That is what is unique about CARBOLIC. Unlike the traditional "school magazine", which is normally a thoroughly censored printed display board of model pieces of homework, etc., it is a genuinely independent magazine for students, consisting of stories, poems, articles, reviews - the sole stipulation being that they have all been written outside of any school-imposed duties.

The purpose of the meeting on Gaza was not to arbitrate on the merits of the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to protest at the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the war. In particular - the school composition being overwhelmingly Muslim, with subterranean undercurrents of anti-Jewish prejudice - the purpose was to show that Jews were just as concerned about this as Muslims. The real message to the students was that to imagine that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews is no more rational than to say that Osama bin Laden represents all Muslims.

As for the capital punishment issue, the point of the meeting was that Troy Davis is innocent: that the prosecution witnesses against him have retracted their evidence, and that he therefore deserves a retrial. Some people are in favour of capital punishment, but not many believe in executing the innocent. It is true that many of the students signed up to Amnesty International's campaign against the death penalty worldwide, and I will certainly encourage them in this. I will not pretend to be neutral on this question, any more than I would be on, say, the question of whether torture is justified. I do think that teachers have a duty to be on the side of civilisation.

Roger Silverman
dsntmatter wrote:
Friday, 19 March 2010 at 11:35 am (UTC)
So she is campaigning for a convicted murderer to be released? All the evidence points to him and im sure 7 of the eyewitnesses can’t be wrong. They should bring back the electric chair, instead of giving all these rapists etc a life of luxury in prison.
East London Glaziers
troy davis
rsilver100 wrote:
Tuesday, 1 June 2010 at 07:21 am (UTC)
dsntmatter: you obviously know nothing about this case. Seven "witnesses" have ADMITTED that they gave false evidence, under police pressure. There is NO real evidence against Troy Davis. I wonder what your real motives are for being in such a hurry to put him to death?

Oh, and incidentally, no one even accused Troy Davis of rape. Sorry to spoil your stereotype.
ghd_styler wrote:
Saturday, 26 June 2010 at 04:09 am (UTC)
It's my first time to post a reply, thanks for your sharing.