3 April 2020 – Entry Nine

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

The Earl of Southampton and I are getting along famously. 

 

The Earl, regular readers will recall, is my only companion during lockdown in a 5th floor New Zealand apartment. He likes his full title: Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, best known as the 16th century nobleman to whom Shakespeare dedicated at least two of his poems (as Henry never ceases to remind me while I’m trying to watch repeats of darts matches). But more of that later.  For the last few days, I’ve been explaining to him the importance of the Green School way in a COVID-19 battered world and why, more than ever, what I have before termed “a ruthlessly relevant education” is increasingly an essential one. Relational, experiential, action-orientated, local to global: that kind of thing.

 

I’ll be honest, the Earl was initially unimpressed – he was brought up a rote learner and, as he likes to say, “it didn’t do me any harm”.  But eventually he came around. And then, to my surprise, he said he’d like to write a sonnet in the Shakespearean form about Green School. He tried to explain all the attendant rules for Shakespearian sonnets: weird stuff about rhythm, rhyme scheme, syllable counts and other thingamajigs that I can’t pretend to understand. I asked if he could write it in modern English but he said no: “Since I’ve had catch up on over 400 years worth of technology, your readers can look up a few words on Google.” He’s a bit touchy is Henry. He made one concession: if there was no Elizabethan word for something, he’d use a modern one. So, while I get a Hokey Pokey ice cream and go back to watching a 1993 amateur school rugby game played on a field by a shed, here’s “Green School” by my roommate:

 

Green School

 

Say not that autumn’s bounty wastes unknown,

Or Winter’s damp dispunge to nothingness;

Persephone will never watch her own

Bloom unrewarded for their loveliness.

For now, as Summer leaves her golden stage

Beneath old Taranaki’s weeping flanks,

Fair youth, our atomies of future age,

Bewray their ardour, sing full-throated thanks.

The urgent hour upon them strikes no fear,

Nor doth the hand of greed disrupt their stride,

Full mindful of the moment that is here,

They labour ‘til gray Gaia’s tears have dried.

Let this be writ on grim Kaitake’s stone:

They prized the flower above the mobile phone.

 

I told him the last line sounds odd, but what do I know?

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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26 March 2020 – Entry Eight

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

So here I am with my imaginary friend – the Earl of Southampton – whom I thought I should create early on in this lockdown while I know he’s imaginary, but who may have stopped being imaginary by the end of the self isolation period. Conversations between The Earl and myself will become increasingly important (and I will share them as the weeks go by) because I am alone, 12,000 miles from my wife, and living in a fifth floor flat without books or outside balcony. 

 

I am also the luckiest person on the planet. 

 

First, this will pass. Time is not linear: what seems long now will soon be otherwise. And then, aside from my newly created friend, I have the greatest gift my parents gave me beside love: the happy hunger born of an education. All the world’s great literature can be summoned to my Kindle; its finest music to Spotify; all the Art, politics, culture, science and news I can ever handle are on the internet; and – if I need to turn into a lamebrain for a while – there is always the much vaunted binge watch on Netflix, a feat I have proudly yet to perform. I have no piano (a disaster, I admit), but I can still write simpler songs on a guitar and a ukulele. Yes, compared to so many people on this earth for whom these weeks may deliver genuine loneliness and fear, I continue to be bent double under the weight of good fortune.

 

And I have silence. If your small stir-crazy children are stapling you to the curtains as I write, you may want to gloss over the rest of this, but for many hours a day I am privileged to hear only the sea if I open the windows. Almost nothing if I don’t. There was a time when being alone, especially alone in nature, was a rite of passage and, in different ways, a portal to an enhanced reality, from Jesus spending forty days and nights in the desert to Buddha meditating in solitude in the forest. Other major religions have numerous parallels which suggest spirituality often begins with an acknowledgement of our aloneless (not our loneliness). 

 

When I walked each day onto the Green School campus in the early morning (and this is a feeling I miss already), I was struck both by an amplified awareness of solitude and, paradoxically, a concentrated sense of connectivity. Those quiet moments, with the Kaitake Range in front of me, reinforce my infinitesimally small standing in the universe – or perhaps multiverse – and yet I am also alive to my being a part of something so temporally, spatially and unknowably vast that any attempts to capture the sensation in words is rendered crass. You can go to scientists, priests and poets for explanations – there’s wisdom and hokum a-plenty to share on these matters – but at this stage in human evolution it is a feeling that comes to many in the combined presence of immensity and silence. I’m not looking for what it “means” (what does Beethoven’s 7th symphony “mean” or the gaps between stars?): I’m just thankful that it is. For the next few weeks, many will have to look within for such moments, but when we are able to walk in the world again, let’s do so with fresh and grateful eyes.

 

Anyway, them’s me thoughts on silence and spirituality in unusual days. The Earl and I have to make supper now. We shall whisk our soufflé to Motörhead.

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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20 March 2020 – Entry Seven

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

Ironically, the discovery of agriculture – seen by many throughout the ages as humankind working harmoniously with nature – is the genesis point of so much that ails us today. Once hunter gatherers discovered they could stay put, save energy and tend crops rather than hunt mammoths, they made the first walls to protect those crops from beasts and, perhaps, other groups of humans. Scale increased: walls became settlements; settlements spawned villages; villages morphed into towns; towns grew to cities; cities linked to form states. Because they did not have to hunt all day, people had leisure time in which new kinds of thinking and the written records of that thinking changed us as a species: the populations of these settlements became stratified and organised with aristocracies, priesthoods, defensive armies and labourers. Pretty much what we know today. Blame wheat.

 

The first state as we understand the concept was Egypt. The English poet Shelley imagined the words that might have been written on the colossal statue of the unassailable Pharaoh Ramses. They said: “Look on my works ye Mighty and despair”. In modern idiom: “..If you think you’re someone special, just take a look at what I can do and then give up on your own puny exploits: don’t ever – ever – mess with me and Egypt”. So said the most powerful man on earth.

 

Then it was Egypt. Now, many top dogs later, we have a new Ramses. Here’s a snippet from President Trump’s decidedly curious State of the Union address earlier this year.:

 

The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest and most determined men and women to walk on the face of the Earth.

 

Sound familiar? A nation “carved out” of the land like a giant statue. Now I know he’s the most powerful man on the planet, but I’m not sure how the President knew that the strength, ferocity and determination of the early American settlers (brave though many doubtless were) were unquestionably superior to that of the first nation peoples they encountered and sometimes exterminated. The President may not know that the latest research suggests the earlier colonization of the Americas had wiped out 56 million (mainly through disease) by the beginning of the 1600s . This makes it the biggest ever human mortality event in relation to global population ever. But we all know the winners get to tell the story. And now that same President calls our current pandemic, a “foreign virus” as if other viruses spoke English and are waved happily through border control at JFK. Nothing like a disease for whipping up Xenophobia.

 

It’s a pity that humility isn’t one of the RESPECT values that help define Green School. For Trump and Ramses, rulers of the mighty, it is an unknowable concept. Even COVID-19 is an anti American plot. This has been happening ever since the titanic straight lines of the pyramids, built long before Ramses, demanded you stare at them before you look at the sand. For five thousand years now, the “conquest of nature” has been the quest of many, as if through a series of wars we will one day defeat nature, tame it and have it acquiesce to our every whim. The phrase litters historical documents and, used carefully, can help in the war on foreigners too.

 

Let Green School teach us to humble in the presence of nature. Conquest? Oh please. It would only take a slightly bigger wobble than is usual for our planet’s orbit and all life would cease. President Trump could blame those evil foreigners all he wanted but it would do no good. All the bombs in the world would be as nothing. We would do well to remember that. All around us there is a barely imaginable beauty that transcends borders, and there are dangers too in nature that do the same. To assimilate either into a jingoistic world view is something we should leave to the thugs and bigots of our age, whether they are drunk in the pub or running huge countries. My Green School journey, short though it has been, is asking me to rejoice in and respect the exquisite, mesmeric, overwhelming  and – yes – sometimes terrible powers that this planet can unfurl or unleash. 

 

We have so many reasons to be thankful; so when we are reminded, as now, to respect the natural rhythms and forces at work around us, we should stop pointing fingers and start extending respect and compassion and humility. 

 

Ramses’ statue (he was also known as Ozymandias) has long since collapsed to rubble. And now when you read the inscription, thousands of years later in a wasteland of broken stone,  it means something else:

 

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

So as well as blaming wheat for the troubles and arrogance of modern humans ….. Let us all be kind while we are here.

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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13 March 2020 – Entry Six

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

The  first International Women’s Day was held in 1911, though the United Nations did not adopt the idea until 1975. 

 

In many people’s eyes – whether they know me or not – any observation I make on this matter is just froth on a daydream because I am male, pale and stale, and privileged to the point of smug irrelevance because of my gender, ethnicity and nationality (though that last point is increasingly up for debate). I don’t doubt for one second there are some truths in those judgements and that I am in certain cases guilty as charged whether I acted wittingly or not but, as ever, I lament the fact that nuance and degree have been too often superseded by a binary paradigm and sledgehammer intersectionality. Anyhow, I shall avoid that cul-de-sac of diminishing returns and instead relay an account of a moment I experienced last week. While I’d love to say this happened on International Women’s Day, it was actually a few days before. Life is seldom as convenient as I’d like it to be.

 

I was in the second Waka (our beautiful learning space) which is due to open at the end of this month. Leslie Medema, former Head of Green School Bali and Head of Learning for Green School International was giving a Child Protection briefing to our remarkable team of builders, all of whom bar one were men. So, we had one woman in charge, but only one woman on the construction team (a traditionally male preserve) to whom she was talking. While Leslie was working, I was looking out the window. (When I was a schoolboy I was often told not to look out the window, so I’m going to tell our young learners do it as often as possible and dream like crazy while they’re at it). Like the waka itself, the windows undulate and dance with the landscape, and they have in my quieter moments given me cause to meditate on the Maori world view, in particular Papatūānuku, the mother figure who is the land from which all things emerge and to which they must return. I am of course a floundering novice in these matters, but I have read enough to know that Papatūānuku’s importance in Maori history and tradition is immense. 

 

And as I looked out I saw four of our youngest girls tending the garden beneath me with a female teacher watching over them. The sun was bright and high, the land looked strong and the air was clear. The girls were working purposefully among the vegetables, the teacher was smiling and encouraging them, and I could hear Leslie imparting her knowledge to the team. I don’t as a rule do epiphanies but this was the closest thing I’ve had to one since I arrived. It’s not that I couldn’t have witnessed something similar in a very few other schools, but there was a comforting storm in my head at that moment which could only have arisen in Green School New Zealand. At one and the same time I recalled the compelling words of Maata Wharehoka, matriarch from Parihaka – the Maori settlement where modern passive resistance was born – who presided over our School’s blessing and powhiri some five weeks ago and who reminded us of our mighty responsibility to the land; there was the knowledge that in Maori tribal history, individual women had authority over and sometimes even embodied certain areas of land; I was reminded of the fact that in Te Reo the word for land and placenta is one and the same; and then there’s  the strange paradox that above us all was our maunga (mountain) Taranaki, who is indeed male but is in fact silently brooding for his lost love, the female mountain Pihanga. So much power and gentleness and connectivity in one moment:  all arising from four girls and their teacher in a pumpkin garden. 

 

When Leslie had finished, I asked if anybody had a camera, but that was a bathetic and crassly mundane attempt to record something no one picture ever could. As tangata whenua (people of the land) we, the Green School community, must earn our place in the story. We haven’t yet, but in that instant just prior to International Women’s Day, I think I may have experienced the first sentence of Chapter One.

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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6 March 2020 – Entry Five

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

So in order to look like a rugged Kiwi man of action, I’ve tried to rock the George-Clooney-with-stubble-vibe. Predictably, I’ve ended up looking like Uncle Remus. Or maybe Colonel Sanders. But I shouldn’t be surprised. Over the years, my attempts to become unfathomably gorgeous have invariably resulted in hideous failure. Nonetheless, I keep watering rocks in the hope that the bloom of earthly beauty will one day take route and flourish.

 

I should have learned my lesson: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result”. Einstein didn’t say that (the internet has a gift for misattributing quotations), but somebody obviously did, and the thinking applies both to my acts of beardy futility and many aspects of our global education systems. Economic historian Joel Mokyr says the modern education system is designed to produce people who are “punctual, docile and sober.” Now while I’m not advocating “late, violent and drunk” as the Green School response to traditional methodologies, we can point again and again to research that shows why so many systems are creaking and failing in the face of unprecedented change. 

 

The joys of developing biophilia through a sense of wonder (which can later be complemented by scientific study) and the extensively documented wellbeing benefits of education in nature have been presaged for centuries. As people in Europe flowed into the cities after the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the English poet William Wordsworth issued a warning from over 220 years ago:

 

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man

Of moral evil and of good

Than all the sages can

 

This isn’t about the scientific study of nature, but a recognition that we are in and of it. At Green School we want to experience nature even before we try to understand. Watching the clouds pass across our mountain has as much value – albeit of a different kind – as any bookish theory. That sense of silent wonder will be rekindled: we will feel the impulses, and we will learn from them. Then we can start to become the changemakers we all wish to be.

 

But back to the facial hair to finish. A very young person back in the UK who I haven’t seen for sometime exclaimed during our recent Skype call: “Hey, you’ve grown a beard”. I told them no, I’d actually shaved all my old photographs. And apparently, off they went to check. I’m not sure whose sense of wonder was greater.

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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28 February 2020 – Entry Four

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

If I were a film director I would know exactly the sequence of films I would make. The movies would be based on answers to a quiz I had set for students at a previous school. On one section of the quiz I had left out the last word of a famous film title and the students had to fill in the space. So, for example, West Side Story would appear as West Side *****.  Among the potentially unforgettable movies created by my young learners were: Lawrence of Manchester; The Good, the Bad and the Very Upsetting; Close Encounters of Rabbits; One Flew over the Truth; The Empire Strikes for More Money

 

There are two ways of looking at these responses. You can, on the one hand, say these are “wrong answers”, and in the context of the quiz that was indeed the case. But oh, what flights of fancy these gems presented to my imagination, and from that point of view they were inspirational. (One Flew Over the Truth, for example, is so obviously screaming out for black and white French surrealist treatment).

 

You can see then that I’m a fan of great mistakes. (To misquote Frank Sinatra, I’ve made a fair few un-great mistakes after all). I’m grateful for them. It’s very important that Green School celebrates them. Sometimes failure may mean taking the blame, but usually that should not be the case. Being wrong can be the catalyst for so many other people being right. “Failure” is all too often associated with, or even a synonym for, “fault”. For many children, this damaging trait is reinforced by the weekly test or termly class rankings which bring dread and fear into the lives of numerous young people. We must build intelligent failure into our culture so that we can codify and share what we learn. I remember reading a Harvard business review article in which Executives said they thought around 2 to 5% of failure in their organisation was blameworthy but 70 % to 90% of the time such failure were treated as blameworthy. I fear the same has been true of many education systems.

 

The list of people who got things seriously wrong but whose questions set others on wonderful, productive journeys includes some of history’s heaviest hitters. That will be the Green School way. We are in the business of discovery, not on the treadmill of received wisdom. Yes, there are some things you really should know because they help start learning journeys and allow communication and shared understandings with others  (and that’s why we have Proficiencies in our curriculum); but let’s elevate curiosity, creativity and risk taking above the status of the much venerated instant recall. 

 

I might try the film quiz with some of our own young people in the near future. Let’s see if we can have fun and come up with some Crazy Rich Learning.

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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20 February 2020 – Entry Three

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

One day while at my last UK School, I was visiting the youngest children in their classrooms. As I spent most of my time with senior students, the five year olds had to be reminded that I was the “Headmaster”.  One young lad came up and said: “Are you the Headmaster because you are clever?” Always up for a challenge, I said “Try me”. I thought he might ask me which animal was fastest or which dinosaur was the heaviest. But he didn’t. He asked me if I knew his brother. I said I didn’t. His little face fell and he looked at me with disappointment, then anger and finally contempt: “Well I do,” he said, and turned away to play with his more knowledgeable friends who, doubtless, were all clever enough to know his brother as well.

 

I’ve been reflecting on that moment quite a bit recently as a few (a very few) people from the media and elsewhere have started asking questions which, in a perfect world, would be put in the “that’s not fair” bucket. Overwhelmingly, the response to GSNZ’s opening has been very positive, but the few less helpful leading questions tend to be variations on a well worn theme: if you go to Green School but you also fly or drive or eat meat etc. you’re a hypocrite. Now while the language is overly strident, such observations could conceivably come from a well intentioned place, but they assume we have made claims about ourselves which we have not. It is true that there is only so much mileage in replying rather airily  “we are all on a journey” or “we have to start somewhere”, but in response to any naysayers, I have also been tempted to ask a simple question in return: “Would you rather Green School did or did not exist?” 

 

You can laugh at a baby as it takes its first faltering steps, or you can encourage and help it on its way. Soon we will car-pool; then we will create our version of the Bali Bio Bus; we will grow our own food; we will produce Green Leaders worthy of our Bali heritage; and we may later innovate in radical, even revolutionary ways. First, though, we need to lay solid relational foundations and co-create a culture that can flourish. 

 

We will walk the walk. We have to. Our first steps, occasionally awkward though they may be, will presage greater journeys.  

 

Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

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2 February 2020 – Entry Two

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

Each morning, I wake up to the sight, sound, smell and, if the wind is blowing to order, taste of the Tasman Sea. And for five minutes after getting up I stand and watch the waves in the company of a peppermint tea

 

Blue School, I sometimes think to myself: we should have called ourselves Blue School (after all, there’s more water than trees). But then again, if I were back in England looking into a still February sky (and there’s more sky than water) it would have to be “Grey School”, and I reckon Marketing would have an issue or two with that. 

 

As we grow as a learning community we must be very clear to distinguish ideological from scientific battles and be honest with ourselves and students when the colours seem to blur. Blind allegiance to the zeitgeist, loudest voice or media fad is the road to chaos and even loathing of our own species. We have reached a point in so much of our political, ideological and even scientific discourse where one side is simply refusing to listen to what the other side is saying. To call someone a “Nazi” or “Fascist” because they happen to think differently is to demean oneself and one’s argument. (At my age, I’m even a little uneasy with having “OK Boomer” hurled at me, but I’ll roll with that). 

 

The point is, Green School must engage and not preach. We stand on no pedestal of dogma: each of us is on a different stage of a journey. Those who have ethically sourced every stitch of their clothing might be taking more aeroplane flights than those carrying Prada handbags. The well spoken, middle-class climate change warrior who calls for all people to  take a week off work in protest at lack of green government initiatives has clearly not given a smashed avocado’s worth of thought to the factory worker on minimum wages who is already relying on foodbanks to help feed her family. The finger pointing guru on the protest march does not know that the Ferrari driver he’s screaming at might have planted a million trees and employed a thousand people into the bargain. (Now is not the time to start discussing whether carbon offset is just a modern version of medieval indulgences where you effectively bought your way out of hell – but you get the idea).

 

Now I confess, I’ve seen neith Prada bags nor Ferraris during the setting up of Green School but if I did, I would not start ranting. We must respect those unknown backstories. We should be grateful for the curiosity that has brought people to us. If we model Green School values and behaviours authentically, we will succeed. A warm and gentle sun removes a coat more quickly than a howling gale. 

 

As  for what colour we are: I’ll leave that to the Lebanese/American poet Kahlil Gibran:

“Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.”

Sounds about right to me.

Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

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27 January 2020 – Entry One

 

Written by Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand

 

My only recurring dream is about being a character trapped in the wrong book. The dream usually crumbles under its own weirdness because nobody wants James Bond rocking up in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or Moby Dick splashing his way onto the dance floor in Pride and Prejudice. But recently I became trapped in the kookiest dream of all: I’m still in it and I have no desire to wake up.

 

In this dream, the huge, wonderful schools I have led in the UK and Singapore – and according to some of my bewildered friends, should never have left – have been replaced by a field. The roads and buildings that surrounded these schools have given way to a snow-capped volcano and a marginal sea, the Tasman, of the South Pacific Ocean. The pristine shirts I once wore have morphed into dusty singlets, and my snazzy ties have all joined up, turned the colour of volcanic ash and become a beard. I’ve lost my flashy car too. But the most grotesque thing of all – and this is how I know I’m in a dream and not the real world – is that in two weeks’ time, children will arrive on this land and become part of a learning community that prioritises happiness while addressing the essential issues of our age among the plants, animals and elements with whom we are necessarily bound. Free of external examinations, tables, pie-charts, and graphs, these precious young souls will leave their mobile phones at the threshold and become the pioneer generation of Green School New Zealand. And their parents are welcome on campus too: all day every day. Insanity, I know. And perhaps the ultimate madness is that this was all inspired by a community living without walls and under bamboo in the jungle of Bali. I even went there in my dream.

 

If I don’t wake up, I will have to unlearn things, and start some journeys again with our young people, shedding the old concepts of success and instead thinking entrepreneurially in terms of the value and values we offer. Systems thinking, wellbeing and sustainability must become lenses through which we discern what is important if we are to regenerate individuals, communities and planet. The near-forgotten wisdom of the Maori and their language will live among us as Latin and Greek never really could do when I was at school. And after all this our young people will be going to universities around the world to study Physics, Literature, Marine Biology, just like their Bali counterparts. But they’ll be bringing passions and solutions to the party that will blow people’s minds.

 

Maybe I’m really in a London club right now and about to come to in a snug leather armchair. Or maybe, on this piece of land in Taranaki New Zealand, we are embarking upon the most ruthlessly relevant phenomenon happening in education today: the vanguard of an essential new normal that will sweep up the young around the world and take them on a journey of hope, agency and joy.

 

Chris Edwards, CEO Green School New Zealand