DIANE PHILLIPS: Back to school and opening eyes and minds


Diane Phillips


Over the past two weeks I have had the great pleasure of going to primary school. To say it has been a while since I last went to school would be an understatement on the order of well, let’s just leave it there. Some things are just obvious.

The occasion for my return to class, make that classes, has been in the position of assisting the Minister of Environment and Housing Romi Ferreira and his team - including the Department of Environmental Health - in spreading the word about the #Be A Hero campaign. It’s Phase 2 of Ferreira’s commitment to leave The Bahamas cleaner, greener and more conscientious about the environment than he found it when he took office in 2017.

Please do not stop reading now thinking this is about politics. Far from it. I just wanted to give you a bit of background. So the first phase of the clean-up was literally that. Massive removal of abandoned vehicles. Collection of old appliances and tons of trash. Hundreds of tons of trash. But Ferreira knew that constantly cleaning up after people who had little or no respect for the environment was unsustainable, especially at about $100,000 per clean-up day, even with donations by companies like Bahamas Waste.

He knew that, to create a cleaner, greener Bahamas, you had to start with young people and change their mind-set. Change meant instilling two foundational values – a sense of pride and an acceptance of personal responsibility. You had to make young people understand how important it is to keep their surroundings clean, to be litter-free, to care about the environment in which they live and study and play and grow.

In case you slept through recent decades and had not noticed, impressing young people has gotten a lot tougher than it used to be. A bunch of old folks (everyone over 20-something is old to a nine-year-old) saying ‘green space is safer space’ doesn’t hold a candle to a round of battle on Fortnite.

If it was going to be challenge, we were up to it as a team. Minister called on Barefoot Marketing in Grand Bahama and Diane Phillips & Associates to work with his team and we launched the #Be A Hero campaign.

We figured that one thing that hasn’t changed is young people like to look up to people. Offering the chance to be a hero themselves like the heroes they admire and to replace their pictures on billboards and bus bench signs, to meet Members of Parliament, to go to Government House, well, all that should get their attention. All they had to do was be one of the 10 best schools or classes to identify a clean-up or improvement project at their school or in their community and they could be the hero.

All we had to do was find a way to fund the campaign. Barefoot Marketing and DP&A approached sponsors to help cover the costs and the response was amazing – we got 10 leading companies onboard, AML, Atlantis, Bahamas Hot Mix, Bahamas Waste, Bahamas Wholesale Agencies, Commonwealth Brewery, Kelly, McDonalds, Seaside Media, Subway, The Sign Man, The Tribune.

This is still by way of background but don’t worry, we’re nearly there. We got the heroes onboard – Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Jonquel Jones, Chris ‘Fireman’ Brown, Wendy and Dyson Knight, civic leaders like Nancy Kelly and Ed Fields, fun folks like the 100 JAMZ Dynasty deejay crew. We selected two children to be our model kid heroes to kick it off, Sebastian Major from Summit Academy and Avani Sawyer from Kingsway. The Ministry of Tourism donated the use of billboards and the Ministry of Education paved the way for school visits.

And we set out to do school visits. Okay, now you know why I have been going to school. We are visiting nearly 20 primary and junior high schools in New Providence. Schools that weren’t on the schedule are calling in from other islands, asking to be included. Community associations want to get onboard.

First, let me share this. Going into classrooms and assemblies if you have not done it for a while is a moving experience. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying athletes and others making a visit but not in this way where students listen intently to a member of Cabinet who explains why looking after their country is their responsibility. He is a good speaker but more than that, he is believable, sharing credible facts and the students are listening intently.

I am impressed, but I am also seeing light bulbs go off. Impressed by the level of enthusiasm, especially by the way hundreds of kids in primary and junior high levels have embraced the idea that it is their responsibility to care about where they live and go to school. Sometimes watching them raise their hands, waving them in the air, eager to offer suggestions about what kind of project they could take on to make their school or park or neighbourhood a better place, I am emotionally moved.

I know they want to be one of 10 winners in the #Be A Hero competition, but it goes beyond that. There is an innate sense of pride and I am delighted by the level of engagement. Then it dawns on me. It is because they are being asked to think. To contribute. To be original. To be counted. They are being told that they matter. They are not being told to memorise something and prepare for a test. They are being asked for their opinion and prepare for life. They are responding with the enthusiasm their teachers must be wishing they would exhibit in math class.

For all the discipline in classroom problems we hear about, we are not seeing it and most of the schools we have visited so far are government schools. We’ve had full assemblies with hundreds of students. The totally unscientific conclusion I have drawn is that when young people see themselves as helping to create a solution, when young people see themselves as part of what counts, they rise to the occasion. They feel empowered and important and they are good. Their ideas flourish. We’ve had students suggest everything from collecting trash by doing weekly bike rides with garbage bags so you get exercise while cleaning up to manufacturing edible straws from a vegetable base so you take in nutrients and leave no trash behind.

These are the students who believe they can make a difference and by believing that, they will. But imagine if we did not ask them, if we did not give them the opportunity to express themselves. Imagine if we taught environmental responsibility the way that most are forced to digest history or math or social sciences. They are instructed to memorize this. Repeat what you memorised. Sponge up, wring out, spout back. Would dozens or hundreds of hands be raised trying to catch our attention at the front of the auditorium so they can stand and speak up into the portable microphone and want to be part of the solution?

Teaching methods that rely on rote memorisation for success stifle imagination. Yes, they serve a purpose. They allow us to keep 60,000 students a day confined in classrooms and for the fortunate ones, the staid method will teach them self-discipline, responsibility, some decorum but mostly the ability to study and regurgitate and earn the rewards that accompany good regurgitation.

Maybe I am being a bit harsh on current teaching methods though not without appreciation for how hard teachers work. I get that, I did it myself, teaching economics and sociology trying to earn enough money to finish graduate school.

But imagine if we took some of those classes out of doors, not just on a field trip, but on a regular basis, to let students see and understand more about the world they live in, to exchange ideas as they will in college or in life. It is how the Greeks did it, Aristotle and Plato and Socrates. It is the way that the endearing and effervescent Mr Keating, played by the late Robin Williams in one of the greatest movies of all time, Dead Poets’ Society opened the eyes of young men in a stuffy boys’ prep school. He eschewed the mundane and he inspired, “Carpe diem,” Seize the day, he bellowed. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” he pleaded.

He spoke of poetry, romance, love and beauty not as afterthoughts but the essentials of what makes life worth living. He taught young men that their thoughts mattered. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” He did not sit quietly behind a desk, he strode atop it to make a point. Some of his advice was practical. “Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not ‘very’ tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use ‘very’ sad. Use morose. Language was invented for one reason boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do.”

He reasoned with humour, he engaged with passion. He understood, above all, that the real purpose of education is not to memorise facts, but to inspire curiosity, not to repeat dates, but to design solutions for today’s needs.

The ability to recite may earn an A. The ability to think and to create can change the world.


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