It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world for our students

[Spoiler Alert: there’s a great idea for improving Y11 English grades in paragraph 6]

How do we talk to our students about the rise of extremism?

If you work in a school, I’m sure you’ll have had your PREVENT training by now. You certainly should have. Often, such DfE directed initiatives can me a dreadful waste of teachers’ precious time. Not so PREVENT. We cannot hide from the fact that some of our young people are finding a romantic connection with extreme causes, both pro-and-anti-Islamic, and indeed those with no connection to Islam. Everyone working with teenagers needs to be mindful of the signs that questions are becoming sympathies, before sympathies become actions.


We must be vigilant, but we mustn’t stop teenagers from talking about the romanticism they can find in extreme views.

I vividly remember my own teens, and being far more attracted to the peripheries and extremes than I was to what I considered the conformist middle. My own ‘extremes’ were neither dangerous nor particularly profound: we’re talking Catcher in the Rye and Charles Bukowski, Das Kapital and Theatre of Hate.

In an English classroom back in 1980s Aberdeen, Mrs Duncan, a wondrous woman to whom I owe so much, clearly saw in me a good kid with a maelstrom of emotional curiosity, a reasonable intellect and a chip on my skinny shoulder. She realised it was her role to harness my ideas and ideals into something that was of use to me, and of no harm to others. It was in her class that I read a letter by Che Guevara to confused classmates in a ‘show and tell’ lesson. I remember how gloriously anti-establishment I felt, and how much I longed for her establishment approval.

It is one of the great pleasures, and great responsibilities, of being an English teacher that we help students make sense of the world, and their place within it.

So I understand the desire of modern teens to connect with the romantic ideals of other passionate ‘outsiders’.  I also understand that the 2016 version of me is one of the establishment figures I sought to challenge.

I am now the English teacher, and it is my role to allow children to express their own maelstroms. If you teach Y11 AQA English Language, you may have spotted the Controlled Assessment bank for 2016 includes the task ‘Use the title of a film as the basis for a piece of your own writing’. You’ll never get a more open-ended task than that. I chose to use that openness and this week I told my Y11 that there was a 1963 film called It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. No more than that: we didn’t watch it, or do any research into it. We simply took that title and tried to make sense of the madness we saw in the world. We talked about many things, but the students were particularly impassioned about:

  • The suffering of those fleeing North Africa for Europe in tiny, ill-appointed boats, and the (at best) ambivalent attitudes of Europeans towards them.
  • The hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the rise of the populist right throughout the West.
  • The rise of ISIS, and why people (particularly women) would choose to leave the freedoms of Europe to live in fearsome and often barbarous repression.
  • The deepening divide between rich and poor, and the irony that it has widened since governments had to bail out the rich, who succeeded in bankrupting nations.

I didn’t steer their discussions, but I did moderate to ensure offence and inflammation was avoided.

Then they planned and wrote their responses, arguing that it truly is A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in no more than 800 words. They loved it, and they wrote expertly. In one fell swoop, they submitted a late addition to their Controlled Assessment folder, practised their argumentative writing for the summer exam, and, most importantly, they got a chance to put their personal maelstrom into writing.

Mrs Duncan would have been proud of me.


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