«WE DON’T HAVE READY-MADE KNOWLEDGE WHICH WE NEED TO FLOG TO PUPILS
«Our neighbours and people in the street are of different nationalities, have different cultures and points of view; they think and speak differently, believe in different ideas, they love and hate in different ways. No one wants people to kill each other in small cities or in enormous countries. Though sometimes it happens that those who yesterday lived peacefully with their neighbour and greeted them every day, walked along the same streets and even formed a friendship, start to quarel, swear at and fight with each other and sometimes even to arm themselves and go to war – it states in the project manifesto- Maybe we can learn to come to an agreement with those with whom we don’t agree? With those whose opinions or way of life are unpleasant for us? And if not, then what is the value of human life? And who, after all, is contemporary man?» Artists and other participants do not give ready-made answers to these questions but with the help of comics (their reading and drawing) they offer to society, especially teenagers and young people, the opportunity to reflect upon these subjects. For this reason trainers of civic education take these comics and bring them to schools.
«We don’t have ready-made knowledge which needs to be flogged to pupils»
«The comics has an advantage over the normal text book: in it there is a lot of visual information whereas there is very little text as such. Therefore it is easily appreciated, says the trainer of civic education Boris Romanov, the coordinator of „Respect“ in the North-West Federal District. School-goers speak in the same language as the comics». Boris and his colleagues conduct lessons in the schools and teenage clubs of Saint Petersburg and not merely «Respect»-lessons, where they replace the boring educational schoolbooks with comics which many in Russia don’t take seriously. Nonetheless, in the adolescent communities, it is precisely comics which are able to solve issues beyond the scope of text books, lessons and didactic talks. «The focus of our project is to develop critical thought in relation to different identities and create a space for dialogue, a space for inclusive communication between different identities. We attempt to escape certain ghettoes- whether they are solely the space of contemporary art, or only those of activist art, or that of schools— Romanov explains — We do our activities in different venues: in teenage and youth clubs, libraries, schools, art galleries. We try to unite these different groups to solve common tasks, we prepare interactive spaces where different identities can co-exist peacefully and can resolve their issues and conflicts with the aid of active study methods ». Now there are 38 drawn comics by professional authors from Russia and other European countries on the «RESPECT» website, some of which were subsequently animated and equipped with interactive elements, resulting in effective cartoons which entertained children and adolescents just as much as the graphic stories. «I am Chechen», «Shuttle Bus», «How I became coloured», «What is patriotism?», «Stop, thief!» - their titles often speak for themselves. «Rocks», a comic about the homeless, «Coats» is about migrants, «What tomorrow will bring» is about those who leave children’s homes.
«RESPECT» and the schools discover each other in different ways: sometimes the teachers themselves approach the project with an invitation to come to a history class, or a social studies class or even during form time. Sometimes the approach is made on the other side with the trainers of civil education taking the initiative. «The subjects discussed emerge from the groups of the group in question. What exercises teenagers at the present time, what their personal experience is in communicating with people of different identities who live in society, how they react to them, who and what they represent for them, how they relate to these groups and how they communicate?” says Romanov.
“In our schools there doesn’t exist homogeneous communities where all have the same experiences. Everyone has a different background, in the classes there are many people with a story of migration in their family. Now there are discussions about inclusivity in schools- there is a move towards disbanding special schools for people with disabilities including these students in normal schools, but the ordinary modern school is still not yet ready for this».
«The class sees the exclusion of another person as normal behaviour»
To the search item «classmates hounded pupil» internet search engines gives countless items of news: Transcarpathia, Birmingham, the suburbs outside of Moscow, Bashkiria, 2011, 2013, 2015. It’s clear that the issue of discrimination or bullying in schools is an acute one throughout the world and this is true of Russia no less than elsewhere. This is aggravated by social networks which make the bullying unceasing: threats, ridicule and abuse pursue those fallen under the teenage mill-whether they are too fat or too skinny, or ‘not Russian’ or a ‘freak’, or have some special health problems – not just at school but also at home behind the computer. «The problems linked with the question of identity may be very different. For example, something which has become very relevant in recent times is, of course, appearance. Indeed for teenagers it is very important to try out various identities. The same is true of the theme of subcultures and the stereotypes that are applied to them- not only teachers have them but even schoolgoers themselves do and they often start to snub people who appear „not quite right“, —as Romanov describes the situation. — From here we look out onto the problem of group bullying — this is very important for us. There are many cases of such hounding and pedagogues practically never work on the question of bullying. Very often these are tied to bureaucratic regulations and they don’t pay any attention to hounding – they simply have no time to attend to the resolution of social conflicts in class».
As an example of his work with schoolgoers Romanov cites the comic «Just like everyone else». Its hero is a green haired freak called Igor who believes himself to be an outcast. «Everyone judges me by the way I look», — he laments. Grannies by the entrance to the block of flats call him a drug addict, passers-by «a painted parrot», his teachers believe that «he’ll turn out no good». He in turn pigeonholes migrants, blondes, hipsters- everyone around him who he considers worse than himself. But when a small boy in the street, astonished by his appearance, says that Igor is probably stupid since he dyes his hair like that, his mother asks her boy not to judge people by their appearance just as one doesn’t judge a book by its cover. And suddenly for Igor it strikes home: «And to think of it I’m like everyone else! I also judge others by the way they look!» «We read that comic and then start up a discussion about it: have they ever been judged for the way they look? Of course they say that they have been judged because of their appearance. „And do you dislike somebody for their appearance?“ — „Yes, I dislike that one over there“. And it turns out that the issue set forth in the comic is about them. An awareness arises on a completely different level, that which in pedagogics is called the actualisation of knowledge, when someone understands that this fact is about him », Romanov affirms.
Furthermore bullying as a phenomenon, which can have very grave consequences, including suicide, according to Romanov, is not the object of public discussion in our schools. The aggressor might be called to the headmaster and given a reprimand, but the problem doesn’t reside in the actual bully. The issue is that the class accepts this as normal behaviour, one which marginalises the other only because of their external appearance, and starts to morally and physically harass him.
«RESPECT» classes are one of the first steps of conscious-raising work on discrimination in schools, even if in the framework of informal education when schoolgoers with the support of adults share their own feelings and experience with the whole class. This provokes the group into a kind of sincerity. «So we read, for example, „The boy from Sweden“ about a fish-boy, who is picked on by his classmates, and one girl who was a little overweight told us that in the school where she no longer studies at she was snubbed for her appearance. Even her best friend sided with those who snubbed her and so she had to move to another school, — Romanov recalls. — Well the kids started to think up their own ways to resolve these issues, and the girl answered them saying what helped her in such a situation and what didn’t”.
«RESPECT» — is not only about classes at school. So we have presented various aspects of our two year work on the project in the framework of «Tolerance Week» in Moscow. From 15th through to 20th November in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre and through 16th to 30th November in the «Zodchie» Cultural Centre there took place a free mini-exhibition of graphic and animated comics produced by «RESPECT», as well as classes, master classes of comics’ artists and a public discussion on the theme of the ‘others’ in contemporary society and youth personal development strategies for respecting representatives of different cultures and sub-cultures. And from December 3rd all comics of the Respect 2.0 project will be presented in the Goethe Institute building in Moscow on 95a Leninsky Prospekt. On 18th November at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre the moderator of the discussion will be the regional coordinator of the project for the Central Federal District Maria Savina.
She spoke to the Journal Mel explaining how teenagers appreciate lessons with comics. «Schoolgoers at classes behave very adult-like. At first a defence mechanism sets in. Remember what you were like at 13: it’s very important what your peers say and at first they are uncomfortable and uneasy, — Savina says. — But then someone takes upon themselves a leadership role when they understand that there is an adult who guarantees them a safe space and they begin to tell their own point of view. In general, they have very mature thoughts, sometimes they have astonishingly original things to say. My colleagues from the Youth Human Rights Movement once lead a class in which one of the kids said that „Equality is the dream of the world“. That thought simply filled me with amazement». In practice for Savina and Romanov there haven’t been any cases when it hasn’t been possible to overcome group resistance to their new methods and subject matters which some comic or another raise. «If the group is disturbed by some subject matter or doesn’t wish to discuss it, is in denial about it, then this is a sign for the teacher. Maybe it is the classes defence mechanism, or the leader wants to use these methods to struggle for power in the group. Or this may be linked to some traumatic event for the group: probably there is someone who is excluded in the group and so work on this issue should be the next step— Romanov remarks. — Such a situation usually develops in a school where an authoritarian management method is in place and on the level of groups in such a school there is no understanding of the others’ personal space, or of the rules of coexistence. In this case there is a need to conduct serious and protracted work with psychologists, but our resources are limited, we can not solve all problems of a school but we can show them to people and offer ways of resolving them».
«RESPECT» is also of interest, Savina believes, because it does not explain to the kids how they should behave correctly. The whole meaning of the class consists in the fact that some of them «will start to have doubts and start thinking about something»: «If in a class of 20 just one or two people start to think about these issues then that means we already have made a change», she says.
«When a child can’t string two sentences together, a teacher always blames comics»
Visualisation is not a new educational method for Russian schools, indeed, it is now fashionable, Boris Romanov states. But many teachers formed in Soviet times still do not rush to equip themselves with comics.
„RESPECT“ is not only about its technique but also about values in education about which teachers don’t often reflect on, —Boris adds. — What values do we pronounce nowadays? Because of this the educational process is ineffective, it turns into a simple routine and doesn’t get through to its participants, people simply sit things out and continue in this vein». If, on the whole, schoolgoers embrace working with comics then sometimes pedagogues criticise this, for them, new method. «They see the problem of reading, of functional illiteracy, when a person can’t string together two sentences and look for the cause of the problem precisely in comics: as though people, concentrating on visual information don’t wish to read books and text books, don’t engage with complex texts and theories, — Romanov gives some examples of the criticism by teachers. — Generally speaking people have a zone of proximal development and a person will not immediately read and understand Pushkin if Pushkin hasn’t been made relevant to him». Not all teachers are ready to change, they have become affected by a kinf of tunnel vision, it’s difficult for them to accept comics not just as a methodology but also as a type of contemporary art. In fact, training to work with «RESPECT» comics is arranged for teachers, social workers, the pedagogues of teenage clubs, librarians- everyone who wishes to learn something new.
«Those who go through our training, become more or less ‘in the know’ and start to use comics independently as tools of enlightenment in their work, — the trainer notes. — An interesting project arose in Petersburg calling itself the „Tolerance Academy“, it is organised by a library in the ‘Moscow district’ of the city using our comics. And this was one of our goals, so that people after having undergone training would become active and so that the knowledge wouldn’t just be a tick on their CV but would be used in a practical way».
Author: Margarita Loginova
Translation: Giuliano Vivaldi
The article was first published on mel.fm
The article has been prepared for the online journal «Germany and Russia»