From Black Lives Matter in the United States to the tallest mountain in Germany and back to Baku in one afternoon
The last thing you would expect to see on a typical weekday November afternoon in Baku is an impassioned tribute to the United States’s “Black Lives Matter” movement by a group of fresh-faced high school students living over 9,000 kilometers away. The play was written and performed by 11th grade high school students at the British School in Baku as part of a unit critically examining the concept of “Independence”.
Re-envisioned vignettes of iconic moments from the early civil rights movement in the 1950s-60s in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus, and the eventual assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all lead to a dramatically tense moment where one of the students appeared to be overcome with frustration and broke the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience about the pointlessness of this historical play when there are real unresolved issues out there in the world. The moment was awkward and uncomfortable, as it was not immediately clear to the audience, mostly other students, whether this interruption was planned. But soon the other students on stage joined in, echoing her sentiments. The play ended with each student picking up a placard from the stage and boldly flashing white letters on a black background that spelled out “B-L-A-C-K-L-I-V-E-S-M-A-T-T-E-R” to the enthusiastic applause of other students in the audience.
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2012 to address and confront persistent racism against black Americans, especially in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems of the United States. It is a movement that is widely covered in the United States, and both widely applauded and criticized. Seeing it referenced in a Baku high school was both completely unexpected and quite moving. It was also an excellent illustration of the “world vision” British School in Baku Primary School Principal David Dudgeon had cited as one of the main reasons he himself had decided to enter the international school circuit. It was definitely not a typical Baku experience, but then again, British School in Baku is not your typical school.
Although set several meters back from the road on Koroglu Ragimov Street, the large bold typeface of the British School in Baku’s banner proudly hung across the entrance to campus makes it hard to miss. It is located directly next to Odlar Yurdu University, an excellent daily reminder for its young students and their parents that education does not end at secondary school. The school was founded in 2007 and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this academic year. Its primary and secondary school programs have grown significantly during that time, but the mission remains the same – to provide a quality education, based on the English National Curriculum and leading to UK public examinations and entry to some of the best universities in the world.
It is hard to know what to expect behind the tall orange-hued walls that are visible from the street, but where the outside walls may seem a bit imposing, the campus of the British School in Baku is anything but. The front courtyard leads to a visitor’s center with tall glass windows where guests are greeted with a friendly face and a smile, and registered for a school visitor’s pass. The visitor center opens into a long outdoor courtyard enclosed by cream colored walls that are decorated with the portraits of superheroes. The Hulk, The Green Lantern, Wolverine, and Captain America all peer out proudly between tree trunks, bravely flaunting their capes and muscles. It is easy to imagine the many messages these images convey to students as they walk to their classrooms every morning. Superstars and comic book heroes are cheering you on as you prepare to face your challenging new school day. Older students may also be reminded that learning is not just about books and tests, but it is also about creativity, imagination and courage. As a visit to the school reveals, you can find a lot of all of those attributes in the students of the British School in Baku.
Azeri Observer was invited to visit during the British School in Baku’s annual “International Week”. Our first stop was to the warm, vibrant Primary School where students filed respectfully, but cheerfully, past classroom doors colorfully decorated with representations of different world countries as they came back from their lunchtime break. Several students smiled and said hello as they passed, and then went back to quietly talking to each other in English. Mr. David Dudgeon, Head of the Primary School, was very proud to hear this. “All our students make a pledge to use only English with each other and with their teachers during the school day. And they all take this very seriously, no matter what level they are.” Of course, this rule does not apply during Azeri language lessons or other foreign language lessons. The school hosts students from families of more than 35 different nationalities, but many of its students are from Azerbaijan. From the conversations I overheard in the hallway, however, it was clear that even local students communicated with their friends in English, which is a sure sign of language confidence and fluency.
Each classroom had been transformed by its students and teachers into a different country of the world. We walked past “Mexico” with its friendly field of smiling cactuses and “Spain” with a vibrant flamenco dancer, into “Germany” where about 12 students in different versions of traditional German costume were sitting around a table working on their lessons. When we entered, they cheerfully said “Guten Tag! Welcome to Germany!” On their teacher’s queue, one by one, each student stood up and enthusiastically presented facts about the country their class had chosen to represent. “Here in Germany, you can see beautiful, tall mountains. The tallest mountain in Germany is 2,962 meters!” The poise and confidence with which the students delivered their “tour of Germany” was very impressive. It takes a lot of courage to give a speech in front of a room full of your peers, and even more courage to do it in front of your principal and an adult you have never met before.
This is another thing that Primary School Principal David Dungeon is passionate about. When asked what the most important thing he hopes his students will learn at the British School in Baku, he said he that he hopes they learn to be confident, “We expect that these are the guys that will be our world leaders one day. We want to make them confident that when they talk, they are being listened to as young important people.” He believes in his teachers and his students and thinks that they have a very unique supportive relationship. He wants parents to walk into the school and feel in their hearts that this is the place for their children.
Outside Secondary School Principal Ms. Maxene Whittingham’s office two girls were waiting for their friend. When the door opened, Ms. Whittingham was escorting a girl with tears in her eyes out into the hallway. Just before they crossed the threshold of the doorway, the girl turned around and gave Principal Whittingham a big hug. This trust and warmth between students, teachers and administrators in British School in Baku is very evident in moments like these. Principal Maxene Whittingham says that in addition to its “smashing kids and a brilliant team”, there are a few things that really make British School in Baku stand out against the other English-language schools in Baku. She explained that it is the only Council of British International Schools (COBIS) accredited school in Baku which gives it unique access to educational resources from the United Kingdom. “One thing that we are really proud of is that we´ve been able to form links with Abbey College, and we’ve formed an official partnership agreement allow our students to spend an academic year oversees with them.” This new program gives British School Baku secondary students the unique opportunity to apply to study their second year of A-level preparation in the United Kingdom.
Principal Whittingham has very high expectations for her students and for good reason. As one could see in the 11th grade plays about Independence, British School in Baku is clearly preparing its students to be citizens of the world. In fact, about 80 to 90 percent of secondary school graduates continue their education abroad, the majority in the United Kingdom. School administrators support students in finding the right path of higher education, hosting regular presentations from different international colleges, an international college fair attended by 15 different universities, and sponsoring international student trips “to educate students in a different way, not just from a textbook, but from real life experiences”, as Ms. Whittingham explains.
It is clear from spending just one afternoon at the British School in Baku that they are educating students in a different way, in a way that teaches students they have a voice, they are valued, they are leaders, and that they are citizens of the world.