How to tell your kids: Teaching the Velvet Revolution in schools

  • How should you teach children about the tumultuous events of 1989 in a way that conveys the enormous gravity of what happened without being too heavy-handed? And how much do kids nowadays actually know about it? Is it even still relevant? To find out, I spoke to some Czech teenagers and teachers about their thoughts, knowledge and experiences surrounding November 17.

“We do a lot of talking and the teachers really care about what we think, what interests us and what we want to know about the topic. A lot of the time we have articles that we talk about and analyse. It’s not really about memorising, it’s more about talking. I really like it that way, because I think history is not about memorising dates, but really having all the connections between things.”

18-year-old Emma talking about her experience of learning about the events surrounding November 17, 1989, forever imprinted into Czech history as the date that the Velvet Revolution began, eventually bringing down the totalitarian regime that had held onto power for over 40 years. At her prestigious grammar school, Gymnazium Jana Nerudy in Prague’s affluent Mala Straná district, the students engage with, discuss and debate the topic, even bringing in their own particular interests, as confirmed by her classmate, Tobiáš.

“I think even though we are young and we weren’t alive back then, it’s not just a date – it’s a symbol of democracy and our bright future. There is hope in this event which strikes with power.”
Tobiáš, 17

“In our history class we can discuss and interact with the teacher and also show our interest in different topics, so I would say this is very nice in our school. But I don’t know about other schools in the Czech Republic – if it’s the whole system or just our school.”

Marek, 19, who attends a different school, says that his experience is pretty similar.

Photo: Festival svobody/Gymnázium Jana Nerudy

“We learnt about it quite a lot and I’m happy about that, because it’s pretty recent. It’s really important for people to know about recent history – it’s nice for people to know about Ancient Rome, but it’s better to know about what happened 30 or 40 years ago.”

“It’s Students’ Day, so it shows how students, young people and the youth can be important in making history. It’s not only the big leaders who can have an impact.”

Marek, 19

But as Tobiáš hinted at before, the experience of these students may not be the whole picture. Johana, who is 19 and in her last year of school at a different Prague gymnasium, says she knows from friends who attend less privileged schools in different parts of the Czech Republic that not everyone gets this kind of education about the recent history of November 17.

“There are a lot of differences between regional schools and schools in Prague. The issue of not learning modern history is especially a problem in schools that aren’t the very privileged Prague schools. The traditional approach which I feel is often taken is that the teacher stands in front of the class and says November 17 was this and this and this, and now let’s go and learn about medieval kings – in the better case. And in the worst case, which is in a lot of schools in the Czech Republic, the teacher doesn’t say anything about it at all.”

She says that many schools, if they don’t ignore the topic altogether, present too much of a one-dimensional picture of the events.

“It’s kind of always the case that young people at universities and high schools initiate this stuff. Now it’s a lot about climate change, a lot of students are fighting for that. It’s something that students do, for some reason – I don’t know why it’s students, I guess older people don’t really care. But I think every student goes through this phase of wanting to do something big and change the world.”
Matěj, 16

“I think a lot of schools don’t talk about it in very much depth and it’s more a historic fact that yes, this happened and then it’s not really talked about very much more. Or it’s, ‘yes, this happened and we are so so grateful for it and it was amazing’, but then you don’t really talk about what it led to and the problems that are in our society today that maybe we should address. You just say that with 17 November everything suddenly got sunny and amazing and we have no problems.”

And even at her own school, which is a gymnasium, she says it wasn’t always the case that a lot of attention was given to commemorating the event.

“Some years the teachers brought a candle to the classroom and they lit a candle, which was nice. It really depends whether you have a history class on that day, if you do, then often you talk about it, but if you don’t have a history class then it’s often overlooked. Possibly the director says something over the intercom, but I think that only happened once. And I know that I’ve had weeks around the 17th when it wasn’t even really registered at the school.”

This disparity in the way November 17 is taught between different types of schools and different regions of Czechia is possible because, as this teacher at Gymnazium Jana Nerudy says, educators have quite a lot of freedom to teach how they want and are not too bound by the curriculum:

“I’d say that we are quite free in the Czech Republic – generally we can teach more or less in the way we think is the best for our students, while staying neutral politically of course – that’s I think a given. We shouldn’t be promoting any political opinions, unless we’re promoting democratic values – that we can do, and that’s what we definitely want to do at school.”

Photo: Festival svobody/Gymnázium Jana Nerudy

With this freedom, teachers can choose to use all kinds of materials and resources at their disposal, including film, texts, and projects. Renata Rejmíšová is an English teacher at Gymnazium Jana Nerudy and she says although she teaches English rather than history, she always finds a way to include November 17 in her classes when the date is approaching.

“We always study a little bit of a text by Václav Havel and we watch a documentary which was made by an American director about 20 years ago called the Power of the Powerless, which was also the name of Václav Havel’s essay from the 1970s. We watch a few scenes that are related specifically to the role of young people and the importance that Václav Havel places on that in the interview which appears at the end of the documentary.”

Václav Havel,  1989 | Photo: Pavel Matějíček,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But Renata also makes sure her students are not just passively absorbing information – she usually gets them to take an active approach, interviewing people and presenting their findings.

“What we usually do is that the students are assigned projects – they are asked to interview parents or grandparents, for example, or people that remember the events and took an active part in them as students or young people. Because the whole Velvet Revolution was very much about young people, so we stress the importance of the youth. It’s usually very successful – when they present the interviews, they usually share some nice feelings about it, because sometimes it’s the first time they have talked about the events in detail.”

Her colleague at the school, Alexis Katakalidis, has taken it one step further in an effort to give the students a broader picture.

“I once set my students the homework of not just interviewing their parents but going in the street and asking random people. Some people remembered it fondly, some less, so they got this slightly wider view of how people viewed it. I think that anytime we set our students homework that is somehow connected to the real world, they enjoy it. And in this particular case, even kids who never do homework did this one.”

Albertov | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

And remembering November 17 doesn’t necessarily have to stop in history class. Many students participate in events outside of school, like 19-year-old Marek.

“I’m a member of the Boy Scouts organization and we are teaching the young boys about November 17. So we will be going to Národní Třída and showing them the places where it all happened.”

The students at Gymnazium Jana Nerudy are even putting on a special event called Velvet at GJN with discussions, interviews, exhibitions and music, which will take place at the school on 16 November. Emma is one of the student organisers.

“This event is kind of a tradition here at our school. This specific type of event is in its fourth year and I think we are so lucky to have the opportunity to organise it. It’s basically about hosting interesting people, preparing interviews with them, making fun activities for the students themselves. I think it’s a really nice way to implement all the history, which is a really important part of the present even now.”

“I think at our age we are still children, but we are adult enough to make decisions. So if we do something, or back then, if people our age did something, it was a message for all the parents that somebody hurt our children so we have to fight too.”
Klaudie, 17

Klaudie, another pupil at the school, is also helping to organise the event.

“We are trying to connect it with other topics, not only the Velvet Revolution but also propaganda in general, art in this era, and we have a theatre play put on by students – this year it will be The Memorandum by Václav Havel. Also we have a lecture about the meaning of music and dance.”

Photo: Festival svobody/Gymnázium Jana Nerudy

The event is a chance not only to think about the end of the communist era, but also to reflect on earlier chapters in its history. This year the focus of the event is the 1950s, so some students and teachers will be dressing up in 1950s-style clothing and there will even be a dramatised reading of Milada Horáková’s trial, the democratic politician who was executed by the communists in a show trial in the early 1950s. Renata Rejmíšová again.

“I have the honour of being asked to read her part in the trial. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to prevent myself from crying or my voice from trembling because even though I’m just reading it, you can feel the power of her spirit – just incredible.”

Renata herself was at university in 1989 and was active in the revolution, helping to win support for the movement outside of Prague. She reflects on the fact that it was all done at a time without mobile phones or the Internet, and yet it was so swift and so successful.

Miroslav Trejtnar,  his daughter Johana and Taťána Marková in RPI   (2014) | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

“I sometimes wonder how it was actually all possible to organize the demonstrations and the student strike. The regime had been here for 40 years and then suddenly without the Internet, without being able to communicate online, it collapsed within a few days. The communication was very different – we travelled to villages, to people at village gatherings where we tried to persuade them to trust the Civic Forum and join the whole movement or the general strike. The old photocopy machines were the most advanced technology that we had.”

Some of the students have family members who were also directly involved in November 17, some in quite a big way, some smaller. Matěj, 16, says his father was part of the student movement at the time and attended the demonstrations.

“My father took part in it because he was in DAMU (The Academy of Performing Arts In Prague) at that time. He actually made a movie about it later and presented it in a lot of schools. He was in the movement and he was actually there. He luckily got out before anything huge happened to him. But we talk about it a lot.”

The documentary that Matěj’s father, Miroslav Trejtnar made, Jak to říct dětem? (What to tell the kids?), captures footage of parents talking to their kids about their experiences during the Velvet Revolution, and is sometimes used as educational material in schools nowadays.

 Jak to říct dětem?  (What to tell the kids?) | Photo: Film & Sociologie

Many teenagers nowadays have parents who were of secondary school or university age in 1989, so even if they weren’t directly involved in the events, they still remember them.

“Our parents were the age we are now, so we kind of have it from their perspective and we still talk about it a lot at home, at least in my family it’s still an important topic to talk about. My parents were too young – they were about 15 years old and they didn’t live in Prague. But my mum told me this story that she had headphones on in her history class because she was listening to what was happening on the radio even though the teacher totally forbade it, so she was misbehaving a bit.”

“It signifies a lot – it’s a very important day to me from a personal perspective because my father was there and because it marks this huge turning point in modern history. What we have today wouldn’t be here without it. It’s very powerful – it shows that the people have a voice and that you can do something.”
Johana, 19

But as Johana, 19, points out, not everybody has parents who took part in the revolution – or even who actively supported it.

“I have a lot of friends who are from less privileged schools or from different towns or don’t have parents who took part in the revolution. Because back then there were people who supported it, but also people who didn’t support it, and not everyone has parents who were there with the keys on Wenceslas Square on that day.”

Photo: Festival svobody/Gymnázium Jana Nerudy

Sometimes even within single families there can be differences of opinion, as 17-year-old Klaudie, also a student at Gymnazium Jana Nerudy, illustrates with her own family.

“The whole communist era still kind of involves us because of our grandparents. For example, one of my grandfathers has a completely different opinion about what happened to my other grandfather. So if I want to discuss it with them, it’s always hard to talk about it. But it’s actually quite interesting how different the opinions are – we all see it differently.”

But one thing that all the teachers and young people I spoke to seem to agree on is the power of youth to change the world for the better – and November 17 is a powerful reminder of that.

Národní třída | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International