November 17th International Students’ Day, learning through a revolution, classrooms in a strike

international students day

Today is November 17th and a day which never passes without me being reminded of its significance in Central European history both during the second world war and more recently 21 years ago  in Czechoslovakia.

Jan Opletal
Jan Opletal

In one of the protests against the Nazi occupation in Prague on 28th October 1939, the anniversary of Czechoslovak  independence from Austria-Hungary after World War 1,  a medical student, Jan Opletal, was shot by police near the National Museum.

He was taken to hospital but died on November 11th.  His funeral, four days

Jan Opletal's funeral
Jan Opletal’s funeral

later, was attended by thousands of his fellow students and  became another huge protest against the Nazi regime.

As a result on November 17th 1939  the Hlevka student dormitory, where Opletal had lived, was raided. Some 1200 students were detained during the operation and sent to concentration camps and 9 more were executed. One of the professors who helped with Opletal’s funeral, Josef Matousek, was arrested by the Gestapo on November 17th and executed without trial and on that same day the universities in Bohemia and Moravia were closed down.

The international Union of Students

In 1941, November 17th was declared as International Students Day by the International Students Council in London and this grew into the founding of the International Union of Students which was founded in Prague on August 27th 1946.

The ilogo of the International Union of StudentsThe logo and flag of the IUS is a burning torch and an open book set against the red and blue outline of a stylized globe,symbolizing young people’s striving to understand the world
November 17th Prague Narodni Trida
Národní Třída Prague November 17th

50 years later, on November 17th 1989, Jan Opletal’s death was commemorated in Prague at a cemetery and the violence that developed on that evening in the city centre became the focus and the trigger for what became known as “The Velvet Revolution”.  It was also the first year that I became aware of the fact that November 17th was International Students’ Day.

My own experience

That night I was at a student language camp in Cikháj near Žďáru nad Sázavou in Moravia with students from Brno university,  but on returning to Olomouc immediately got involved with events. On the Sunday evening actors refused to play at the theatre and on the Monday the students occupied the Philosophical Faculty and held a huge meeting in the sports hall. I wore the Czechoslovak tricoleur,  handed over my office to the students, was accused of being an agent of Western Imperialism by the Dean of the Faculty and experienced a very tense three days when nobody quite knew how the authorities would respond. The time I felt most tense was during a candlelit march through the town on the Tuesday night.  It wasn’t until I travelled to Prague on the Thursday that I felt more confident that the police, the Czechoslovak army or the Soviet army would not intervene.

Student qualities

students painting posters to communicate with the wider public in one of the classrooms I taught in at Palacky University Olomouc
students painting posters to communicate with the wider public in one of the classrooms I taught in at Palacky University Olomouc

The students showed great courage in that period and over the next six weeks took part in a strike which brought out great qualities of co-operation, teamwork and creativity all of which led to the overthrowing of the government and, in my professional life as a teacher trainer, it also led to all of the ELT projects in Central and Eastern Europe which were launched in 1991 in Brno and managed by the British Council. For a decade thousands of teachers benefited from these projects in what must have been one of the most intensive periods of professional development in the history of English languge teaching, both inservice and preservice.

Motivated students and classrooms transformed into revolutionary space

In the picture above you can see one of the classrooms I used to teach in at the university in Olomouc. During the revolution, although the students were on strike, the classrooms came alive.  They were used to draw and paint posters,to produce a student newspaper and to hold meetings about the strike. In fact, the students were actually more active and involved when they were on strike than they had been before! I found myself thinking that the task of teachers after the revolution is to try to harness the same kind of energy that was there in the making of the revolution for the purposes of  English language learning and English studies in general.  In those six weeks I learned a lot about what my role should be as a teacher afterwards and I believe that it has informed my teaching methodologies ever since.

I felt that I had gained an enormous amount from the revolution and afterwards asked a group of students what they themselves had gained from the whole experience of  taking part in the strike and this was one of the replies I got:

Classroom used for strike committee meetings (photo by Petr Zatloukal)
Classroom used for strike committee meetings (photo by Petr Zatloukal)

“It was all very dramatic for us: the work at school, typing, painting, drawing posters, going to villages and towns in the whole of Moravia and talking to people, taking part in demonstrations and meetings at the theatre, in the hostel and in the sports hall. Every day nearly the same.  But during the month I learned and got to understand a lot of things.

Students typing out their demands on typewriters brought it by supporters of the strike
Classroom used by students as a typing pool using typewriters brought in by supporters of the strike (photo by Petr Zatloukal)

I understood the meaning of some phrases and words which had been empty for me until then. I think I have learned (a bit at least) to listen to people, to consider their opinions and mainly to tolerate other opinions. And generally we have learned how to discuss, thinking while speaking and hearing, not to be scared of voicing our own opinions. I am proud of being a student now.”

I  know that those were very special conditions back in 1989 but the skills which were developed during that strike amongst students are the same kinds of skills and values that I think are central to teaching and teacher development today.

Nathalie Merchant, Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg in Olomouc
Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg in Olomouc

Concerts to celebrate the first free elections in post revolutionary Czechoslovakia

During the strike I phoned up Billy Bragg, who I had interpreted for before in the German Democratic Republic in Leipzig in 1986, and asked him if he would like to come and do concerts in Czechoslovakia. We ended up organising  3 concerts in Prague, Olomouc and Bratislava (Bratislava was rained off and we ended up in a wine bar for the whole night)  to coincide with the first free elections in Czechoslovakia on June 8th 1990.  We met Billy’s manager in the February, Peter Jenner, in Prague to talk it all through and then in June Billy brought along his friends Michael Stipe from REM, Natalie Merchant of the 10,000 Maniacs and the Coal Porters.  I met them  on the GDR border in Bad Schandau with a bus which we got free from the university and accompanied them for the next four days.

Me introducing Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe to Czechoslovakia
Me introducing Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe to Czechoslovakia as they crossed the border from the GDR

billy bragg and michael stipe on the square in Olomouc chatting to the locals
Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe on the square in Olomouc chatting to the locals

The whole event was organised in a generous and celebratory way, and the revolution was still very much in the air at that time.  It remains one of my lasting experiences in Central and Eastern Europe over the last 30 years.  Students today are still capable of having a big influence on what happens in society, as we saw in London last week, (for Billy Bragg’s take on that demonstration take a look here )and I am always encouraged when people choose to reflect on the world, engage in the events of the day and participate in shaping the future. As a teacher here in Budapest I try to get my students to think about these things too as I did today on the anniversary of their day.

on the night of November 24th 1989, a photo I took in Prague in Wenceslas Square
On the night of November 24th 1989, a photo I took in Prague in Wenceslas Square

Students of the world unite, you have nothing to shed but the fees that you’re increasingly asked to pay.

The Student Anthem

This has become known as “the student anthem” which I first heard in Olomouc in 1989 and which I’ve heard since in Hungary. It is often played at student graduation ceremonies in Central Europe.  Long live the universities, long live the teachers and long live the students!

Gaudeamus igitur
Juvenes dum sumus.
Post jucundam juventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.
Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troubling old age
The soil will have us.
Vivat academia!
Vivant professores!
Vivat membrum quodlibet;
Vivant membra quaelibet;
Semper sint in flore

Long live the university,
Long live the teachers,
Long live each male student,
Long live each female student;
May they always flourish!

15 thoughts on “November 17th International Students’ Day, learning through a revolution, classrooms in a strike

    • my favourite too Misa, we must organise an event in Olomouc some time when we show the video and talk about it, I miss those evenings in the divadlo hudby.

      The concert was a real celebration of all the positive things which were going on at that time. It was wonderful to have a part in organising it all….

  1. For many years I worked at the University of Prešov in Slovakia. It’s address is Ul. 17. novembra č. 1 ! This is of course No. 1, 17th of November Street. I remember discussing this with students on the British Studies courses I taught and nobody was aware of the origins of the name of the street. Before 1990 the street had been called Gottwaldova ulica, a name clearly at odds with the new Czechoslovakia. Most assumed it was rechristened Ul. 17. novembra because of the events in Czechoslovakia dubbed the ‘Velvet Revolution’. Interestingly, although this has long been the term used internationally for the overthrow of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, ‘Velvet Revolution’ is a term that exists only in Czech as ‘sametová revoluce’, and not in Slovak. In Slovak the phrase has always been ‘nežná revolúcia’, meaning the ‘gentle revolution’, a term entirely in keeping with the Guardian headline of 29th November, 1989: The Gentle Revolution.

    Anyway, Mark, thanks for the stories about 1989. I was living in Hungary then and experienced the very odd shrug, groan and sigh of the end of Communism. I took part in the first free March 15th Demonstration through Miskolc in 1989 and there’s a photo to prove it!


    • thanks for that John, important to draw students’ attention to the orgins of things which relate to them. You are I both share spending time on looking at where things come from to understand where we are now and to help inform decisions about the future. A comparative look at history was such a big part of all those British Studies projects we were involved in in the nineties and if we can find ways of incorporating those ideas into the way that young people are educated today then I think we are on the right track.

      Thanks too for putting out the differences in usage between “sametová”and “‘nežná”. We can debate these things more often if and when you come back here over Plzeňský Prazdroj, Zlatý Bažant, arany fácán or whatever!

      Poslední zvonění

      Baratod Marek

    • glad you enjoyed it Simon. I got my first job with the British Council in September 1989 in Olomouc Moravia and after doing my first degree in Eastern European Studies at Bradford and postponing my MA in Lancaster for 2 years I was very fortunate to be able to experience the unfolding events first-hand.

      It was a very exciting period and since then I’ve been able to combine my interest in this part of the world with ELT by staying here and living here.

      The British Council projects in Central and Eastern Europe were launched in May in Brno. Charles and Diana were there, weren’t you there too? There were several ELT coursebook writers there.

  2. Thank you Mark! thank you for sharing this, for drawing the class in this commemoration and for inviting us to you memories! i felt honoured sitting in the class and getting a glimpse of a past time event that shaped many people’s lives or at least attitudes. it influenced mine too. simply, the belief that there is still responsibility and opportunity of being a university student today as well as it was in the past.
    keep up your commitment to teaching!


  3. markandrews write;
    “Jan Opletal, was shot by police near the National Museum. He was taken to hospital but died on November 11th.”

    It just goes to show that one person can make great changes in their even short life time.

  4. What an interesting article into the history of the Independants Students’ Day. I was not aware of its origins until this blog. It is amazing how one event “the death of Jan Opletal” can mobilize so many people into action and something good can come out of any tragedy. This also proves that there is more good in the world than there is bad. We only hear of the tragedies, but rarely hear about the good things that come about after people take action.

    Thank you for making this information known.

    Trylle Charlie

  5. It’s really important to keep awareness going. It’s hard to image such evil things happening on our doorstep just 70 years in Europe. There’s still struggles going on all over the world, many people in other parts of the world get no education and in lots of places in the Middle East, girls aren’t even allowed to study – this shouldn’t be happening in the 21st Century.

  6. Great article..and really cool to see Stipe, Merchant and Bragg all on one stage…I saw Billy Bragg a few times in the UK…very cool guy but even cooler songs

    My God, now that Havel has just died, all this is becoming more important again in my head and heart…

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  8. Hi, can I ask you? I’m a redactor of the school magazine in Czech republic and I’m writing an article about 17th November 1989. I need some photos too – can I use one of yours from Národní Třída?
    Thanks for reply 🙂

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