Teaching Culture, History, Diversity And Population

Dec 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

I was a teacher for a decade, and for half of that I taught in adult male prisons. It was fascinating, challenging and educational. I do hope that I never need to use some of the things I learned!

I would occasionally find myself with a class of men who held particularly entrenched views about race, and had a negative impression of diversity. Largely these views have been encouraged and reinforced by the media, by local communities, by mis-reporting, and by cultural expectations of what a hard young white man on a working class estate should be.

In such circumstances, what do you do? I usually stepped up to the challenge, threw out the lesson plan, and delivered my “potted history of Britain a.k.a. why you are not who you think you are” lesson.

It’s mostly a literacy lesson but ticks all the boxes for group work, checking prior learning, using ICT and a bit of numeracy too if you’ve got the resources. You can do it with prepared printouts – a map of Europe is very useful – but if you’re doing it off-the-cuff, then just get handy with a whiteboard pen. Here we go.

There are two parts to the lesson. One is an exploration of population statistics, and one is looking at the waves of invaders to the British Isles and what they brought. If that sounds like a lot to fit in, our lessons in prison were 3 hours long. And there’s no internet access.

The Invaders:

You need to draw out a big map of Europe. Now brainstorm as a group all the peoples who invaded Britain. Draw out an idea of who was here first. (The Celts, apparently, came here from the Mediterranean. What about before them?) Try and get some rough dates down, too. You’ll be mentioning Romans, Saxons, Angles, Vikings, Jutes, Danes, Huguenots, Normans and all sorts. Get yourself a good timeline up on the board and loads of multi-coloured arrows showing these groups.

Now talk about the Romans. Ask the group when the first Black people came to the UK. You’ll get a variety of daft answers. Some bright spark will think “why is she asking me this when we’re talking about Romans… oh, wait…” and then you can talk about the extent of the Roman Empire at its fullest. Mention the way the Army would take local men and give them a good career at the other end of the Empire. Suggest that a bunch of soldiers from Tunisia stationed in Essex or wherever were unlikely to stay away from the local women. Also suggest that some soldiers stayed where they were when they retired. If you can, look at your local history and find out which Roman regiments were garrisoned in your area. Round here, we had Scythian archers. (Iranians who migrated to Southern Russia.)

Mix in the literacy aspect by showing which words came from where. You might look at placenames – in Eastern England you can identify the Danish villages from the Saxon ones. Self-segregation didn’t last for ever. Do we still identify along those lines? No. Discuss why.

The guys in prison are usually interested to see the origin of all the words to do with justice coming from French and Latin. Stuff like sky, skull and skeleton are Norse. You can build patterns.

At this point I tend to find that the fellas are quite keen on having some Viking blood in them, but there are sometimes rather tiresome remarks as to “there’s no French in me” and so on. This is where the population statistics part of the lesson kicks in.

The Population:

If they’re familiar with Excel Spreadsheets the easiest way to do this is get everyone on a PC, or in pairs, and ask them to work out how many ancestors they have at each generation back. You may need to simplify. I work on the basis that each 100 years, you have 4 generations. So in 1900 I had 16 ancestors. Double that 4 times to take you to 1800 with 256 ancestors (you can see the advantage of Excel! If you have no PCs, then assign a calculator to someone and do this as a group.) In 1700 you had 4096 ancestors. By the time you get to the eleventh century you have more ancestors than there were people alive in the whole British Isles.

This is a blunt instrument and doesn’t take into account the fact that there would be intermarriage. However it becomes pretty clear that there is no way that any person sitting in the class can possibly be “pure ethnically English” and that the term itself is an absolute pile of vomit.

Now, it takes more than one excitable teacher to change the entrenched views of a whole generation. And you cannot take away someone’s pattern of thinking without replacing it with something better. There are usually some frowns on the faces of some students at this point, because it is not comfortable to be challenged like this. You have to work with it.

The Sun Never Sets…

This is how I try to turn things into a positive: I bring up the subject of the British Empire. I stray into jingoistic rhetoric as I ramble on about the strength and might of our tiny nation. And I wax lyrical about how we became so great because of our diversity throughout history as no other nation in the world, at that time, was as powerful a melting point as we had been. We’ve got the fire of the Vikings and the skills of the Romans and … and so on.

Someone will point out we’ve shrunk. I ask who the new super power is. America. America… a nation of diversity and cultures. (If a bright spark mentions China you’ll just have to steer it away. Or meet it head on if you have time to discuss the pros and cons of such a monocultural way of life.)

But you get the message. To be British is to be a mongrel, and mongrels are the ones who survive. Yes, we’ve got a horrible history too, and that can wait for another 3-hour lesson. The whole aim of this session is to demonstrate that we are all a mix of everything – from North African soldier to Celtic farmer to Norman aristocracy. And that that’s a good thing.

There you go. If you’re a teacher, write it up, stick it in a file, and pull it out when Ofsted turn up.


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