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Whose ‘thousand lives”? Creating a culturally responsive curriculum

Rachael Garvin, KS5 English Lead and SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow writes in her think piece about how Central Girls’ Foundation School is creating a culturally responsive curriculum. Rachel shares a series of “recovery lessons” which have provided students with the space to process the dramatic events of May 2020.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” (George Martin).

This is my favourite reading quote and this is not the first piece of writing which I have managed to slip this quote in. I usually use it to explain how wide reading enables empathy in readers and broadens their outlook on the possibilities of their futures. These are still positions that I advocate and I know that much of my own understanding of the world and the lives of others comes from the wonderful fiction books and poetry that I have read. ‘A character, a scene, an atmosphere, a single phrase may touch us with unexpected power such that we feel that we can deeply understand and empathize with what is happening and that, in turn, we have been helped, however slightly, to comprehend aspects of daily life more fully. In this way, stories provide the possibility of educating the feelings and can offer their readers potential growth points for the development of a more subtle awareness of human behaviour.’ (Benton & Fox,1985, p. 15)

Since I started teaching (in 2017) I have been pushing my department and my school for more diverse representation for BAME, LGBTQ, students, and teachers with disabilities. This has, sadly, come up against much resistance, from seemingly neutral excuses such as ‘it’s too much work for teachers so create new SOWs’; to more clearly white-centric excuses such as ‘it’s more important for our students (most of whom are Bangladeshi Muslims) to learn about these cannon texts so that they can compete equally within our society.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the eloquent, passionate protesting and campaigning that followed, I’ve found that people previously resistance to these changes are open to, (even asking for) ways in which to celebrate diversity. Worrying that this is just a bandwagon of people desperate to prove they are not racist and that this openness to change is going to be present for only a short time, I spoke at a NEU Anti-racist rally urging people to seize the day and make changes while those doors were open. I warned that they may shut soon. Wanting to also seize what I feared may only be a moment, I made a plea to change the diversity of the writers that we teach at my school.

I have two leadership roles at my school – KS5 lead for English and Leader of the Diversity Teaching and Learning community whose mandate this year is to:

  • Ensure equality work is included in school improvement plans.
  • Plan staff training in a culturally responsive pedagogy.
  • Commit to decolonising the curriculum.

I usually begin the Diversity TLC’s first session of the year with this:

This is a real conversation that I had with my sister. I show it to the staff members I am leading to show them how important their role is, how important our role as a TLC focusing on inclusion is and just how powerful an impact we can have on individual students’ lives. It’s also a bit funny so lets people know they don’t have to be serious and formal to be making an important difference. This idea that something is (perhaps Shakespeare, algebra or the causes of WW1) as important, formal, academic and to be desired is part of the colonization of our education system that I want to call out and deconstruct.

It was while I was showing this to the group that the George RR Martin quote popped back into my head but this time with a new question attached. Whose thousand lives are we exposing our students to? What are we telling them about their own lives if none of these thousand lives represent them? Why are we teaching them to be empathetic, understanding of others and not themselves? Why are we broadening their futures with outlooks which are dominated by people and cultures that do not look like them. What messages are we giving them about the value of their own lives?

In 1970 Rosenblatt wrote “Through books, the reader may explore his own nature, become aware of potentialities for thoughts and feelings within himself, acquire clearer perspective, develop aims and a sense of direction” (Rosenblatt, 1970, p. viii).  This is a wonderful sentiment echoed later with Jojen in A Dance with Dragons, but I wonder if you can explore your own nature through books if you cannot see yourself in books. What happens to your vision of yourself if your nature is always a bit-part in a story, the funny man who dies early, the drug-dealer, the one with the gruelling, hard, miserable life, or simply not there at all? Meek sheds some light on this:

“If we agree that literature offers and encourages a continuing scrutiny of ‘who we think we are’, we have to emphasise the part that children’s literature plays in the development of children’s understanding of both belonging (being one of us) and differentiation (being other). In the outside world, children adopt adult attitudes that their books either confirm or challenge.” (Meek, 2001, p. x).

It was with these thoughts in mind that I began to write a mini-series of ‘recovery lessons’ designed to both provide the students with a space to process the dramatic events of the last year (the exam results chaos, George Floyd’s death and the BLM protests, and Covid-19) and also to give them a chance to ‘rehabilitate’ into school and institutionalised life and learning after many months at home.

I wrote three lessons (see Appendix 1), one which involved giving students stars according to where they sat in the class, discussing the ethics of this and culminating in the students staging their own protest against the unfairness of this. One titled ‘Who deserves a statues’ which explored why we use statues, who gets to decide what statues we have and the role statues play in upholding certain values in society, whether these values should be dismantled or not. The last lesson was a Philosophy for Children lesson based on Covid-19 and the ethics of isolation and treatment policies.

I enjoyed teaching all three of these lessons and informal feedback (read chatting over lunch) suggests that the other English teachers also found them a useful way of introducing students back into school life.

Reduction in workload; chance to get students used to classroom behaviour and group learning without having to teach ‘high stakes’ exam texts and the chance to have fun were the main reasons given. I got feedback from students in two ways – I simply asked my class one day what they thought about those lessons and I also got them to write a paragraph on what they thought they should be taught at school and who should decide what they got taught. This was presented to them as a starter task for a persuasive writing lesson and no overt link was made to the initial lessons.

The results were really powerful. I’ve made a list below of the most striking comments:

  • I think that teachers should ask students what they want to study. They are older and read different books to us so they don’t really know what’s out there now.
  • I’d like to do more lessons on Black Lives Matter and more lessons on racism. We don’t ever talk about that at school.
  • There should be more lessons which are talking about things. I wanted to carry on all those discussions we had about statues but then we had to start writing so we stopped talking.
  • I think that we should be asked what we want to get taught. I’d like to learn about more books with teenagers in them.
  • All the writers we study are white and I think that’s bad because I’d like to study black books.
  • In my opinion we should do more lessons like the protest lesson because my sister was one of those who got her A-Level results and they were bad and then the protests changed them. I liked doing a lesson that was something I had seen in my actual life. It might also help us if we have to go through that – we know how to do a protest now.

Reading these comments made me realise just how powerful it had been for our black students to bring that very real racism from their ‘actual lives’ into the classroom. It made me sad that they didn’t have a notion that school was part of their ‘actual lives’ and I want to change that. The last comment offers hope that we have started to make that change – there is much more work to do but I am tentatively excited that this journey has begun.

RACE Charter Mark

Race and Conscious Equality (RACE) Charter Mark is for schools wishing to demonstrate their commitment to action and improvement in relation to race equality in all aspects of their work, as educators, employers, and community leaders.

The RACE Charter Mark is delivered by Fig Tree International and awarded by SSAT.

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