Back in the late 90’s, my undergrad classes in ‘Native Studies’ woke me up to the shallow, liberal, tokenistic reality of multiculturalism. See I grew up in the liberal dream of multiculturalism back when I was a kid in the Canadian prairies. I went to ‘Heritage Days’ in the park where we ate various forms of meat on sticks and watched people in colourful costumes perform traditional dances that we didn’t understand and didn’t really care to understand. Then we went back to our schools and neighbourhoods where racist slurs were tolerated and racial hierarchy went unchallenged: black kids and First Nations kids at the bottom; white kids from a Western European heritage at the top – whether you had money or not. If you were a poor white kid, you could still count on the racial hierarchy for relative self-esteem.
That’s why I’m choosing to decolonise not diversify – the latter excuses racism while the former aims to dismantle it.
Decolonising the curriculum can involve interrogating white-centric texts by questioning the assumptions of white moral authority. This can be achieved by contrasting texts such as George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Robert and the Dog”. In class I encourage students to reckon with their reactions: for whom or what are we made to sympathise – the animals or the people? Do some writers present the suffering of BAME people as an accepted norm? Do some writers position BAME people as less human than white people? How do they do this? Why? I regularly invite a critical perspective using texts that facilitate this approach – we English teachers love a difficult and important conversation.
But eventually all teachers have to contend with the limits of their own perspective. Even when I’m being critical, I cannot wholly step outside my own biases and areas of ignorance. There are simply things that I cannot know – embodied experiences I’ve never had. And this limits my readings of, and ability to teach any text, let alone a decolonised curriculum.
This is where I’ve found a BAME-led Professional Learning Network useful for strengthening my capacity.
The One Bristol Curriculum (OBC) is a city-wide project which aims to tackle the stark racial inequalities which were revealed in the 2017 Runnymede Report. Last July, Sibusiso Tshabalala invited teachers and BAME practitioners to the St Paul’s Youth Club to brainstorm lessons for the OBC, and share ideas about how we could incorporate these into the curriculum. The first thing that struck me was the experience and depth of expertise on offer, whether looking at history, dance, PSHE, or storytelling.
Being an English teacher, I made sure I got to //Kabbo first. //Kabbo Ferdinand is a Bristol-based South African activist, musician and storyteller who comes from the Griot tradition. He works on an ongoing poetry project and publication called Lyrically Justified to help people share their own unique and diverse stories via poetry. Together, we wanted to bring this ethos into the year 7 classroom – to help kids explore their heritage, and share this work in their own stories and poetry. But first, //Kabbo had to instill a sense of trust and empathy amongst new year 7 classes – not an easy task with 32 kids in a room.
Naomi Berry, the outstanding Head of Drama at my school, was so excited about //Kabbo’s objectives that she offered him the full half-term of Drama lessons for three year 7 groups. //Kabbo ran the sessions, and she translated these into Google slides and documents that teachers could use across the city. I did the same for some complementary English lessons, in which the explorations and oral work from Drama could find written expression.
Amongst //Kabbo’s approaches, two things stood out which positively challenged our pedagogy. He made time to do some basic breathing and body work to centre the kids before they interacted. This calmed them down, and made them aware of how they were feeling. And he always gave kids a choice – they could opt out of any exercise that made them uncomfortable.
Now, any teacher can tell you very good reasons why NOT to take the latter approach. I won’t bore you with these – they’re too obvious. But I will tell you a very interesting outcome. When the students were asked to give feedback on //Kabbo’s sessions, the only negative reflections were about their own contributions. So many kids wished they had taken more risks, trusted more. When asked what they had learned, they reported:
I‘ve learnt more about myself and how to calm myself and concentrate on whatever I’m doing. I’ve also learnt how to use my voice better whilst performing and telling my story.
I now know about different cultures, about myself and my classmates, and that you cannot fail because //Kabbo is so supportive and encouraging. There is something for everyone, and he will never force you into something.
Teamwork can achieve anything.
The finished product – their own dramatised story – was not as polished as we might have liked, or we thought we could have achieved through a stronger focus on obedience and a faster pace. But the next term when the regular teachers took over and pulled in the reigns, we had similar issues with time and final performances. The real outcome here was that //Kabbo’s patience and empathy, and his focus on developing trust and autonomy left the students with a better sense of their own agency and impact on others. This is valuable, but hard to measure or evidence in work. Our challenge now is how to improve the time management and outcome without losing the personal and social benefits of the pilot.
Many teachers may not have a formal PLN where BAME practitioners and academics can collaborate with teachers. My second foray into collaboration is an example of how to do similar work if this is the case. To develop my SoW on the Somali poetry tradition, I had to make my own contacts.
Through Dr Rafael Mitchell, a researcher specialising in African education, I made contact with Ugbaad Aidid, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Bristol. Ugbaad responded warmly when I asked her for advice on readings – she emailed several articles and an excellent anthology called War and Peace which discusses the complexities of traditional clan relations and the traditional function of war: to restore a more stable power balance and instil more effective mechanisms for keeping the peace. The articles Ugbaad sent described the conventions of multiple poetry genres and the traditional purposes of these genres. Essential reading which allowed me to make educated decisions about what to teach in terms of context and form.
I then needed guidance on how to teach this unit. Through Twitter, I met Abdihakin Asir, formerly a Director of Education in Mogadishu, and now a Bristol-based community leader and consultant who also studied for his MSc at the University of Bristol. Abdihakin met me for coffee and talked me through the best ways to sequence content from his perspective, and several pitfalls when teaching children about Somali history that can easily lead to misunderstanding, oversimplification, and offence. He also introduced me to another postgraduate student who specialised in Somali language and poetry.
Abdullahi met me in St Paul’s Community Centre to share some excellent, traditional poems with me that, unlike the poems I had found, were more accessible. And he also told me about the contexts of the poems, which had fascinating backstories about the writers – ones about challenging perceptions which I knew the kids would relate to.
Examples of student writing from this SoW can be seen here from students who agreed to share their work (anonymously – no last names). I have included a final assessment essay and a poem chosen as one of the finalists from our in-class competition. The featured essay was written by a student choosing to focus on the darker aspects of the poetry. She appreciated the skill of using poetry to broker peace, and the themes of beauty, nature and family in the poems studied, but was most intrigued by the representations of anger and toxic masculinity – a personal choice based on her own concerns about society at the moment, and not one she attaches particularly to Somali culture. I think it’s important to note that the scheme allows students to explore a range of universal themes, thereby using Somali poetry as a mirror for the reader to examine themselves and their society, much like students learn to use Shakespeare’s texts.
While the informal CPD I experienced through this process was highly rewarding, the problem was of course that the expertise of the people I engaged has not been paid for – and it should be, despite their generous offer to help me without compensation. I have submitted my SoW to the OBC; any remuneration offered for this work will be given to Ugbaad, Abdullahi and Abdihakin.
I know that many teachers will not have the time to do the research I’ve done, and I’m not trying to set an expectation that ‘good’ teachers do this work. My hope is that universities, exam boards and teacher-training programmes will address the gaps in our capacity and curriculum, and enable teachers to deliver a decolonised curriculum from the outset. I also want to highlight that the ‘decolonising’ work described here necessarily involved drawing on knowledge and perspectives from those outside the teaching profession – developing relationships and mobilising capacities in an extended and informal PLN.
NB: The SoW on Somali Poetry, is here:
With some accompanying docs here:
Order Warda Yassin’s excellent poetry collection Tea with Cardamom for the diaspora poetry section.