Telling stories to inspire every child

by Guest Blogger, 07 October 2020
Claudia Jones at the offices of The West Indian Gazette (WIG) at 250 Brixton Road, Brixton, south London, 1962.

History teacher Sitara Amin reflects on Black History Month, and her own experience of learning and teaching the stories of Britain’s BAME communities.

Having been brought up in Tottenham I was very lucky to have Black History all around me. At a young age my father had me asking questions about Marcus Garvey as we visited the local library (conveniently named Marcus Garvey Library). I knew about slavery from my own year 8 history lessons and was very much aware of the British colonial involvement abroad. I was lucky in my own personal difference (my mother migrating from Kenya to escape persecution and my father from Pakistan in the early 1970s). Both of them instilled the idea of pride in culture and my own ethnic background – something I have tried to emulate myself – especially now I am a mother to a young child. My father loved history – making me listen to the Sceptered Isle (Christopher Lee) before bed (yes, really...) and teaching us by rote the Kings and Queens of England. I was a bit of a geek to say the least and loved my history lessons (we studied not only slavery, but the civil rights movement – especially poignant as I was a teenager growing up with the Iraq war). 

However, I always felt that school history was not my history – despite the powerful words of the “I have a dream” speech or the power of boycotts from Montgomery. This was history I was told, but it was never quite enough for me.

However, I always felt that school history was not my history – despite the powerful words of the “I have a dream” speech or the power of boycotts from Montgomery. This was history I was told, but it was never quite enough for me. I look back at my own schooling with pleasure and gratitude, as the history I learnt back then was diverse for our own time. It is only now I realise, and it makes me sad, that it was not diverse enough – after all, when did we learn about Kenya, or even India and Pakistan. 

I joked to my mother recently that I have taught the causation enquiry surrounding why William won the Battle of Hastings for ten years in a row – something I have been known to talk to my son about as we walk along (I hope it seeps in somehow, or I am just some crazy teacher forcing her young child to listen to her own rambles!). But it has only been in the last few years that I have begun to tell my own story – of a British Asian living in Britain. And it has only been in the last few years I have begun to tell my parents' story, something which I take such pride in. The migration course from OCR ‘Migration to Britain’ thematic study has allowed me to tell this story because there is a place for their stories. Why is it only now in Britain that we are beginning to learn about migrants and their stories? Why is it we know more about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks than our own struggles for equality and acceptance here? 

There is so much history – we have thousands of years to learn from, thousands of stories, if not more, but it is seldom within our schools to mention our BAME communities’ stories.

There is so much history – we have thousands of years to learn from, thousands of stories, if not more, but it is seldom within our schools to mention our BAME communities’ stories. I am a strong supporter of Black History Month (despite the claims that it is tokenistic) because it allows us to talk openly about history that is not studied. Teachers can open discussions about culture, music, literature, science and look beyond our curriculums. We should be empowered by the stories, including the Bristol Bus Boycott, we should be amazed by Jayaben Desai, and we should celebrate diversity because of Claudia Jones and the Notting Hill Carnival. The students I teach have seldom been to Bristol, some of them have heard about the Notting Hill Carnival – these stories allow for discussion about struggle and acceptance. 

More of these stories need to be included across the curriculum – but until then we must do something, and Black History Month is a great starting point. However, we must also look at migration to Britain as a whole, from the Palatines who lived in early refugee camps in Bexley, to the Jews who were massacred in 1190, to the kindertransport who, when fleeing persecution from the Nazis, struggled to find permanent residence and faced their own stories of struggles. These stories reveal just as much about Britain as the kings and queens I learnt as a child. 

...stories are the most informative way to teach about difference, but with well-rounded scholarship, these stories will sing for themselves.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be involved in Cambridge Assessment’s podcast ‘Teaching migration, empire and colonialism in Britain’s history lessons’ where we discussed decolonising the curriculum. I stand by what I argued – that stories are the most informative way to teach about difference, but with well-rounded scholarship, these stories will sing for themselves. I was amazed to hear about how these stories of migrants have resonated with students, something I noticed for myself when I was teaching the migration course with my own personal story.

I am so glad that we are now telling the stories of our own BAME communities but I sincerely hope that it is not too little, let alone too late. It troubles me when I read the statistics that the vast majority of students will leave school having never read a book by a Black author or learnt about their own British migrant history – surely by doing this, we are neglecting to include many of our own students’ stories and that in itself is not right, or indeed fair. Black History Month is one month where we can try to change this, but it should not be limited to one month. 

Recommended reading: 

  • Black and British by David Olugusa – a brilliant overview for teachers with a varied selection of stories and chronology. There is also a summary copy which would be great for younger readers and for potential differentiation 
  • Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder 
  • Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer 
  • 'There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack': The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation by Paul Gilroy 
  • http://www.insted.co.uk/multi.html - Inservice Training and Educational Development: A good starting point for discussions. 
  • Runnymede Trust: https://www.runnymedetrust.org/currentPublications.html 

About the author: Sitara Amin is a history teacher at Downham Market Academy and teaches OCR History’s Migration to Britain module. In July, she joined us for a podcast discussion on ‘Teaching migration, empire and colonialism in Britain's history lessons’ alongside fellow history teacher Clare Broomfield; historian and co-lead of the Runnymede Trust's 'Our Migration Story', Sundeep Lidher; and Mike Goddard from OCR.

(Image Credit: Trinidad-born journalist and activist Claudia Jones at the offices of The West Indian Gazette (WIG) at 250 Brixton Road, Brixton, south London, 1962. Jones founded the newspaper in 1958 and was its editor until her death. Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images.)

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