The empire strikes back

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Inner city students have plenty to contribute to explorations of colonialism, as Vivi Lachs discovers in a project in Hackney

The cameras are running, and Adowa is acting two roles. As Las Casas, she is a Dominican priest from the 16th century, arguing for conversion to Christianity through love, and displaying anger at the Spanish conquistadors in the Caribbean (what he called Las Indias). As herself, she is a 15-year-old schoolgirl in a BBC Newsnight-style debate on colonialism, telling Saliha, her classmate (as King Leopold of Belgium, early 20th century) that his words are full of deceit. Adowa and Saliha are working on the final project of a term and a half in citizenship.

Schools across the country are just starting the second year of the subject, and have chosen a variety of ways to deliver the citizenship curriculum - adding separate lessons in one department or giving parts to appropriate areas, such as humanities, science or RE. In the inner-London borough of Hackney, classes from two schools (Clapton Girls' Technology College and Kingsland School) have piloted a project developed by Highwire City Learning Centre. Highwire's approach to innovative uses of digital technologies is to completely integrate ICT into the subject matter. This citizenship project ran over a term and a half in a history framework, but the ICT was an integral tool in developing the learning.

The Year 10 focus is on colonialism. Through exploring historical events and ideas, students study arguments, debate issues, develop complex analyses and communicate these through writing, filming, editing and web authoring. Key citizenship skills covered include analysing documents, arguing from different perspectives, developing a critical awareness, respecting diversity and looking at how media works.

Colonialism allows us to explore themes that resonate in Britain today. In Hackney, more than 50 languages are spoken in schools, and students may be first or later generation immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers. Issues of citizenship and belonging are not always simple, and the life-stories of students and their families give the curriculum an immediate relevance.

Highwire developed the unit as a progression in understanding and analysis.

Primary sources were researched and integrated into the teaching materials, and a curriculum and set of lesson plans evolved. The use of different media was integrated as a way of focusing students and communicating what they had learned to a wider audience through the internet. Different examples of colonialism from the 15th to the 20th centuries were included.

Students engaged with the arguments of the times and examined the debates, art, photography and documentation in detail. They studied 16th-century Spain in the Caribbean and Americas, the slave trade, Britain's 18th-century entry into India and China, 19th-century European theories of civilisation and race, and Belgium's colonisation of the Congo. The themes studied cut across periods, such as trade, voices of resistance, and the development of concepts such as just wars and universal human rights.

Students considered many perspectives from different contexts and created web pages and videos to explain their ideas. This required a critical understanding of media's role in communicating and presenting information.

The use of characters enabled them to engage with complex and unfamiliar material - eg, working on the 16th-century disputation presided over by King Charles V of Spain, students took on the roles of the debaters: the scholar De Vitoria and the priest Las Casas. They videoed the debate to use on a web page, adding text and satirical drawings, and writing and recording speeches and sermons.

In discussing British trade in 18th-century India and China, students viewed clips of a Jane Austen drama and considered what objects might have come from that trade. They studied the English East India Company and used job descriptions to apply for posts such as governor of Bengal, a local Nawab or a Chinese border official, recording themselves on video so that the whole class could decide who were the best candidates and why.

A number of lessons focused on theories of civilisation and progress: again using video, students added voice-over commentaries while pointing to photographs by colonial anthropologists, explaining the theories reflected in these images.

In every example of colonialism, they looked at resistance - eg in lessons on the Belgian Congo, they compiled political pamphlets with images, text and sound, and wrote letters to The Times from the point of view of historical figures of resistance.

After a term of discussion and debate, students worked in groups to pull these ideas together, ask wider questions and explore historical links.

They made videos and drew political cartoons for documentary material in the final debate. Here, Adowa, Saliha and classmates wore their two hats for vibrant discussions which allowed students to step back and consider their own feelings, as products of the legacy of colonialism in Hackney today.

A teachers' pack and conference are planned. Email: developed by H Davies, J Langford and V LachsVivi Lachs is creative director of the Highwire City Learning Centre in Hackney and author of Making Multimedia in the Classroom: A Teachers'

Guide, RoutledgeFalmer


ICT was integral to the subject matter. Computer technologies - video editing, web authoring and so on - were taught when needed. The style included interactive whole-class teaching and different groupings for different on- and off-computer activities and covered a range of criteria from citizenship, history, English and ICT.

Activities included:

* analysing paintings, photographs and cartoons; creating, scanning and manipulating images

* reading articles on screen and brainstorming key points on paper

* whole-class storytelling

* collaborative writing and editing

* planning videos, filming and editing in small groups

* video-interviewing and evaluating performance

* designing web pages

* recording and editing speeches

* debating in character

* role-play and improvisation

* giving and justifying opinions Software

* Digital video editing: iMovie (Mac)

* Web authoring: Adobe GoLive (MacPC)

* Image manipulation: Adobe Photoshop (MacPC)

* Sound editing: SoundEdit (MacPC); Hardware

* Any computer

* Canon MV300i and JVC GR-DVL767EK digital video cameras

* Sony microphones

* Radio mike so cameras pick up amplified sound

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