'Who are these children who inhabit our classrooms?'

By Hywel Roberts on 04 November 2017

In the latest in a fortnightly series, one 'travelling teacher' recalls a little girl on a boat who had lost her mother

The fog descends and here we are.

It’s a Year 10 history class and I am just passing through on my travels. The children have been doing a lot of work around population shifts in history. Times when huge swathes of people have had to move from their homes because of famine, pestilence or war. When the class come in, they are a quiet bunch, but we soon break ice together. I have just two photographs that I am using as resources. My plan is to look at them and build some sort of enquiry from them, while thinking about population shift.

The first photograph is of a beautiful cruise ship – The Club Med 2, if you’re interested. I ask if anyone in the class has ever been on a cruise and it’s a resounding NO from the floor. I tell them I haven’t either. We speculate as to why people might choose to go on a cruise. We talk about famous ships and we all agree that TITANIC was the ship we all knew, largely in part to Kate Winslet. But that’s an old ship, and we’re thinking of today. These cruise ships are huge beasts, riding the seas and indulging passengers with their casinos, bars, extravagance and cabaret.

I use the word "today" and there is a flutter of uncertainty that drifts like a cool undercurrent through the classroom. I feel myself working harder, like you do as a teacher trying to get over your point. I’m not sure what the tension is but there is definitely something there. I can’t put my finger on it, so plough on. I ask the students a number of gapingly wide-open questions around things like:

  • If we work on the cruise ship, what jobs need doing?
  • How do ships know where they are going?
  • How would we navigate the Mediterranean?
  • What is the appeal of cruise ships?

… and I trawl around for responses.

'Interesting, isn't she?'

A teacher sits with a girl toward the back of the class and as the questions and responses are digested and chewed over, they whisper. That teacher-imposter syndrome kicks in for me and I feel anxious. There is total calm in the classroom, but I feel this twisting knot in my stomach. What are they whispering about?

Balls to it, I think, and crack on:

So, we are on this fine ship, Club Med 2. What a beauty. And what luxury! We provide such comfort and experience for the passengers! And then….

(I indicate for the class to stand up and come to the front of the class. They do so, curious as to what’s going on)

... we see something on the portside of our grand ship. It is another ship, looking nothing like ours. A ship laden with desperate people, a vessel bursting at its very seams….

(The class are all at the front now and face the whiteboard. I click the mouse and a new image is projected: a boat packed with Syrian refugees. I continue my narrative.)

… we can just hear their shouts, their pleas for help. All I can wonder in this dark, depressing moment is: I wonder what their ship is called?

I pause and invite the class to look at the photograph. We can see the faces of the fear-stricken people, the children, the man in the glasses, the lady looking up stretching out her arms.

"Can you see them?" I ask the class.

There are nods.

"Who do you notice?"

The quiet girl who had been in cahoots with her teacher raises her hand. I indicate for her to speak.

"I see the girl," she points, and we all look at the picture and see the child captured by the photo-journalist. "She is alone. Looking for her mother."

As I turn to her, I notice the teacher has a reassuring hand on her shoulder and I realise in this moment that this child’s contribution has weight.

We listen to other questions and comments, and the bell goes and all is done.

The teacher and the girl hang back and I go to speak with them. I thank the girl for her contribution, and ask if she enjoyed the session.

She looks at me and speaks in hushed but determined tones:

“I thought we were doing history this hour so I am ready to think of the past. You’ve shown us something happening in the world now. And I understand we are all living, breathing historical documents. How we act today will be judged by others tomorrow. Goodbye.”

She smiles and leaves. Her teacher companion departs: “Interesting, isn’t she?”

And I’m left alone. The fog descends.

Who are these children who inhabit our classrooms?

Hywel Roberts is a travelling teacher and curriculum imaginer. He tweets as @hywel_roberts

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