Making History Relevant: "Miss, What's A Turnip?"

Picture the scene:

It’s 2:30 pm on a cold and wintry Friday afternoon. It’s the last lesson of the week (woohoo!) and you’re teaching Lesson 2 of an 8-week unit on the Industrial Revolution (double woohoo!) which is called “The Agrarian Revolution” (oh, FFS) and you’ve got … shall we say … a tricky class.

And even though you already know that nobody (yourself included) will care about the Agrarian Revolution, and it is in absolutely no way relevant to a group of 13-year-olds in a disadvantaged (and massively industrial) area, the Boss said you have to. And, no, you can’t pull a sickie.

Before Friday even gets here, you know that at least one child will ask you what a turnip is, so you go to Tesco the night before and, yeah, you guessed it, they don’t have any. You wonder if you can get away with using a parsnip or maybe a suede but we both know it’s a risky endeavour. You can’t go rogue with Year 8. You’re not the cool PE teacher.

When Friday afternoon gets here and it’s time to talk turnip farming for what feels like three days, it goes exactly how you thought it would:

“Miss, what’s a turnip?” (Repeat x15)

How are you supposed to sell the importance of turnip farming to these kids when 50% of them don’t even know what you’re talking about? When they’ve never tasted a turnip? When some of them haven’t even been on a farm?

The short answer is that you can’t.

The lesson bombed. It tanked. It went for a burton.

One of the reasons why I advocate for culturally responsive teaching is because it connects the past and present. It’s all about finding relevance – no matter who you are or where you’re from. Going back to that traumatic turnip lesson, relevance is so much more than jumping on Google Images and getting a picture up. Relevance goes a step further; it has tangible meaning.

Given that relevance is a subjective concept, too, you need to think about what it looks like across the range of identities and lived experiences. What resonates with me won’t necessarily resonate with you, but that doesn’t make one version of relevance more valid than the other.

When your brain encounters new information, it tries to make sense of it by comparing it to something you already know. This process happens so quickly that you're not conscious of it. So, if that relevance isn't there, if you can’t relate something new to what you already know, then the chances of deep learning are slim to none. If you’re not making history (or any other subject) relevant, then all you’re actually doing is putting up barriers to understanding and achievement. And that’s not big or clever.

So, this month, I’m thinking about how we connect past and present. It’s time for relevance to take its rightful place at the centre of the historical stage. On Saturday 10th July, I’ll be speaking about culturally responsive history at the Schools History Project Summer Conference. As part of that, I’ve designed a scheme of work on World War One that focuses on finding that relevance. Forget Franz Ferdinand and dreadnoughts, this is all about why we remember World War One by thinking about how it impacted different social, ethnic and cultural groups, both at home and abroad. I can’t wait to hear what teachers think of it, though I think it’s gonna be a Marmite unit. (You know, they’ll either love it or hate it).

Until next time

Kaye x

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