Creative ways to teach Black British history

Hannah Kemp-Welch from the London Metropolitan Archives tells us how their Teaching for Creativity resource uses sound archives to connect with the past

6 May 2021

In this series of blogs, the authors of our Teaching for Creativity resources explain why they chose the curriculum and topic area to focus their resource on, and how this works together with teaching creative habits.

Culture, community and activism – Black British history in London by Hannah Kemp-Welch, Learning Coordinator on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), is a resource aimed at Key Stage 3, focused on the creative habit of being inquisitive.

Linking to curriculum themes around local histories, the resource centres on newly digitised archival sound clips from LMA’s archives on the prominent Black political activists, Eric and Jessica Huntley, who participated in many campaigns for racial and social justice. Using the sound archives from events at their bookshop and publishing company, along with prominent Black British poets, students create ‘zines’ to document their learning on themes relating to voice, identity, language, education, activism, resilience, and community.

Why we chose to focus on this topic

This resource draws from the archive of prominent black political activists Jessica and Eric Huntley to explore topics of difference, and trace how attitudes in society change over time. The Huntley’s played an active role in the British African-Caribbean community from their first arrival in England in 1956, and worked on seminal campaigns challenging institutional racism. This resource considers their work as publishers profiling Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, including the celebrated poets Lemn Sissay, Valerie Bloom and John Agard.

London Metropolitan Archives is a public research centre which specialises in the history of London. We care for and provide access to the historical archives of businesses, schools, hospitals, charities and all manner of other organisations from the London area. The majority of items in an archive are unique, handwritten documents which cannot be seen anywhere else; we have 100 km of books, maps, photographs, films and documents dating back to 1067 in our strong rooms – you could call it the memory of London. We are currently focusing on work with our audio collections as part of a UK-wide project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. This project recognises that archival sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation, and as the means of playing such sounds (reel-to-reel machines, DAT, compact cassette, MiniDisc) disappear from production.

Between 2018 and 2021 LMA aims to digitally preserve almost half a million rare and at-risk sound recordings, from oral histories to world music, academic lectures to urban soundscapes, including those in this resource. This work means we can keep seminal speeches of Londoners such as Jessica and Eric Huntley safe for future generations.

It’s important for students to explore difficult topics creatively

These materials are a vehicle to explore tough topics. Through examining primary sources, students develop research skills and critically analyse assertions. Creative activities include making a zine and improvising with spoken word, making space for challenging discussions in the classroom about the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in Britain. The example set by the poets in the archive shows the affect of our words when sharing our reality, and inspires us to use creativity to connect with others and build a fairer future.

We are passionate about the social history of London, and the power of the voices within the archive to help us connect with the past. Though the archive is vast, we have selected bite-sized clips so students can hear directly from the protagonists and witness the intensity of their words. Selections include activist Eric Huntley advocating for self-publishing to challenge the dominant culture, educational psychologist Dr. Wavney Bushell reporting back on students’ experiences of racism in schools, and John Agard’s performance poetry unpicking the colonisation of language. Listening to these speakers helps us feel the urgency in their struggle, and prompts us to consider how these issues appear today.

Learning how to be inquisitive

Through listening to historic audio recordings from the archive, we open out conversations about race and racism, activism and social justice, which are widely discussed in the media today. Students are challenged to consider why some people felt that the education and criminal justice systems were not in equal service to all sections of society in the 1980s, and reflect on current movements such as Black Lives Matter and calls for the decolonisation of the National Curriculum.

Activities develop critical thinking habits in students, encouraging them to be inquisitive, ask questions and examine a range of sources to develop a viewpoint. These are crucial skills for young people today in an age where social media can platform fringe views, information goes unverified, and politics is increasingly polarised.

Thinking of the future

The Huntleys' belief in the power of the written and spoken word and importance of history in education motivated them to preserve their records. They hoped it would inspire young people by improving knowledge about black heritage within education and wider society. We hope that young people are charged by what they hear, and in homage to the sacrifices made by the Huntleys, consider their role in serving their community.

The final lesson in the sequence offers students the opportunity to create their own sound responses to the themes explored in the resource and share with them with LMA.

Download the resource here

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