Schools can’t Teach this Post Lockdown: Knowing your Individual Family History is a Privilege and a Lesson that is Best Learnt at Home.

As schools have admirably done throughout the crisis, post Covid they will continue to provide routine, safety and education but also, importantly, address the emotional and enrichment needs of their communities. I hope that schools will feel they can focus less on the children ‘catching up’ and more on the school system catching up with what is needed by their school communities.

With speculation and anticipation about the reopening of schools, many of us are considering how that should look. Experts are advising against a hurry to return to old norms, examinations and emphasis on attainment in core subjects. We are realising that children, and indeed staff, will need carefully thought out activities and interactions, to support them through the transition and address the deficit in learning. I am sure that art and creativity will have a role to play in this reintegration period, and hopefully long-term too – but that’s for another post.

For now we remain in Lockdown, and one of the unique outcomes of this time is that all children are spending an extraordinary amount of time at home with their adults. There are undoubtedly disparities in each family’s approach and attitude to how that time has been spent. One of the key concerns of myself and others involved in education has been how the children are spending their time at home and what they are learning and doing. Of course, I have busied myself providing (art) resources as many others have. What children learn at home and during the holidays is not a new interest for educationalists but it has, like many other things, been highlighted by the lockdown.

For example, when schools return we can be certain that some children will have spent these months enjoying family time, perhaps establishing even stronger bonds with their caregivers. The power of a nurturing family environment emphasised by the circumstances. I have seen through friends and Instagram, how some adults have managed to provide rich and exciting experiences from home – whole houses revamped for theme days, such as a ‘weekend in Paris’ or ‘Space day’. I have enjoyed seeing photos shared with me by my teacher friends of their children ditching the school online programme for a ‘naughty’ day of baking and play. I, like the rest of the nation, have been amused and wowed by the collaborative efforts of some families to create whole musical performances. Adults taking initiative and trusting their instincts about how to proceed day by day.

Of course, with the best will in the world this level of engagement is not always possible. I think in particular of those Key Workers who will be dealing with their own emotional needs as well as physical exhaustion. Also, of other adults who have tried to maintain a work schedule whilst home schooling, and any of us really on an understandable ‘off day’. Also, of course, thoughts go to those households for whom ‘normal’ life is a struggle let alone Lockdown life… That said, generally I am heartened by the thought, of parents spending quality time with their children, creating, learning, sharing and playing.

Creative ideas for home school: Paper skateboard with original design by ‘E’

There’s something that has been playing on my mind though and so in my home learning video number 8, I actively encouraged parents to be ‘Home School Rebels’. I did this because I felt concerned that some parents might lack the confidence to, and may need support with (not how to teach the resources provided but) how to deviate from the home school timetable. I suggested sharing family histories, photographs and stories as a day or two of learning; enriching their children using themselves and their ideas as a resource. Using this unique time as an opportunity to do so.

I did this because, it has not escaped my notice as a teacher, but also from conversations within my own friendship groups, that not all of us can speak with confidence and knowledge about our family history. I have taught many children (secondary and primary) who could not say where their mum or dad, who they lived in the same house with, were born or which languages were spoken at home. In contrast, some individuals have their family histories communicated to them with pride, they know where they are from geographically and in relation to a substantial family tree. They have photographs of their ancestors and they own family heirlooms that are passed from generation to generation. In my experience though, some children don’t have the same enriching experience. In my friendship group this seems to be mainly children of immigrants – some of us are not even sure of our own exact birthdates or our parents ages. Some, like myself are not sure which country our great grandparents were born in but only have a sense because of surnames and skin colour. Surnames have been changed in migration, possessions lost or taken and I am not sure why but with some parents and elders there is less of an inclination to talk about family history. My own grandmother is full of interesting tales but she delivers them sporadically. For example, I only learnt after a few years of living in South London and aged 37, that her and my grandfather got married in the town hall right near my flat – I had always assumed Guyana as their place of marriage!? Of course, some stories are hard to tell especially where migration is forced and lives are impacted by war, natural disaster or other traumatic experiences.

I think that it is a form of privilege to know about your family and that there must be a valuable beauty in being able to reach through time with them as far back as is possible. Even though stories are inevitably altered and subjective, there are bound to be facts intermingled within each persons retelling. In any case the reassembling of the information, perhaps from different sources, is part of the integration process – ready to be regurgitated again and again to future generations. Knowing about your family helps you understand your place in the world and this gives you a certain amount of confidence about who you are. That confidence is empowering.

I really hope that during lockdown, families have shared their personal histories and stories, because whatever those stories are and even if they are scattered and disjointed, they are important and they matter. Class teachers are amazing but this is one lesson they cannot teach to each child. Perhaps, moving forward, schools can better support and empower all parents and carers to share and culturally enrich in this way.

Lots of schools are great at outreach around how to extend formal lessons at home, but how about empowerment around how valuable parents and carers are as a resource, regardless of their own educational experience or personal stories. Back in the classroom, conversations between children who know about their families and the nuances of their personal history can support a genuine appreciation of diversity and equality – one that stems from an understanding of each other.

Many artists utilise their families and histories as stimulus for their work. I myself have done this, in my first year of my art degree I presented a projection of old family photographs onto a billowing mosquito net, alongside the suitcase that my grandparents used when they travelled over to the UK from Guyana. Through making our personal experiences visible, we make them available for others to understand and appreciate, and to learn from. This in turn makes us feel valued and worthwhile – regardless of demographic. There are lots of great examples out there, I like Frida Kahlo’s Family Tree and Homesteaders by William Johnson.

I believe that confident children who feel valuable trust themselves and their surroundings more, and that this is a good foundation for being a curious and self-motivated individual and learner. Not only that, having spent so much time with our families hopefully we return to post lockdown life with a new appreciation of them.

“My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me,” William Johnson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s