History in the Classroom – An interview with Shalina Patel

The challenges teachers face when dealing with complex and contentious areas of history

We all remember our teachers, both the good ones and the bad. History can be seen as particularly daunting topic for the would-be-educator, from the sheer breadth of areas and topics to the uncomfortable nature of elements of our past. Shalina Patel, author of The History Lessons, know’s this better than most – having been an award winning teacher for several years. We were lucky to be able to speak with Shalina ahead of her appearance on a panel alongside broadcaster Kavita Puri and bestselling author Sathnam Sanghera at the Chalke History Festival on 30th June.

Image Credit: @SachDhanjal

You’ve been teaching history on the front line; what are some of the common complaints you hear from students about the history they’re taught?

I would say I don’t hear many complaints! The most common one is probably the amount of content and the number of different types of questions they have to answer at GCSE and A Level. The content can be very dense and of course we as teachers have a specification to follow. When it comes to teaching Key Stage 3 (Year 7-9) we’re able to have a lot more flexibility and so can teach a broad range of topics which our students really enjoy and we as teachers love to research and plan for.

How important is it to help young people feel connected to the history they’re learning about?

It’s really important that history resonates with young people – we all know the common adage of needing to learn from our history, but it’s true! History is personal – it helps us to understand our place in the world as well as explaining so much about why the world is the way it is.

In the classroom we can help young people with this in a myriad of ways. I think sometimes people can assume that this means students can only resonate through really obvious connections like let’s say teaching girls about the suffragettes but actually it can be more complex and powerful than that. I like to approach the curriculum through the prism of ‘mirrors’ and ‘windows.’ Whilst it is important for students to see themselves in the history they are learning (mirror) it’s also really important that we consider how they see other experiences and encourage them to draw connections and literally learn lessons from those ‘windows’ into other worlds too.

What are some topics you would like to see taught more broadly in schools?

The main one that springs to mind is the British Empire. The teaching of empire in schools is certainly getting much better, but is definitely something that was largely absent from my school history lessons. The history of the British Empire is so important because it’s a shared history between Britain and so many other parts of the world. This is an area of history that’s a bit of a blind spot for many adults which is why it’s so important that young people are being taught about key events like the partition of India in 1947 to the looting of Benin in 1897. It’s also a historical context that’s full of incredible characters. Who doesn’t want to learn about the Rani of Jhansi, the warrior queen who would wrestle before breakfast and who fought the British on horseback with her young child strapped to her! I would also love to see more teaching of other parts of the world so students can then draw comparisons with what was happening in Britain at the same time. It’s the same mirrors and windows idea and is something that’s weaved throughout my book. For example ,in Chapter 1 we are fully entrenched in medieval England in 1066 before exploring what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time, like Mali and Baghdad. This not only enriches our students understanding but also gives them a wider understanding of the past.

Image Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia/ wellcomecollection.org

When it comes to difficult history, what are some of the ways you try to find common ground with people you speak to?

For me I think the World Wars is the best route into this. I find that most people I speak to are really open and interested in broadening their understanding of history. As I do in Chapters 6 and 7, our mainstream view of the two world wars just needs to be widened. This doesn’t mean taking anyone out of the story – it just means including the others who were there. For example, in World War One we need to acknowledge the role the Chinese Labour Corps for example played in ensuring tanks could be used on the battlefields. Or in World War Two when we remember all those who supported the allies in fighting the Nazis we need to remember that this included 2.5 million Indians, making up the largest volunteer army force in history. Another generally common ground is thinking about women in history too. So many people tell me they only really learnt about women in history when learning about the suffragettes. Of course women were present in and influenced every part of history – and that’s undeniable! There are so many extraordinary women in my book who I certainly think should be household names, be it Mary Prince, Noor Inayat Khan or Olive Morris.

Why do you think there is often so much resistance to history that approaches topics from different angles?

History has always being approached from different angles – anyone that did A Level History will remember being taught about different schools of thought. So this is now new. But I think some resistance can stem from the fact that people can feel uncomfortable about their historical blind spots, particularly when it comes to issues around colonialism, as much of this history is so painful. But instead of embracing that new learning sometimes people can feel scared, whether that’s due to what they might get wrong or perhaps how it might change how they view certain things or even themselves. To anyone who feels that way I would say – you can’t be expected to know everything and that ultimately, knowledge is power. Acknowledging the blind spots you may have and seeking out means to address those is exactly why I wrote this book!

Your book, The History Lessons, is available now. What do you hope readers will take from it?

Whenever I talked to people about the history I teach people would always say – I wish you’d been my history teacher. So that’s what I did – write a book for adults do just that. I’ve very deliberately written this book in a way that uses more familiar history as the foundation. In every chapter you are grounded in contexts you likely know and remember from school, whether that’s the trenches of the western front or in the royal court of the Tudors. The book is divided chronologically into 8 chapters (like The Victorians, World War Two etc) and takes you through those time periods, but with a twist!

Unlike when you were at school, you will now be in those recognizable places but with some more unusual characters alongside the more well-known ones. In chapter 2 for example you’ll be reintroduced to Henry VIII, but you will also meet Nur Jahan and Yasuke the samurai for example. Like every good teacher, I also wanted this book (for adults) to be a fun and manageable read – so each chapter is broken down into bite size lessons punctuated by statements or lesson titles – like ‘There were chapatis in the trenches’ and ‘Elizabeth I gets the ick.’ I really hope readers enjoy and embrace this new learning. I want people to read it and want to share the new facts they’ve learned in the pub or at the dinner table! I hope it helps readers to feel more confident about their historical understanding and perhaps even means they will delve even deeper, whether that’s their own family history or something of particular interest to them from one of the chapters of The History Lessons.

Shalina Patel will be at the Chalke History Festival as part of the panel Respectfully Yours: Discussing Difficult History on Sunday 30 June at 10:00. Order your tickets today

Banner image credit: Image by Sabine Nuffer from Pixabay

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