This Wednesday (25/11/20), I had the pleasure of speaking at the Nottingham Roosevelt Memorial Travelling Scholarship’s Thanksgiving event. It was a huge success and saw previous alumni join together to tell stories and raise awareness for this great asset in the county. As some of you will be aware, NRMTS granted me a scholarship to travel to New England to research the Mayflower story and the connections to Nottinghamshire.
This is a summary of all the points I mentioned in my short presentation:
2020 was a significant year, but not just because of COVID-19. Historically, this is the biggest national health crisis since the Spanish flu in 1918.
In my opinion, there have been some huge events this year that have been overshadowed by this pandemic, most notably for me has been the UK and US’s understanding and representation of the past.
I was in Massachusetts when the news broke that cases in the UK were on the rise and there would be a national lockdown, so in a way, it felt like a double-whammy of feeling bewildered and in unfamiliar territory.
Just to give a bit of background information, I run a small business in Nottingham promoting the exploration of history topics through role-play. This is just a more professional way of me saying that I get dressed up and help children create stories to learn about the past.
Almost exactly a year ago, I heard about the Mayflower scholarship. I was unaware of the scholarship. I was also unaware of what the Mayflower was. It’s not a topic I have ever come across and it’s not commonly explored in British primary schools. The same cannot be said for American elementary schools – where the topic is taught at a very early age.
I wanted to learn two things:
A) why the story is not generally known in the UK
B) how the story is told in America
But first, I needed to know what the story actually was. I did some research online and ended up buying this book ‘The Mayflower Pilgrims’. A hefty, 300 page hardback book, which ends with the Pilgrims about to set off on their journey. You can imagine my frustration. I bought a book to learn about the Mayflower and they hadn’t even set foot on the boat by the end of the book. It was largely political and historical background which began with Henry VIII’s reformation of the church and went into great depths about the differences and nuances between denominations of the Christian faith. Probably not the accessible intro to the story I was looking for.
Luckily, I found the Pilgrims Gallery in Retford. An excellent facility in north Nottinghamshire which was freshly opened a couple of months before I visited. I spent hours talking to staff and discovered what the story was about. In overly simple terms for the sake of brevity, it was an attempt at religious freedom and a potential business venture. The people onboard were a healthy mix of people wanting to worship in their own way; of people who saw the business opportunities that came with building a colony in North America; crew on the ship and then a few people who were sent away for convenience sake – like the Moor Children. Which is probably one of the most heart-breaking plots within this story.
At the museum, I discovered local connections to the story. Rebels and leaders living a matter of miles from Nottinghamshire – locations that I’ve travelled through or visited.
I also learned of the hardships faced by the people onboard the boat and the reality of what happened when they found that this land they’d ‘discovered’ had actually been discovered thousands of years prior.
Politically and religiously it’s a very complex and harrowing story which culminates in the King Philip’s war – the bloodiest battle to ever happen on American soil.
So how is this story told in American elementary schools?
The short answer: it isn’t.
I spoke to various American people about their awareness of the topic and what they were taught when they were children and the gaps in the knowledge are astounding.
I am obviously not suggesting that children should be sat down and told in extreme detail what happened in C17th New England. I also struggle to put all the blame on the European settlers – most of the original travellers were refugees fleeing a government that was not representative of them as people. It’s not a coincidence that less than thirty years later, the English Civil War began and King Charles’ head was chopped off.
However, what I would say is that rather than creating a mythological, sugar-coated version of the story, we should be encouraging conversations about why this happened and developing empathy towards both sides of the story. Through empathy we can begin to understand. Role-playing these characters and scenarios allows us to ask more meaningful questions and address issues of immigration and colonialism head-on.
Linking the themes to issues today would be a great excuse to encourage participation and understanding from young children. They’re much more aware of the wider world than they are often given credit for.
Rather than asking whether there’s a way of adapting the story to suit a younger audience, or excluding them from the conversation altogether, we should be seeking parallels and prompting discussions about linked issues today.
So what are the questions?
- ‘How would you feel if somebody came to your house in need?’
- ‘What would you do if the government told you that you weren’t free to talk about your ideas?’
- ‘Can you act out a better resolution to the story?’
- ‘Are there any rules you would include in the Mayflower Compact?’
Misrepresentations and exclusion within history education begins with small adaptations to stories and ends with the Edward Colston statue in the river.
That’s why this year has been so significant to me above the coronavirus crisis. It’s forced a lot of us to reconsider our relationship with history. As a teacher and storyteller, it’s encouraged me to be more creative in the representation of history and provoking conversations about topics which may have been seen as too ‘grown-up’ or ‘challenging’ for younger audiences in the past.
When the stories are told incorrectly and then perpetuated through repetition, that’s when cultures can be forgotten and generations of children grow up with a skewed understanding of their heritage and ancestors.
My aim is to use role-play to encourage deeper understanding and critical analysis of historical events from young people. I want to ensure that future generations feel that their ancestors and heritage are being accurately depicted in a way that seeks truth and encourages growth and inclusivity.