Teaching Divided Histories—A Teachers’ Workshop

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It is not everyday that teachers play icebreakers or are divided into groups or given classroom assignments or made to participate in discussions. However, attending a PeaceWorks workshop will make them do all of that and much more.

PeaceWorks—an initiative of the Seagull Foundation of the Arts has been working on creating a module as a part of an innovative 3-year project developed by Nerve-Centre [Derry-LondonDerry] and funded by European Regional Development Fund under the Peace III programme.  The module emphasizes the importance of moving images in teaching history. The completed module was presented to a group of teachers and educationists from different schools in Calcutta in a workshop conducted by Ms Megha Malhotra at Modern High School for Girls on 7 November 2013.

The workshop began with rounds of introduction where each one had to state their name and reveal a part of their ancestry. The idea was to gently ease the group into questioning how much of our identity is based on our history. The ‘getting to know each other’ happened with the teachers tossing a ball to one on the other side whose name they remembered from the previous round of introductions.


After discovering some brilliant throw ball players and inner child personas who were just happy with letting the ball fall at their feet, they were divided into four groups to discuss indications of religious or racial prejudice/ harmony that they may have encountered in the classroom. The curiosity and understanding that happens during Ramzan brings children closer by trying to understand different cultures. However, despite the closeness shared, sharing food causes great discomfort. In schools that provide lunch to their students, there is an open prejudice where children belonging to the ‘upper caste’ clearly refuse food that has been cooked by ‘others’. Especially while teaching the history of the pre-historic man, students find it difficult to perceive that all men ate flesh. Discussing cow sacrifices was a walk on the tightrope in most classes.

An interesting event was reported by a teacher from Ballugunge Siksha Sadan. The school has a habit of reciting Gayatri Mantra before the start of classes. Until about class 8, all the students in the class chant the mantra in great spirits. However, she notices that the Muslim students lose their prayerful posture around that time. It was commonly accepted that children begin to display mindsets that have been internalized during that age. Conversely, a teacher from Lakshmipat Singhania Academy noted that students that age believe it to be ‘cool’ to disassociate themselves from religious identities. They proclaim themselves to be atheists without understanding the complete implications of the term, thereby strengthening friendships across cultures.

Teachers were also in concurrence that they found mild tensions in classrooms post the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan became ‘Muslim’ actors and lost their positions as favourites in Indian cinema for a while. A class 7 student with all her innocence deemed Madrasa to be the breeding place of bombers.  Teachers regard that while some biases are set from a young age with interactions in the society, the media is also to be partly blamed for the existing mindsets.

The group, predominantly comprising history or political science teachers, felt that lecturing about the advent of Mughals in India created a general disquiet with seeing the Mughals as invaders, looters and plunderers while also contributing greatly to the development of India in various fields. The idea of reservations for the underprivileged was also a cause of humongous discussions in classes observed the teachers.

After pausing the discussion on the infinite topic of prejudices, the teachers were made to play a game called RIOT, a revised version of the Bingo. As the years were called out, most of them remembered its significance in relation to Hindu-Muslim unrests in the sub-continent. After the game the notion of ‘Remembering’ was examined. Do we need to remember so much violence? How does it help in framing our identity? Does remembering spur anger and hatred? Ms Devi Kar, Director of Modern High School stated that each of the events is to be remembered as nothing more than a ‘cautionary tale’. The importance of ‘how’ we remember was discussed.

This opened a further discussion regarding ‘Why Partition?’ With the religious and political insinuations, the Partition is still alive in metamorphosed forms in everyone’s life. However, the academic textbooks are one sided and there is absence of interaction with other events within the country and the world. A space needs to be created just to question what has been established over the years.

With this discussion, the next activity on agenda was presented to the participants. Initially, each of them was given a newspaper article each on the demolition of Babri Masjid and a case of female infanticide in the country. This was then juxtaposed with clips from the movies Bombay and Matrabhumi. The reactions to this apposition were two-sided as always. While Ms Maryann Dasgupta felt that seeing the scenes with the music caused an exaggeration of emotions, touching deeper than the newspaper reports; Ms Shabana felt that such emotionally strong scenes may instigate violent reactions and mob behaviour, whereas the newspaper allows one to reflect on facts.

The final activity of the workshop before the module was introduced was letting the teachers do two of the assignments from the designed curriculum. While two groups worked on documenting oral histories as a starting point of discussion, two other groups worked on creating a script for a graphic novel that could be created with Comic Life, which was demonstrated by Ms Malhotra. Both the assignments made greater use of the visual medium and the moving image making it more accessible to this generation to tech-savvy students.

After a short break, the module was circulated amongst the teachers who were quite drawn into these alternate teaching methodologies. Ms Prasad from Modern High School voiced her appreciation for the module while discussing the practicalities and viability of introducing this into a school curriculum. Teachers were willing to use documentation of oral histories and creating graphic novels out of history lessons as class projects.

As the workshop drew to a close, Ms Devi Kar’s opinion of exclusion due to stereotypes was reiterated and how stereotypes begin to shake ones understanding of ones own identity. The workshop ended on a note that the aim was to make the children of this generation experience universal love again.

Anugraha Madhavan