I think I’ve been planning this set of lessons on the fight against domestic fascism since about 1988, when I first saw Celt-punk band, The Men they Couldn’t Hang perform their classic song, the Ghosts of Cable Street at the Lancaster Sugar House.
Regular readers of our site will know that we have long advocated the use of music in the classroom and that too stems from a youth spent listening to songs with stories and a growing realisation that these songs are treasure troves of historical interpretation.
This was the starting point for our current set of enquiries on the story of British anti-fascism in the 30s and 40s.
Every History teacher is aware of the importance of giving students grounding in the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. After all, it provides the necessary foundations for understanding the origins of WWII and post war events.
One of the things I set out to do with this set of lessons was to put a domestic angle on this story. Not to ignore events in Europe but to connect them with British history and the lives of British people.
Our teaching sequence begins with the story of International Brigade volunteer, James Maley.
James was introduced to me through the music of Glasgow band, The Wakes. Here we have all the elements of a classic History enquiry.
Why would football fans unfurl a banner baring slogans from the Spanish Civil War during a 21st century cup tie? From there, students are drip fed information (including song lyrics) in order to work out what motivated James to travel to Spain and risk death at the battle of Jarama.
Next we ask students to consider the issue of historical typicality by cross referencing James’s story against profiles of other brigade members.
We move on to examine the events around the battle of Cable Street in October 1936. Starting with a tried and tested method of getting students to work out what the commemorative plaque might say this enquiry moves on to some solid interpretations work.
Long held as a victory in the fight against the BUF this enquiry asks students to evaluate two contrasting viewpoints.
We have long advocated the use of real historical interpretations in the classroom and this one pits a BBC journalist’s view of the place of Cable Street in anti-fascist history against those of Dr. Daniel Tilles- a leading expert on British anti-Semitism.
As we know it is best to arm students with key knowledge before looking at two contrasting view points. This is important work, not just because it is good history, but because the new GCSEs look at two interpretations and ask how and why the differ.
They then go on to ask which is the more convincing (AQA language here, Edexcel ask the same thing in a slightly different way).
Finally, we conclude with another mystery- can students work out the dark secret of hairdresser to the stars, Vidal Sassoon.
This enquiry follows a drip-feed approach with students deciding upon an initial hypothesis and then refining it in the light of further evidence.
It ends by asking them to write a critique of the trailer for the Vidal Sassoon movie. Despite the movie focussing upon Sassoon’s humble beginnings and rise to international hair styling super stardom, it fails to disclose his past as a member of anti-fascist street gang, the 43 Group.
Personal stories, historical enquiry, interpretations work, music and social history. We feel that these lessons give a much needed British domestic perspective on the wider conflicts in Europe.
If you want to give a purely social historical perspective onto the 1930s why not look at our Fogg Family enquiry? This tests three different interpretations of life in the 1930s….
Happy History teaching.