Acting Out: Cynefin – Week Two

Week two of working with year 4 and 5 children on the ACW Cynefin project. Ceri, the teacher and I made plans for the next few weeks leading up to June’s visit. June is going to work with the children on a short performance that will be captured on film by Nick and Marcus from Redbrck Productions.

In small groups, the children were asked to make paintings or drawings of certain scenes that they would act out in the afternoon.

Group 1 drew and painted scenes of the capture and kidnap by white slave traders of a boy from Africa, drawing on the records of ‘John Ystumllyn’, the first recorded black person in Wales, that we reflected on last week.

Group 2 looked at the boy’s journey on the slave ship, such as the one that the author, Catherine Johnson told us about. She showed us the diagram created in 1787 that was widely circulated across the UK, and horrified all who saw it. It was instrumental in the Abolition campaign. The children in Group 2 remembered what Catherine told us about sharks still following the slave ship routes hoping for food, as so many people died during the journey from the awful, inhumane conditions and were thrown overboard.

Group 3 looked at what the boy might have encountered when the ship landed at London. The children had heard about the slave markets from the book Freedom by Catherine Johnson and tried to imagine what it would have been like for the poor people who had been abducted from their homes and brought on an arduous journey across the sea only to face more atrocities.

Group 4 followed the boy’s journey to a big house such as Tredegar House in Newport, occupied for 500 years by the most powerful family in Newport, the Morgans. It was important in the project to try to establish links locally so that the children could identify with history within their local community. Dr Chris Evans, a history professor at the University of South Wales, author of, ‘Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery 1660-1850’, came to talk to the children about Harri Morgan, a Welsh pirate, plantation owner, and, later,  Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. From his base in Jamaica, Morgan raided settlements, became wealthy and purchased three large sugar plantations in the 1670s and 1680s. Many Jamaicans see Morgan as a “criminal pirate” who sought to maintain the system of slavery.

“Sugar plantations might be thought of as modern day oil rigs. Welsh people, like other people in Britain, made money out of the slave trade, whether directly or indirectly. It’s a story that has its footprints all over these isles.” – Dr. Chris Evans.

It isn’t easy looking up close at this topic, but at the beginning of the project, the teachers and I were determined to help the children to learn about Black history in Wales and the UK, and to know that slavery was an injustice that produced lasting consequences across many generations. As Black Lives Matters protests across the world have highlighted, it is important to understand and not hide from our own history.

Steve McQueen, director of the award-winning 12 Years a Slave, says, “They believe in the saying ‘Never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust, and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery…The Second World War lasted five years, and there are hundreds of films about [that] and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than 20 films about slavery in North America. We have to open our eyes and look at it and other people have to acknowledge it.”

For Scene 5 the children became time travellers and jumped forward to the 1940s, and the childhood of Wales’ first black Head teacher, Betty Campbell. They learned how, when Betty said to her teacher that she would like to teach, the response was: “Oh my dear, the problems would be insurmountable.”

Betty recalled, “I went back to my desk and I cried. That was the first time I ever cried in school. But it made me more determined; I was going to be a teacher by hook or by crook.”

For the Scene 6, we celebrate Betty becoming a head teacher and inspiring many others, as well as the unveiling of a statue of her in Cardiff centre.

After painting the scenes, the children did mind maps in their groups, writing down any words that came to them that they could use to act out the scene. They recalled what Catherine Johnson had told them about using all their senses to imagine what their characters would experience. Ceri wrote the six scenes on the white board, and we brain-stormed the first one together so that the children got an idea of what to include.

After lunch, the class got back into their groups to practice acting out their scene. They considered using props, and also sounds to evoke the time and place. When it came to acting out the scenes in sequence with Ceri filming them, it was interesting to see that the children used very minimal dialogue, but it was actually more powerful as we knew what was happening from their gestures and actions.

Map updated with Henry Morgan, Catherine Johnson and Betty Campbell.

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