In Spring 2021, we worked closely with the history and geography teachers of Cheney School in Headington to develop a curriculum that presented the complexity of local histories. We started with the premise that Oxford is a city steeped in a rich, diverse history, yet its historical representation always focuses on a narrow number of individuals and spaces, overlooking the true multiplicity of the historical narrative. To address this, year 7 students were asked to consider a number of important questions:
- What are the problems with seeing the history of Oxford as ‘set in stone’?
- Who are represented as important historical figures in the city? Who is missing from these representations?
- What can we do to find diverse stories in the landscape? How can we find the histories of your local neighbourhoods?
The teachers and students worked together to think about which criteria is used to determine that a space is ‘historical’. Because one of our main activities is walking tours, the major project at the end of the term was for students to develop their own walking tour. Throughout this process, it was once again crucial to question why some places are considered more historical than others, and to make their own decisions about the spaces which held historical significance. The students also learned the importance of oral history for filling in gaps in historical evidence, challenging the limited view of the past held in traditional written records. Students investigated their own neighbourhoods and communities, collecting oral histories and stories from the residents.
During the presentations, each group picked three stops featuring a common theme. Some of the locations chosen included the history of Headington (including its famous shark!), Barton, Heavenly Desserts, the Roman Road by Dochester on Thames, the origins of pride, postboxes featuring Queen Victoria, the plaque commemorating Oxford’s first Black student Christian Cole, and Cheney School itself.
Most importantly, the third stop for all of the students was the invention of an imaginary stop: their own space to remember history somewhere in Oxford. Among such stops were the Museum of Untold Stories - described as “a magical museum… to become truly amazed at the lives of any person”; an art gallery in Headington to show “the true beauty of art… how our weakest links can become our greatest [through] minefields of diversity”; and a call box “to find out about racial equality.”
This project was conducted across all year 7 classes, bringing together over a hundred students in the development of local histories, featuring embodied experiences, oral testimonies, and wishes for the future.
Community history bridges historical gaps towards a more inclusive future, and the work done with Cheney’s students revealed their acute awareness of narrative discrepancies and unfailing appetite to learn more about their own histories. As a social enterprise, Uncomfortable Oxford continues to seek community partnerships with the goal of supporting local initiatives and stimulating new ideas for engaging with the history of Oxford.