I was teaching a year 8 class yesterday about Victorian England in preparation for Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol; the Horrible Histories excerpt which depicted an advert for a Victorian Maid in the style of a well known (in the UK at least) cleaning product was lost on my 15 Thai pupils, as was Victorian Wife Swap and Made in Victorian Hertfordshire.
It happened again in my Year 7 lesson, we are writing children's books for KS1 and I asked them to tell me their favourite childhood book- they said the generic fairy tales interspersed with cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, failing to mention any of the classic children's books. So I suggested literary vintages such as Meg and Mog, Funny Bones et al- they looked at me like I had just fallen out of a coconut tree.
I went home to look at the reading matter of my 2-year old. His aunt Melissa had sent him some books recently. Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson is the new favourite - it is a 'follow the leader' style book using onomatopoeic and rhyming words (hence the name) The pictures are all based around a seaside resort and pier. The characters all reflect the diverse ethnic backgrounds of modern Britain but this doesn't transcend to a Thai pupil's understanding or knowledge of a quirky seaside town in Britain complete with foibles and an innate character.
Last week's favourite was Barry the Fish with Fingers by Sue Hendra. It's a picture book about a fish with fingers which resemble the British dish of fish-fingers. I find this book hilarious, as does my son but Thai children don't eat fish-fingers for tea, do they? The cultural significance is lost and there is no cultural equivalent or way of explaining it - Barry the Fish with Fishballs... doesn't quite work somehow.
I often wonder about the morality of a British education for Thailand's international school pupils which are mainly Thai or Thai mixed. Where is their cultural relevance? Their literary legacies? The moments where they connect a memory to a place or taste and belly-laugh with contentment that only resonance can bring.
Are we international educators the new imperialists? The new missionaries taking Britain and its culture around the world? Demanding, imposing, subjecting, inflicting the likes of Dickens, Austen and Hardy? Do we offer a superiority in language and literature that no other (or Eastern?) tradition can offer? Or are we teaching to an antiquated examination board's view of literary supremacy?
It's Book Week next week and the English department are attempting to make it intercultural- the new moniker for multiculturalism. We have given each year group a country, genre and an era. For example Japan, Manga Comics, 20th century. They will have to research and create a classroom display for other students to visit, a bit like a mini-museum curation.
We are a diverse school, some of our students hail from Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia as well as mixed heritages from Europe and America. So Book Week this year will reflect this and send a message of value, worth and respect to all our global learners that there is an alternative to 'the only way is Britain'