Recently, I've been asked to teach about “The Great Fire of London”. All British children in primary school hear of this along with the Egyptians, the Romans and the Greeks. Why should we continue to teach children about that day -- September 2, 1666? There were many such fires, for the closeness of the wooden buildings was a perpetual hazard. I cast about for a context which could be a reason why children today need to know, or be interested in the event. I decided to challenge myself to make The Great Fire relevant to primary and high school students. I came up with two contexts, both of which could use the same prepared materials. I hold it a point of honour that the best account of these events during those days should be accessible to them. Because I live close to Derby, I decided I could make two commissions be the means by which the fire will be central and highly relevant to both groups of students.
Commission One. The Junior Children
Derby's firefighting force are concern that the huge new shopping mall which has recently been built and opened to the public in time for Christmas shopping in 2007, presents a variety of security issues -- not only fire hazards, but also social dangers -- thieves, racism, drugs, gangs -- which may impact on shoppers. These factors have not in fact become an overt issue in Derby, but councils must be held responsible for any adverse social events likely to arise.
This frame will open practical areas -- surveying all the placement of shops, fire appliances, entrance and exit arrangements, safety of steps, floor treatments, lighting, appointment of security officers, access to fire engines, “signing” of notices, their placement and a variety of languages must be considered, as Derby has a very mixed population and many faiths within ethnic groups.
Less factual, but equally important, is the range of ages and purposes of those who will visit the mall. The old people who come in search of warm, the cleaning staff to service the mall, the delivery arrangements to the restaurants, stores, and waste disposal. The effects upon workers who spend their working hours in artificial daylight. Access to chaplaincy, prayer rooms and mosques and temple arrangements, for Derby has a large number of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Taoists. All these considerations bring children into the social aspects of community.
The Great Fire of London. There is an account, based on many archives dating from the time of the fire -- eyewitness accounts, Royal documents relating to how Charles II put himself in danger by working close to the fire. The way the fire caused St. Paul's Cathedral to destroy all the city documents which had been placed therein for security. To make this account accessible to young children, I have created, “fragmented” along with archivists’ notes, so now there is a research archive giving the most truthful accounts available, searched out by the historian Hollis10 and written most graphically via the different voices of witnesses. I have had this taped as well, using six different readers. The variety of speed and tone creates awareness of different points of view and styles of delivery, which enrich the account.
To enable the young children to realize their understanding, they will (for the firefighting force) create a modern mystery play to be shown in the Derby Playhouse at a gala opening to remember September 2, 1666. All seats will be free to every citizen and the Fire force will be distributing leaflets written by the children regarding safe use of the shopping mall, and explaining the way the Fire force is trained and operates.
All this could actually occur if a school would embrace the idea. But, an invented shopping mall could be designed and become a model for “thinking security” if the real mall is deemed too complicated.
Commission Two: High School Students, aged 16 - 18 years.
Commissioned by the University of Derby, involving departments of anthropology, social sciences, architecture, building science, town and country planning. The Vice Chancellor, on behalf of the above departments, is requesting that a pilot study be undertaken by young people around the general theme of “what is lost and what gained in the new urban building using the Derby shopping mall as the first location”. This commission enables the team of researchers to find discrete ways to study how the mall is enabling social intercourse. Where do people gather, arrange meetings, socialize? How might the young people liaise with architects, sociologists, building workers, social services and planners so that the University “experts” work as mentors to the social politics of changing places? There are already videogames which are commissions for the players and they can call on actual present mentors to work alongside them as they study the building potentials as social spaces to be researched.
The Great Fire of London archives will also be used by these young people studying the mall, to cause them to create a modern mystery play, using the medieval model, to show how the shopping mall of 2008 reflects and parallels the area of the City of London which was in operation before the fire. The “story” of 1666, in parallel with 2008 as a social document for citizens of Derby.
An interesting factor for both commissions is that in each period, the ordinary workforce and the planners together, help create culture and give rise to the stories each generation tells it to itself using the means of communication available.
Both these models satisfy me in that the answer my self-imposed question “Why should we bother to keep remembering the Great Fire of London?” Questions like that continue to be a central factor in selecting contexts for using drama/dance systems for learning which makes them a constant source of creative teaching.