Your Name Matters
I began working with St. Albert’s Primary School in 2020 to collaboratively write new stories with their pupils. This was at the start of the pandemic, and at that point I knew very little about the school. However, I remember one of the teachers telling me that the children had been putting together a list of teddy bear names for a raffle, and had chosen names such as Alan, Sarah, and James. But not one of those children picked a name that was like their own. This became crucial to the ‘We Can Be Heroes’ project and story.
To put this into context, about 86 percent of the children at the school are from an ethnic minority background and the school itself is based in one of Glasgow’s most diverse areas. The children there have beautiful names such as Shenaz, Mohammed and Fauzia but not one of them picked a name that was from their own culture, community, religion, or heritage. This, of course, echoes a larger problem in publishing. The most recent Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature (2017-2022) (CLPE), outlines that only 9% percent of books published in 2021 had a main character from a racially minoritised identity. If we go back only 3 years, it was 1%!
The emergence of the ‘We Can Be Heroes’ social enterprise project sat somewhere in the middle of that timeframe from 2020 to 2022 but it was a very personal endeavour. It was a reaction and social activism to address the fact that so few stories feature black and brown children. Why are their stories, experiences and realities not included in the curriculum?
A question the leaders of the school were not afraid to ask and to rightly challenge. Clare Harker, the headteacher and Shirley Brightman, the former principal teacher of St. Albert’s were crucial to the drive and success of the project. As passionate advocates, they truly understand the communities they work in and know to empower young people to make positive changes to build the world they want to live in.
This project shows that when educational leaders take initiative on issues, we can expect great and long-term impact. The project has pioneered culturally responsive teaching in Scotland’s educational landscape and won the Scottish Education Awards for Curriculum Innovation, among an accolade of other awards and recognitions.
The pupils came up with a range of different ideas for the stories from superheroes and secret laboratories (‘The Zedriz’), a shipwreck and being stranded on a remote island (‘Home is Where the Heart Is’) to being trapped in a cave (‘Cave of Gemstones’). Six short stories were written by a group of pupils and myself, two more writers with their group of pupils, which were then published.
“As-slamu alaykum my betae” said her mum. “Are you ready to hear a kahani?” reads an excerpt from ‘Cave of Gemstones’ which was based on an idea by a girl in primary 5, Mahrosh. The story continues: “They had a tradition in their family that the night before Eid, they would hear a special story. Rabiya stopped reading the Qur’an and Muna jumped up.”
Once we had published our first stories, I worked with both the pupils and their parents. I was thrilled to hear stories that were so rich in history, and real cultural experiences. One of the parents spoke of her grandparents falling in love in India, and a golden bangle which she wore that had been passed down through the generations. This became a central piece in ‘The Beat of the Dhol’:
“There were stalls of mango kulfi, pakora’s, and fresh watermelon and guava juice…Taj couldn’t wait to go on the Ferris wheel! He smiled widely. He felt a flutter inside him, but it was not the mela…It was Jeevan. He spotted her by the chooriyan stall. She had beautiful, long, thick black hair and a smile brighter than the sun. She wore an orange and red sari that floated as she moved and thick, gold bangles on each arm”.
The Importance of Your Own Name
One of the teachers at St. Albert’s recently shared that she was monitoring the children who were playing Stop the Bus! For the name categories, the children – unprompted – chose the names Haleema, Hamad, Kalsoom, Kasim, Firquan, and Fauzia! She said, “…your work on representation has obviously made a difference to these children’s mindsets!” It was fulfilling to hear that two years on, the seed that had been planted had grown.
The project continues with the development of a graphic novel. You can support the ‘We Can Be Heroes project’ by buying the books or sharing the project.
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Yasmin Hanif is a writer, poet, and educator, specialising in children’s literature. Her first piece, ‘Daisy’s Mum’ was published by Cranachan Publishing in their Stay-at-Home anthology, followed closely by ‘Partition’, in the Scottish BPOC Writer’s Network anthology. She has had 8 stories published as part of the ‘We Can Be Heroes’ project and is currently a writer-in-residence at St. Albert’s.