Memories of yesterday, realities of today, dreams of tomorrow: reflecting on changing place in the Geography Department

Posted on 23 November 2018

The imminent demolition of the Geography Department, Rooms 12 and 15, followed by our eventual migration to a brand new departmental space seems strangely poignant and symbolic. Geographers are no strangers to the themes of demolition (erosion?), relocation, regeneration, making places and changing spaces. But after 20 years in one place, with a stable and talented teaching team, it is not surprising that there is a significant emotional attachment to the old place – notwithstanding the peeling paint and tippex stains – and some nostalgia-driven trepidation about the future.

So as the bulldozers rev their engines and the wrecking ball starts to swing, we have indulged ourselves with one last wistful moment of reminiscence about the walls that educated a generation of geographers.

And what scenes, what learning, the walls of Room 12 and 15 have witnessed! The excitement when a Year 7 pupil sees a contour map spring into 3D in their minds for the first time; the Year 8 pupil determined to put their own mark on the classroom (ceiling) with a bicarbonate-fuelled volcano model; a Year 9 pupil making the unexpected connection between poverty and population growth; a Year 13 student finally realising that geography, with its big concepts, provides an intellectual framework for interpreting the world, that there is a conceptual logic to studying material as diverse as hygroscopic nuclei and Glaswegian gentrification; and, of course, the joy and satisfaction of a job well done from the geography team when record numbers opt for the subject they love.

Above all, we will remember the laughter in these rooms as, to quote Rubin (1985): ‘‘Pupils are caught up in the learning and excitement abounds. Playfulness and seriousness blend easily because the purposes are clear, the goals sensible and an unmistakable feeling of wellbeing prevails.”

But this interim period, between demolition and renewal, reminds us that a school is never just a building, but a complex mosaic of relationships. Over the 20 years this is what stands out: powerful relationships forged with classes and individuals. Watching with awe as talented colleagues coax and cajole and support and challenge to get the best out of each pupil. Teaching and learning always has to be about the individual. Twenty years and thousands of students – but every one different. Georgie: the Sixth Form student who struggled to locate countries so bought a world map pillowcase – by the end of Year 12 she could pinpoint East Timor and Burundi with ease! Katie: the GCSE student who would turn up on field trips dressed ‘appropriately’ – cloth cap, wellies, tweed jacket and a lamb under her arm for a farm visit, full forensic white overalls, including white wellies, for a river study. Natasha: whose GCSE project needed to be marked in the corridor so that we could unfold the A3 sheets she had stuck together like a roll of carpet.

One of the delights of teaching in one place for an extended period is maintaining contact with our geography graduates and witnessing their own impact on the world. At least seven of our students have become geography educators, including Rosie, the recent guest editor of the journal Teaching Geography. There is Emilie, now working in Santiago as a researcher for the Gender Affairs Division of the UN. Fran, now an advisor to big business on sustainability issues. Emma, now championing Women’s Rights on a global stage. Victoria, environmental lawyer and now activist – one of the world’s leading authorities on illegal fishing, fighting for the rights of local fishermen in Cape Coast, Ghana. These are just some of the headlines. But the small print reads … hundreds of young women thinking geographically, asking geographical questions.

There have also been sobering moments. Charlotte: six weeks teaching glaciation to Year 11 followed by a field trip to Iceland. Stepping off the bus at the foot of Vatnajokull, part of the largest icecap in Europe, to hear “Wow! What’s that big white thing?”. A classic reminder that despite our best efforts it is impossible to draw a straight line between teaching and learning!

Or tragically, devastatingly, Amy. The passionate geographer who never returned from a gap year to Kenya. Beauty and brilliance brutally blotted out. Her memorial, a community centre on the shores of Lake Chala, a fitting and enduring testimony; a message to all that time is short and that we, like Amy, must make a difference. Our scholarship should not, must not, be passive.

So, we bid a nostalgic, fond farewell to Rooms 12 and 15 – whilst looking forward to inhabiting a state-of-the-art new space from 2020. Urban geographers describe successful urban regeneration as being like an ancient papyrus. The top layers of the parchment or skin were scraped away for the latest bit of writing, but older layers could still be seen beneath the most recent script (think London Docklands). Our physical space changes but the layers remain, enriching and informing the present and the future.

We already know that in many ways the square meterage, the quality of fittings, the colour of the walls and the latest in interactive whiteboard technology are irrelevant. Ultimately, the geography classroom, like geography itself, is about people and place. We look forward and back and continue to deal in the geographical currency of memories of yesterday, realities of today and dreams of tomorrow.

Stephen Ramsbottom, 

Director of Professional Development and Geography teacher


The first and last Year 7 class in room 15…

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