Teaching with Flags
A moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole
It does not look likely to stir a man's soul,
'Tis the deeds that were done 'neath the moth-eaten rag,
When the pole was a staff, and the rag was a flag.
Sir Edward B. Hamley
But how does the sight of a mouldering flag hanging forlornly in the corner of a classroom stir the souls of students separated from such deeds by time, geography, culture, and language? I teach history in an international school in China’s capital; most of the students are Asian, foreign nationals, and learning in English as a second language. I focus on ensuring my students feel history and not just to articulate it—a key means is through flags.
The most immediate use of flags is as an ensemble; the veritable onslaught of colour in my classroom creates an immediate reaction from students (and parents!). The back wall is a riot of red, made up of communist flags from all over. Red is such a powerful symbol—no matter the weather or environment, it sticks out. Blowing in the wind on a pole outside the class, the country’s flag reminds students of what it had to overcome, what it has achieved, and what it stands for.
Some flags illustrate specific points in lessons. The junks in the badge of the old colonial flag of Hong Kong, with the Chinese dragon losing the Pearl of the Orient to the British lion, recall the “national humiliation” that saw the first of the unequal treaties signed at Nanking in 1842. The bright red maple leaf is used to explain to students the legacy the Battle of Vimy Ridge continues to exert on Canadians. The dozens of ensigns that once represented the nations of the British Empire but today are long forgotten, suggest the vagaries of time and human ambition, whilst the hammers and sickles throughout illustrate the idea of communities over countries. And yet if studying history is little more than reflecting on “the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”, in China it can be a state crime. Unlike other subjects, history offers students a taste of the forbidden where even possessing a Tibetan flag or that of Nationalist China is illegal. The result is a level of engaging discussion which, with flags, students can follow visually.
For example, one student immediately noticed in a Chinese propaganda poster how the five people shown seem to represent the stars on the Chinese flag, with the largest (representing the Communist Party) in the middle surrounded by smaller people representing the various groups in society. This is the type of analysis I hope students can demonstrate by the end of my course. A girl in my Grade 11 class recently noted how the key symbols shown in a Nazi poster were the very ones adopted for the state flag (suspended above her) of the Communist regime that replaced it.
Through the use of visual stimulus, my students and I engage in a discussion of ideology that transcended anything we could have hoped for through a simple reading of the text. Flags provide other stimuli besides colour and their symbols. Nearly all my flags are vintage, individually- sewn pieces of fabric slowly falling apart, which once represented nations but today register little more than idle curiosity. Compared to cheap, printed, mass- produced flags, the seams and stitches of such old flags add an extra dimension to my class which gives students a subconscious awareness of the traditions and history that went into making such symbols. The musty smell of the heavy fabric adds weight to the history I’m teaching, providing, I hope, the same feeling of wonder one gets by looking at old standards hanging alone in the corner of some old church.
On a more deeply personal level, flags provide a valuable personal connection for our students—our reception area (shown above right) displays the over forty flags representing their various nationalities. With most of our students coming from outside of China, they encounter difficulties in everything from understanding enrolment information, getting to the school from the dorm, where to buy their uniform, the books needed, and so on. Many are in China for the first time and besides having to re-establish their support network and status in their peer group, they are forced to manage their own learning whilst possibly being placed in classes at an inappropriate level. Over half our seniors come from South Korea—all too aware of the constant threat posed to their country, seeing their flag in my classroom provides a crucial point of reference. Often students who are not even taking my classes visit my classroom to marvel at the old Soviet Kazakhstan flag or to remind themselves of their home in Africa while living in a society they find particularly threatening and unwelcoming.
My Roman uniform complete with lorica segmentata
Write ups in IB World magazine in 2010 and 2014
I recently completed my intensive on-site course to become a fully licensed/accredited guide of the Dachau Memorial and to provide information at the site.1941 German globe showing former colonies lost over twenty years previously still coloured in the German colours with the legend "Administered by [Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, et cet.].