Last night I was privileged to have been invited to tell a story at a Live Storytelling event at National Library. There were 5 stories told around the theme of “Over the Edge.” I was invited to speak based upon an Ignite talk I gave last year on Guerrilla Geography. This session was all about oral storytelling and was a great event with bean bags and chairs sat around a fake campfire which created a lovely atmosphere for sharing stories.
What follows is what I wrote to prepare for the evening. The actual story told diverted in places as I got wound up with the story but the general gist was this:
Geography as a subject has a range of definitions such as.The study of Earth and it’s features including natural and cultural phenomena; The study of Earth as the home of people; How people and the environment interact; Or one one of my favourites: What’s where? Why there? And who cares? But most recently I have come to the definition of Geography as the story of a place. Tonight however I am going to tell you a story about a new form of geography called Guerrilla Geography.
Guerrilla Geography Is about making irregular, alternative, unexpected and abnormal geographies happen.
In an education context it’s about being creative in the way geography is taught, including the subject matter, learning environment and methods.
The aim is for (young) people to (re)think about the world through geography and (re)consider what geography is. In this sense if Geography is the story of place then Guerrilla Geography is questioning whether the right story is being told and retelling the story how you feel the place should be. To use other terminology that is becoming more common now, if Geography is the story of a place then Guerrilla Geography is hacking that story.
In everything that we do we shape places. Our actions such as what we buy or what we use that space for all shape the story that place tells. Often it is easy to look at a place and see what the main story of the place is. But it is also easy (if in the right mindset) to look at that place differently and see what other stories are waiting to be told.
This is the same sort of re-presenting space that artists like Banksy are world famous for. I have always enjoyed his work and since investigating Guerrilla Geography I now understand why I enjoy it, it is about the way he so cleverly manipulates a space to tell a very different story that provokes emotions.
Students constantly shape places with their actions: how they greet their parents – with a hug, a scowl or a shrug of indifference. Whether they do or dont do their homework. The way they greet other students entering their classroom.
Why should they not get the chance to shape their community?
This is not a movement that I personally have started. I first came across it through the work of educators such as David Rogers and Dan Raven Ellison in the UK who have been doing this for 5 or 6 years. David has posted all kinds of activities that his students have undertaken around school. Adding signs to the school walls in the languages of minorities from the school and highlighting the insanity of how many safety signs are around school buildings. Dan Raven Ellison has taken his guerrilla actions even further out into the public eye with students taking over fields beside the school to represent their ideas to a bigger audience, filming security cameras and policemen to highlight where cctv was located and partaking in a waterboarding exhibition on the grounds outside the US embassy in London to show that although ball games were not allowed on the grass, the US Govt would not object to waterboarding.
All of these activities require a big shift in pedagogy. It is risky, you are educating on the edge by handing over teacher control of activities and outcomes and encouraging students to unleash their creativity to re-present spaces. To me this is what Social Studies is about. The New Zealand Curriculum says that in Social Studies students should explore how societies work and how they themselves can participate and take action as critical, informed, and responsible citizens.
Guerrilla Geography will always involve the key competency of thinking – that’s what it is about. Thinking critically about the space around them and thinking creatively about how it could be re-presented. Depending on the shape the guerrilla action takes it could also involve Using Language Symbols and Texts and normally will also involve Participating and Contributing.
The first time that I had a class become guerrilla geographers was last year. After reading some of the exploits of Dan and David I thought of how I could bring it into my classes. I was starting a unit on use of resources and we had been investigating the idea of sustainability in class. I had the students work out what they thought the biggest sustainability issue was in our school and and set them the task of doing something to raise awareness of it. This led to posters telling students of the 94 bins in our school yards, some posters taped to seats and the ground simply stating: Ignore me, I am just another piece of litter passing by and signs highlighting what areas of the school had native trees as opposed to introduced species.
After this, I tweeted Dan and David seeing if they thought a global guerrilla geography competition was possible. This conversation spiralled through twitter, google docs and skype and ended up in the creation of Guerrilla Geography Day. An international day of collaborative guerrilla action. We challenged people to undertake the 4 Es of Guerrilla Geography:
The first Guerrilla Geography Day occurred in November last year and was based upon No signs – questioning those signs that restrict what we are able to use spaces for. People all around the world (well mainly UK, US, Canada plus my Social Studies class in Auckland) questioned the signs in their places by creating new signs or highlighting the ridiculous signs that exist. Signs (either real or created) were tweeted or loaded up onto the website so everyone could share in what we were doing. My students loved this exercise and also loved seeing the signs that were created or found by people overseas.
The second Guerrilla Geography Day was in February this year and I had my Year 13s investigating Gender Inequality in our community by investigating the imagery in advertising and in shops. It was a great way to start the year teaching this class by really getting them to investigate the underlying ideas that permeate our local community. The day was not as well participated in internationally as the first one due to the more difficult content which we hope to see change with the 3rd day on July 7th when we will investigate the idea of Places to Play.
This story is not complete, it is really an introduction. An introduction into viewing the world we live in in a different way and how we can rewrite the stories in the landscape around us. Every place has a story to tell, but does each place tell the whole story or the story most relevant to today. Can we help it to tell a better story? Imagine having a class who were studying poetry, writing poetry about a certain place and then placing the poetry up in that place – either on paper or in chalk on the footpath. Artists painting what the area/building could look like; mathematicians showing the math present in a place.
Or don’t imagine it. Enact it it and write the story that could be in that place.