Victorian Street Life (LS-RO-622)

Research and imagination have joined forces in my classroom when my students of English as a Foreign Language (B2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and I worked on a low-tech learning unit focused on street life in Victorian London. My name is Daniela Bunea, and my main aim with this 3-period lesson of English was boosting literacy through history. We started by researching what street life was like in 19th century London using knowledge from Ubisoft’s game “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate”, items found on Europeana and elsewhere, background/setting information from books such as Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, and finally concluded the learning unit with producing hand-written pieces of descriptive work: students’ own depiction of a typical street scene in Victorian London.

Games and learning

Sitting in front of a console or computer to play games can teach a lot. Many video games are set in historic time periods, and young people can learn many facts and details without realising it. By playing history-related games, teenagers may even discover a new period of history that they like, which can trigger a search for more information from a library or other media source. The Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” (2015) is a historical action-adventure game that takes place in London in 1868, at the gates of the modern age (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTBbwgsyxvg). The visual 19th century London is a city of extreme contrasts and contradictions. Its people are divided between the very rich and the desperately poor. This is a colourful, saturated world. In addition, it is harsh and literally dark. It is however coherent for the game’s adventures. A bleak and gloomy, mysterious and polluted, smoggy and stenchful London is brought to life in almost all of the scenes.

Adjusted musicals

Yet that same London could look quite different in the morning or towards noon.  Lionel Bart’s song “Who Will Buy?” from the musical “Oliver” (1968) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJcH1bj53aE) is an amazing and most memorable scene that shows London transforming. The early morning tranquillity turns into the hustle-and-bustle of the street sellers appearing and praising their merchandise.

Learning objects

Which is closer to the reality of the time? At this point my students were asked to search the Europeana website to find out more about what street life was like in Victorian London and to locate pictures depicting street jobs in general, and street jobs done by children in particular: there were musicians, beggars, boardmen, canal workers, all sorts of sellers, black-shoes, chimney sweepers, pickpockets and many more.

Group work

In pairs, triads or groups, students then described a few pictures using the senses worksheet, with its 5 sections: sights, sounds, smells, time of day and actions. Concentrating on how what one is describing appeals to the different senses and manipulating the speed at which the action develops are always very effective and straightforward ways of painting a picture. Students deciphered what job each picture showed, then jotted down relevant observation in the grid provided by the teacher (e.g. the smell of shoe polish, or the noise of the street cries) and presented choice findings to class.

Descriptive writing

What happened next was individual, responsive and creative. Each student selected one picture in their group to focus on and wrote a piece of descriptive writing. This could have been part of a time travel story, of an article describing a destination, of an adventure story, of a letter to a friend written by somebody visiting London, and so on. Supportive questions, such as: What does the street look like? What sounds do I hear? What can I smell? What would I touch? What would I taste? prompted my students to take evidence from the senses sheet and to creatively and empathetically imagine other details. They made their descriptions as clear as possible by organising their paragraph according to space. They also focused on specific details. Self-, peer and teacher assessment followed as always.

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CC BY 4.0: the featured image used to illustrate this article has been found on Europeana and has been provided by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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