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Creative contexts for history lessons

  • Creative contexts for history lessons

If we’re to avoid dragging children kicking and screaming through the new history PoS and still have time for the rest of the curriculum, we need creative contexts to support their learning, says Tim Taylor...

There is no doubt that, should it remained unchanged, the new history programme of study is goingz to dominate the curriculum in Key Stage 2.

It’s ironic that an almost inevitable consequence of this is that primary schools are going to have to rely on crosscurricular teaching to explore large areas of the Key Stage 2 curriculum if the history PoS is to be covered in its entirety – not, I’m sure, what the curriculum architects had in mind at all.

Nevertheless, it is possible to view the overloaded history programmes of study as an opportunity to plan and teach effective cross-curricular learning activities for children that will be interesting and memorable. At the same time we must avoid falling into the trap that has ensnared some commentators – mostly from outside of the profession – of confusing the teaching and learning of history with telling a series of stories about the past.

The solution, I believe, is to co-create, with the children, imaginative contexts for learning. Contexts that will develop into meaningful and engaging environments in which to make sense of opaque historical events (like the Crusades), documents (like the Doomsday Book or the Magna Carta), and people (like Thomas Becket).

Building a crosscurricular context

As an example, I’m going to offer a plan for creating a context for studying the Norman conquest and Norman rule.

When planning a unit, after ascertaining broadly what the children are required to learn, the first question I ask myself is, ‘What is going to be interesting to them initially about this period of history?’ In this instance, my list includes: The Battle of Hastings; William’s coronation in London; the repression of the Anglo-Saxon earls; the rebellion in the North; the building of castles and cathedrals; establishing Norman rule; alienation and suppression – which is quite a good ‘horrible histories’ list.

My next question is, ‘What is the context for the children’s studies?’ We are going to be working on all this stuff a great deal over 14 weeks, so it has to matter to them. If not, I know from bitter experience I’m going to be dragging them along, no one is going to be enjoying it and not much learning is going to take place.

There are, I think, many possible meaningful and engaging contexts that could be developed for this programme of study, but the one that seems to be most relevant to the age of the children and their likely interests is the building and running of a castle.

The old ruined castle

Gather the children together on the carpet and start setting the scene:

“On the hill, just outside the village, there is an old building, ruined now, but once thriving and teaming with life. People would travel from all around the local settlements to visit the family who lived there. Not because they were popular or well liked, but because they were an important family and the local people recognised that without their help and support (which they called patronage) they would find it hard to live and to get things done.”

In this strategy, I’m suggesting you simply start the story without explanation or background (we will build this in later). The children should be able to follow what is happening, but if any are struggling or looking confused, you might need to stop and help them understand the convention. Otherwise continue:

“I’ve been asked to make a sign and put it up this morning because the ruin has become quite dangerous and the council is worried people might get hurt if they get too close.”

At this point, pick up a pen and start thinking about writing on a sheet of paper.

“I don’t want to scare anyone, but I do want to keep people away. (The children might start making suggestions. If not, then offer some alternatives) “Do you think it would be alright to write ‘Danger’ or should it just say ‘Warning’? Do you think it should be in capital letters?” It might seem trivial to some, but these early negotiations are important for building the context and developing the children’s involvement. All the time in this process we are signaling, as teachers – “I’m not making all the decisions here, I’m interested in your suggestions. Not everything is decided, let’s build this together.”

Once you’ve worked with the children to create the sign, ask one of them to stick it to the whiteboard.

“Yes, I think that should do it. Would you mind coming with me into the ruins? I need to make a survey, walk around and see what work needs to be done. Apparently some of the walls are crumbling, there is an old well and there might even be the remains of underground rooms. To be honest, it has been a long time since anyone took a proper look. I’ve got some spare safety helmets in the back of the van and some notepads. If I gave you one each, do you think you could have a look around the ruin and see if there is anything that needs repairing right away? If you do find something, could you please make a quick drawing for me so I can start making up a plan of action? Thank you, that would be a big help. It’s a very big ruin: actually, the local people say it was once a castle, but I don’t know enough about that. Perhaps we can decide if it was a castle once we’ve got all the information. Shall we get started?”

In this activity, the children will invent the different parts of the ruin and the extent of the reconstruction work that needs doing. Do not be too worried if some of their contributions are anachronisms or even flights of fancy (Merlin’s staff, ghosts, walking skeletons, etc). These can all be dealt with later. Depending on the background knowledge of the children, you will probably want to give them access to information books and other resources: possibly websites, pictures on the whiteboard or laminated preprepared pictures. These will all help the children to make more authentic contributions. As they work, walk around the room and draw attention to anything you think will develop the context further. I always try to be respectful, not everyone likes having their work shown to others.

“Can I see what you working on? Thank you. Ah, you noticed the drawbridge. I saw that too. What did you discover? Um. It sounds like it is in a bad state of repair, do you think we will have to take it down to fix it? Can we use the existing chains or will they need replacing?

“Could you please make a note on the back of your picture about what you think needs doing. It will be very helpful when we come to draw up our action plan. Thank you. “Would you mind if I just let everyone know about your work on the drawbridge? Thank you. I’m sorry everyone, could I just ask you stop work for a minute. I know you are all very busy, but I just wanted to ask if there is anyone else looking at the drawbridge? Ah, two others.

Daniel has been studying the drawbridge too and he’s decided it’s going to need to come down for repair, the chains are going to need replacing and it will have to go off site. Did you come to the same conclusions? Well look, already this seems as though it is not going to be a quick job. Can I please ask you to make notes, like the ones Daniel is making, on the back of your pictures giving us an idea of what work we have ahead of us. It will be a great help when it comes to writing up the action plan. Thank you. Sorry to stop you working.”

Continuing in this way the children are likely to create a substantial amount of material that can be used to give an outline of the castle ruin and some detail of the work needed in its restoration.

As mentioned above, taking into account the age of the children, it is likely to be a mixed bag. There will be some obvious anachronisms – parts of the castle that would have rotted away (like the drawbridge) and other aspects the children have lifted from fairytales, films or fantasy stories.

Ask the children to bring their contributions with them onto the carpet. Be careful not to turn this step into a ‘show and tell’. The purpose of this activity is to create a work-plan for the restoration team, and to sort out those contributions that belong on the work-plan rather than to the history of the castle or to fantasy stories told about the castle’s mythical past. On the carpet, or on the board, place three sheets of A3 paper labelled:

  • Restoration work
  • Scenes from the history of the castle
  • Mythical stories or legends told about the castle to entertain, excite or scare people

“I made these earlier because I thought they might help us sort out everything we have discovered about the ruin. It is all going to be useful, but it needs sorting out now so we can prepare our action plan properly. So, you can see here I’ve created three categories.”

Extending across the curriculum

Without going into too much detail, the following is a possible outline of how you might plan for the work to further develop:

1 Restoration work

  • Writing up the restoration team’s work plan
  • Meeting and explaining the plan to the council
  • Meeting and explaining the plan to the local community
  • Answering their questions and addressing their concerns (some in the form of letters and/or emails)
  • Drawing a plan of the site, measuring and labelling the different parts of the castle
  • Writing up instructions for the builders and other work teams, including special safety procedures and working carefully with historical artifacts
  • Plans and instructions for moving and transporting heavy and (historically) valuable parts of the castle, which need restoration offsite, including: statues, drawbridges, etc

2 Historical research work

  • When was the castle built? Who built it? Why did they build it? What did the local people think of the castle?
  • How was the castle used? How was it organised? What was life like in the castle? How were jobs divided?
  • What stories could be told be people who lived there or close by?
  • What terrible things happened in the castle, which would shock us today: sanitation, food, imprisonment, treatment of children and the poor etc?
  • How were people affected by wider historical events – the writing of the Doomsday book, the development of feudalism, the spread of Norman Culture and the advent of the Crusades?

3 Presenting children’s work

Stage an open day for the castle once it is restored, where the children can invite others to an opening ceremony which they organise. At the ceremony, children can:

  • Present their plans and work carried out on the restoration of the site
  • Share stories about the castle’s history and mythical past
  • Talk to visitors about the historical context and how the castle reflects a general change in English cultural and political history at the time of the Norman conquests and rule
  • Answer questions and receive feedback from others who will be learning from their knowledge and understanding.

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Pie Corbett