Monthly Archives: October 2015

In defence of inspirational posters in school. 

  I’ve never used a shop bought inspirational poster, but I have made a few, and I think that their judicious use can be very beneficial. 

With most things it’s the quality and the way you use them, rather than their presence which is important. I can think of a few reasons why I might turn to an inspirational poster:

  • If teachers and students need some help in thinking about how life could be different or better;
  • If they want to think about their futures in ways that might not immediately be obvious from their surroundings;
  • If students need help in learning to regulate their behaviour or the way that they relate to others;

Of course, posters, like iPads and whiteboards or pencils and paper or libraries and assembly halls are not guarantees of learning or positive attitude. Posters about respect can be found on the walls of rooms in which students and teachers are in conflict, or about working hard where teachers and students have a tacit agreement that things won’t be too taxing. Such posters are redundant, but that doesn’t mean that all such posters are. 

The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.

Day Two (before lunch) #SHP15 #SHP2015 Conference – Longer Texts

Straight into the workshops on Saturday morning. Breakfast is always a sea of people bending over conference packs and making choices over which workshop to attend. When schools are farsighted enough to send more than one delegate, or where friends have been made, you can often hear groups deciding who will go and report back on which workshop. I had so many I wanted to see and I heard of so many great workshops that I couldn’t get to. I try to see people I’ve not seen before, but even this rule doesn’t always make it easy to take decisions. You know, I think I would be kicking myself over not getting to see @bones_carmel do her workshop on engagement, but for the great sessions that I did get to.

Paul Nightingale and Tim Jenner’s workshop on ‘using extended original texts with less able students’ was very good – and just the right mix of ambition and practical examples. They started from the revelation that they could make reading and understanding a text the aim of the lesson, and that modelling different kinds of enthusiasm for text would help, but would only get students so far. Their take is that students who find history hard are often given less complicated texts, when what they need is to be ‘skilled-up’ and to an extent given the contextual knowledge to understand the more complicated texts. Having listened and taken part in this great session I think what they have really achieved is slowing pupil thinking down, and encouraged engagement with the text whilst at avoiding student anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. That they have managed to do this creatively and with, wait for it… engagement with the text, is what makes their ideas compelling to try in the classroom.

Three activities really stuck out for me. The first was ‘stage directions‘ – making your students dramatise and present the action that takes place in a document. In small groups we played briefly at being pupils, and highlighted, scrawled and discussed ways in which we could make the meaning of our text come alive. I know I’m a 40 something history geek, and that this is hardly a scientific approach, but I think this great idea merits trying with students. With the right class, and with the right text (we had a Wilfred Owen poem) students might be able to use this technique to get to grips with text in deep and thoughtful ways.

The second was text mapping, which could be done individually, in pairs or in groups. With large copies of the text students are encouraged to highlight key features, key terms, argument, pictures, diagrams, summaries, conclusions, titles, headings, footnotes. In groups initial support for getting into a complex text could be given by asking lower attaining students to do simpler and increasingly complex highlighting. The crucial thing is that this is not the end of the use of the text. The highlighting is not the point of the activity, it is just the first activity – a way of helping students attain familiarity and confidence before moving on to other things.

The third I’m including because at first I internally dismissed it as something I’d seen before.  However, a few subtle details brought me up short.  Wordle has now been around for a while, and I went through a period of using it quite a lot, as a quick way of demonstrating the main theme in some writing.  I have in the past made students create wordles of their coursework or essays, in the hope that it would help them see their main themes (or lack of them).   I had started to think that it was a way of skimming over the details in a text and I worried that it stopped students from really reading a document – they didn’t need to if wordle had already summarized it.

Paul and Tim have taken the idea a little further by asking students to look at the smaller words in a wordle – the words that occur less frequently, but nonetheless are there. They ask ‘what’s the subtext?’, what ideas are being snuck in under the radar? They also suggested using a wordle to predict the content and thrust of a document before using some of their other techniques so that students can then compare their initial prediction with what they really find when they become familiar with its contents.

Overall, what struck me about their approach was the building of knowledge and confidence as students worked continuously on the text, and how this went hand in hand with the text itself. It was however never a crude ‘here’s what you need to know, now lets look at the text’ approach.  Subtle and energising stuff.

Then I was on doing the second outing of my own workshop – which went much better the second time around.  I’ll post the powerpoint soonish, probably after I’ve finished blogging about #SHP15 (who knows when at this rate).

Re-drafting to support learners

This is something that, in my practice as a history teacher, I’ve been resistant to over the years. I went to a great SHP talk on using longer, original contemporary texts this summer (the blog post will arrive, honestly!), and saw some great ideas for making text more accessible without ‘translating’ it into modern modes of talking or writing.

Today with my undergrad class which is studying the different roles and responsibilities within schools, were were looking at diversity and issues of equality, and I handed them a questionnaire that I borrowed from Sue Dymoke’s (ed) excellent book ‘Reflective Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School’. It was meant to be a quick starter whilst I fired up the projector. When I turned my attention back to the group it became clear that the exercise had fuddled and alarmed many of them, who lacked several of the key pieces of vocabulary necessary to access the task. They understood the concepts behind these words, to a large extent, but they did not have the words themselves.

Anyway, we talked through the words and concepts and the quick 5 minute starter became a 30 minute seminar about words and ideas such as:

‘socially well adjusted’
‘fundamental British values’
’emancipation’
‘rhetoric’
‘authorities’

Afterwards I began to wonder whether I should have re-written the questionnaire, and to consider whether I would have do so had I been working with school students. I think I probably would have for school, but not very much. Perhaps I would have picked my battles, and chosen one or two key words like emancipation, so we could have explored the different levels of meaning beyond ‘freedom’. 

At university exploring these particular phrases perhaps should be easier, but the students were affected by the number and weight of concepts that they found impossible to comprehend immediately.  It took some effort on my part to reassure and guide them back to the task. Though I had stumbled upon a teaching moment I’m going to have to think carefully about how to anticipate and prepare for difficult opportunities like these.