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Primary Education News
News Lest we forget: making history lessons memorable for students
From singing sister suffragette to re-enacting life in the trenches, teacher Joanna Duncan explains how using drama, artefacts and props can bring history lessons to life
When I think about what makes a truly excellent history lesson, it often has nothing to do with what Ofsted criteria the lesson hits.
A lot of pressure is put on teachers to produce outstanding lessons, but the best lessons I've taught have often be those where the students connect directly to the past using real historical artefacts, or where I've taken a real risk with our activities. Although this may not exactly tick Ofsted criteria, it gets students engaged in what they're learning, which is actually what they want to see.
You don't always need to do written work in class. I once brought in a suffragette badge and sash to show a group of year 9 students studying the campaign for the vote. We sung along to sister suffragette and everybody tried on the badge or sash. I borrowed some hats from the drama department and for 45 minutes everyone took turns at being a suffragette. Nobody did any writing, but for months afterwards the students said it had been their favourite lesson.
Using real life sources is powerful too. I once gave my A-level students nineteenth-century copies of the London Illustrated News. They worked in teams, thumbing carefully through looking for any pictures relating to the British empire. Every time a group found one, we gathered around the table and all discussed the imagery. Seeing the reality of how iconic the empire was in victorian Britain really brought the topic to life.
Asking students to lead the learning is also fun. When teaching a year 5 taster lesson about the first world war, I borrowed some helmets and bayonets excavated from the Somme. The students held the helmets, which had bullet holes in them, and we talked about what it would have been like to be there. I asked the students what questions they had about the battle, and the lesson continued from this point.
So if you're thinking about ways to spice up your history lessons here are five tips:
1. Take your students out of the classroom into another building in the school, or, if possible, outside. Whether it's the drama room, library, or an IT room, variety really is a wonderful thing. Do something different when you're there too – let the students explore history on their own by setting up an investigation or a mystery, for example. If you can't move location, try hiding sources around your classroom. Give students a historical problem, and let them discover the hidden answers.
2. Introduce some drama to your lesson. Re-enacting historical events is always fun – use the tables and chairs to create scenery, borrow some props from another department and have 10 minutes where everyone shelters from an air raid, crouches in a trench or watches the coronation of Elizabeth I. Some schools do a fantastic job of introducing drama into their history teaching, and this often translates into good results too.
3. Bring in something from home – a book you love, an artefact you own, some pictures of a museum you visited, a postcard or a poster from your wall. Work this item into a normal lesson, use it as an introduction. The students will love your enthusiasm, and it makes the lesson more personal.
4. Play a game with the students. I have had plenty of success with bingo, University Challenge and hang-man. These make great starters and plenaries, and once regular fixtures in your teaching, students look forward to lessons where they can have fun.
5. Hand the teaching part over to the students. Give them a topic and get them to prepare an activity in groups. You can then let them teach the class. This may sound scary but invariably produces excellent results, even with troublesome classes.
It's hard to do this type of teaching every day, particularly with the pressure of exams and challenging behaviour in some classes. But some things are worth trying, even just once a year, with each class. Students like the fact that teachers are willing to take a risk, even if the lesson is disastrous, at least we tried something new.
Joanna Duncan teaches history at Mill Hill School in London.