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Primary Education News
News My best history lesson: teaching Northern Ireland and the Troubles
To immerse his students, James Cannon pulled out the PE bibs and created a classroom divide
I have always found teaching about Northern Ireland and the Troubles difficult. An intensely complicated back story makes it a fairly sticky subject. Others; the Battle of Hastings, the Gunpowder Plot or the outbreak of the first world war, do not require as heavy a discussion to understand the pretext of why events unfolded as they did. Cue the football bibs.
Period five dawned, always a joy with year 9, but I knew they would be unable to resist getting involved in what was planned. The room was split into four sections to replicate the four provinces, and students were placed in what would be their "homeland" for that part of the lesson. Each province was allocated a different colour bib depending on what religion they were, and were then given examples of how people were forced to live in Ireland in the early 20th century. Feedback was instantly given as students voiced their displeasure about being forced into different types of work based on their religion, and animosity grew towards the Ulster section of the room who enjoyed the luxuries that British rule brought.
Along came the Home Rule Bill of 1920 which pleased some of our groups, and bibs were then swapped as we all became part of the Ulster province. We were well into the lesson at this point, and there had been no mention of copying learning objectives or underlining titles; two of the drier aspects of learning and teaching that we too often get caught up in. Students were engaged, focused, and well in the mindset of their Irish counterparts. Learning was in the air.
As we now focused on the Ulster province, most of the class donned a yellow Protestant bib, while a few others were given green Catholic bibs. Who was happy with the new arrangement and partition of Ireland, and who was not? More scenarios were discussed and the greens got more and more frustrated. "Why can't they just move into the south?" said one yellow. "Would you move?" I asked. The silence was deafening.
The class then started to look at how some may respond to the situation. The difference between peaceful and violent protest, the impact it could have on others and the virtues of both were shared. Students even brought examples from other subjects to the table. "In RE, we looked at how Martin Luther King insisted on peaceful protest, but Malcolm X did not," said Mollie.
We then got back into groups and each student was given a character card, showing their religion and where they lived. Each had a to write a short diary extract about their lives in Ireland and then share it with a friend; the views, needless to say, often conflicted. We finished off with some tweets that might have been following the Home Rule Bill of 1920; which were most amusing especially when accompanied by the hashtags. Here are a few examples:
"Hmmm so the Brits have just renamed our beautiful country ..." #northernireland
"Not sure this will have the required impact ..."#theremaybetroubleahead
@irishcatholic_official "I live in ulster, consider myself irish, but am still ruled by the brits???" #notfair #selfgovernment
@northernprotestant: "woop woop loving this new rule" #iLOVElloydgeorge
Having been around the class and talked to the students, I gauged that their understanding was good, but I guess you can never really be sure until they are actually required to apply the knowledge. It was then – when I posed questions in the next lesson about the motives behind the IRA – that students were able to recall what they had done the week before to help them answer.
"Oh yeah, my character last week was a young, Northern Irish Catholic and I can see why a resistance movement became popular in some quarters," said Kieran. Great stuff, I thought.
By trying to develop empathy with my year 9s too, I found they engaged far more effectively with the topic. Northern Ireland is a highly sensitive subject, and during the weeks that followed countless students arrived with tales from home about their parents' and grandparents' opinions on the subject. This is what history at secondary school is about for me; it's not textbooks, or learning objectives, or endless PowerPoints. It's making it relevant to our students, it's making them think for themselves, and it's about getting them to engage.
So next time you're struggling, head for the PE bibs.