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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 10

Rediscovering the plot with Year 8

One day I would like to write a novel. My Granny who was a prolific writer told me all the time “everyone has a book in them ducky” and I believe her. I even have an idea for a novel, and most days part of my time is spent thinking about it. More recently I’ve been trying to plan its structure and characters. It won’t surprise those who know me that it’s an historical novel I’d like to write. But even though I have made progress on the structure and characters, I keep coming back to the history – the meaty, living, breathing stuff that will make the novel exciting and its characters truly real. So I’ve been researching the ‘real’ history that forms the heart of the novel – out of which I will mould the people, places and events…

…at the same time I’ve been struggling with Year 8. Badly.

We’ve reached an impasse. They really aren’t enjoying their lessons and to be honest neither am I. The reason this matters here in this blog is that my thinking for the novel and my stresses about Year 8 very happily collided today. I realised that I’ve been focussing too much on the things we will DO in the lesson. This is a result of the fact that the class are one of the most diverse in need and ability that I’ve ever taught in my career. Even more so than the brilliantly mad class I taught in my NQT1 who had a student who insisted on taking her shoes and socks off and sitting cross legged, whilst another who had only one front tooth liked to whistle softly through the gap her missing tooth created; when the class got to the end of year exam they were totally lost: “Miss I got into the exam and there was no glue and scissors for a card sort”. It told me all I needed to know about the gap between my hopes and the reality of teaching. Anyway I digress. The current Year 8s are challenging, and as a result I’ve focused massively on differentiation.

So the happy collision that happened today is that I realised I’ve lost the plot – literally – for Year 8. There’s no story, no people, no living, breathing plot line that twists and turns because I’ve distilled the history to death by differentiating. I need to get back to the story and help my Year 8s to immerse themselves in the fabric and texture of the people of the past by allowing the history, the knowledge, to… Well… Be told or to unfold like a brilliant novel.

I recognise that this realisation for me has come at a time when all of us newbies are watching the history teaching landscape undergo major shifts. All over the land people are talking about the centrality of knowledge – the expert, deep knowledge that can come from immersion in the past. There’s also a lot of talk of not allowing level descriptors or assessment criteria that teams are busy thinking of to be too focused on process. Knowledge must be at the heart of getting better at history. I won’t immerse in those particular discussions here (yet), but I will say that in my NQT2 it’s going to take a degree of courage to allow my Year 8s to dive into the wonderful story. I am driven by a culture – like we all are – of having to report to parents and line managers about progress. Progress in history has typically been measured by getting better at doing history, with students showing us they can use what they know, rather than just knowing more. So yes it’s going to take courage as for the rest of the term I’m going to focus on knowledge / story / narrative / stuff (!) as I’ve realised that I’ve gone too far the other way and tried to help them make progress almost too much, differentiating history to death.

To do this I’m going to set up the classroom slightly differently. I’m going to lay the room out in groups of tables, and upon each table I’m going to provide knowledge in different forms. So one group might have a set of laptops and different films of the topic playing for the children to watch. Another table will have chapters or extracts from historical novels. Another will have contemporary sources, and another historians’ works or text books. I’m not even going to ask them to answer questions, instead I’m going to ask them to work in the way I have been for my novel. That means I just want them to explore the story, and in so doing begin to formulate their own questions about the topic. I hope that in so doing they are keener to go on and discover the answers to these questions. They won’t be getting better in the way the scheme of work planned, but they will becoming masters of the history and this will be leading to questions – and that is the start of all good enquiry.

Wish me luck!