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The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

Pupils from Blue Coat Junior School give a performance at St Matthew’s Church, Walsall on Remembrance Day 2016

The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

By Michael Noble, Centre Co-ordinator for the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre for Hidden Histories. More details on these Centres can be found by looking at the AHRC’s website.  

With a remit to engage the public with the topic of the First World War, the Centre for Hidden Histories has made working with schools a key component of our outreach work. We found a receptive audience. Not only does the First World War feature across the National Curriculum, in a range of different subjects, but many schools expressed an interest in engaging with the centenary as a means of giving pupils the opportunity to learn about life a century ago. Several schools sought HLF funding for extended projects on the war and were keen to receive expert support as well as gain access to university resources.

The Centre carried out a range of direct engagement activities with primary and secondary schools, both on campus and in the school classroom. A variety of topics were explored in these sessions, from the multi-national, multi-faith aspects of the war, to the role played by children and teenagers, to the impact of the war on the pupils’ own community, even, in some cases, on their school itself.

MEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY REPAIR LONDON’S BOMB DAMAGED HOUSES. 10 OCTOBER 1944, WESTWAY, SHEPHERD’S BUSH. (A 25880) Assistant Steward W G Collins, of Portsmouth (left) and Able Seaman George Gray, of Northshields rebuilding a parting wall. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205157541© IWM (A 25880)

The work was carried out with partners  including the Widening Participation team at the University of Nottingham and Whitworks Adventures in Theatre, a heritage arts organisation in the East Midlands. These collaborations were invaluable in providing first access to schools. Accessing schools can be a challenge – they have so many demands on their time that it can be difficult to find the space to fit in, so working alongside existing schemes and relationships offered a huge advantage.

Pupils from Stonelow Junior School are shown how to digitise physical objects at the University of Nottingham. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork.

The sessions were grounded in the use of primary sources. We wanted to give the children the opportunity to experience the ‘raw material’ of history and to learn how to critically assess evidence and place it in context. We used census returns, photographs, letters, official documents and physical artefacts to open a window onto the world of the early twentieth century. Where possible, biographical narratives of real figures, both well-known and obscure, were used to put a human face on history.

We found that striking some note of familiarity, such as a closeness in place or through another connective link such as a football team, was a good place to start. Several of the schools had catchment areas that include Victorian terraced housing and the pupils were able to understand the war though tracing familiar streets in census returns and on maps. Pupils were often startled to realise that their own homes had ‘lives’ that preceded their own.

Pupils from Grassmoor Junior School give an emotional performance of the experiences of Mr George Rushton, who left his teaching job at the school to fight in the war. Photo Courtesy of Larissa Allwork

A handful of striking stories worked especially well. The stories of combatants like John Travers Cornwell, at 16, the war’s youngest VC recipient, or Sidney Lewis, who lied about his age and saw action on the Somme at the age of 13, struck a particular note. At one session in Walsall, the classroom erupted with shock and wonder at the story of Henry Tandey who, according to one famous account, declined to shoot the then-twentysomething Corporal Adolf Hitler. This led to a fascinating (and animated!) discussion about chronology, the nature of causality and the classic science fiction trope of ‘time travelling to stop Hitler’. The pupils also stopped to consider the moral position of Tandey, whose single act of mercy was to have a terrible afterlife.

Indeed, we were deeply impressed to find that even quite young pupils were able to engage in serious and considered debates about topics such as capital punishment for desertion (following the story of Peter Goggins, who was shot at dawn in 1917) or the different recognition of men and women. We examined the story of Charlotte Meade, who died from TNT poisoning after working in a London munitions factory. The pupils were asked, ‘did Charlotte give her life for the war effort?’. When they answered with an emphatic ‘yes’, we turned the discussion to the question, ‘so where are her medals?’.

MUNITIONS PRODUCTION ON THE HOME FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 110204) A female munition worker at work in a factory at an undisclosed location. Copyright: © IWM (Q110204). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205352885

One of the things we discovered through working with schools is that youngsters, particularly at primary age, have not fully absorbed the myths and common misunderstandings of the war that are found in older audiences. Few of them had any prior knowledge, but all of them expressed a thorough growing curiosity and desire to learn more.

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World War One in the Classroom

For years, learning about the First World War at school has been a key part of History and English Literature courses. For pupils, it might spark a lifelong interest, or it might be their only exposure to the period. In order to explore how teaching the history and literature of the war has contributed to the way in which the war is remembered, a research project has considered secondary schools in England as sites of cultural knowledge transmission.

The First World War in the Classroom project, funded by the AHRC, has just published their findings. Through regional focus groups and an online survey, the project found that there remains a strong sense of dedication to teaching the period, that popular representations such as Blackadder are used as windows to deeper discussion, and that the focus on some aspects of of the conflict (causes, the trenches) are a result of curriculum content and not a refusal by teachers to integrate more complex topics. The project also hopes to act as a “call to action” for academics to get involved with schools during the centenary periods to support training and teacher development.

Teaching in English literature and History is complicated by some concerns over the subject remits, with overlaps sometimes causing friction. The report suggests that cross-curricular work would produce better results. The report also found that teachers feel a widespread obligation to combine teaching of the war with developing pupils’s empathy and a moral stance towards warfare.

Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus (Northumbria University), one of the researchers from the project, comments on the key issue the research aims to address:

Ultimately, however, the greatest challenge we face is to make the war relevant to each new generation of pupils in their turn – and how better to do this than by exploring the war in all its many aspects?

Find out more about the project and read the final report on the WW1 in the Classroom website.

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