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Up close and personal

The creator of an online resource that includes a panel of first-hand witnesses to historical events and people talks to Francis Beckett

Former history teacher John Simkin's website, Spartacus, gets six million page impressions every month. "You can do things now that weren't possible before ICT," says John. "For example, simulation activities. One on the site is about child labour. You allocate a character to each student - maybe an employer, a child labourer, a doctor. Each student finds out about his or her subject from the link on the website, and writes an account of the character, as well as a speech that person might have given on the subject. Another is the Russian revolution. You divide students into groups, such as revolutionaries, the Tsar's court, mensheviks - and tell them their group might include a spy."

Asked for some of the feedback he has had from teachers on using the simulations, John simply says the website itself offers detailed teachers'

notes and advises teachers to follow them, because, he says, they have been road-tested in classrooms. "When I first started teaching, there were some simulations around which looked fine, but when you tried them in the classroom they didn't work. So I get practising teachers to try them out before I post them, and amend them to make sure they work."

He's adding to the site all the time. A new venture, which he has launched with other education websites, lets pupils put questions to a panel of teachers, historians, authors and researchers with expert knowledge of the period. So far he offers John F Kennedy, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Nazi Germany, the First and Second World Wars, women's history, black history, the Spanish Civil War and the history of Russia. "I always try to get people with actual experience of these events, so forum members include Bob Fromme, a Vietnam veteran who believes the war he fought in was a moral crusade, as well as 93-year-old Nathaniel Weyl, a one-time US communist who became a McCarthyite, and also a CIA agent in the late 1940s and informed on 'spy suspect' Alger Hiss."

Questions to the forums go through the class teacher. Asked for his tips on how students can best present questions, John says he leaves that to teachers, but thinks "the answers can be very useful to the students who are writing up GCSE course work".

The value is often in getting opposing opinions, he says. He recalls a student sending a question to his Vietnam War panel: "Did the peace movement have an influence on the outcome of the war?" One panel member, a pro-war Vietnam veteran, said it did, and explained why he thought this was a bad thing. Another panel member agreed, but thought it was good. "The pupil can then digest the argument," says John.

The site's international forum enables people from all over the world, who are interested in education, to post information, ask and answer questions, and take part in debates. "We can also help teachers find partners for subject-specific and cross-curricular curriculum projects. I hope the forum will provide a world community of teachers."

Another growing area is the site's encyclopedia - a free resource for all students of British history - which has attracted 2,445 entries so far.

"This is an attempt to show the history of Britain through the eyes of people from all levels of society. It's a reference work that provides as much information about Marie Corbett as it does about Queen Victoria; where Henry Hetherington's life is examined in the same sort of detail as that of the Duke of Wellington," he says.


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