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Family ties;History

What better way to illustrate historical change and encourage empathy with the past than to get pupils to create their own 'family', suggests Nicholas Tyldesley

Making sense of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire is easier if you engage with the personalities and their adventures. There is always the danger, of course, that the great individuals of history come over as outdated fogies lacking street cred. One solution is to focus on the activities of the "common man" and his family to illustrate historical change. Unfortunately, a lot of genealogical researchis needed to trace real family histories.

At Birley School a practical short cut has been developed with Year 7 students to encourage empathy in action: we have created a family. Originally from Tyre in Phoenicia, pearl merchant Tyro has settled in Rome, living along the Appian Way. He has a wife, Nadina, who loves to shop - shades of Ab Fab. They have a son, Alexander, and a daughter, Jasmin. Instead of visiting theme parks, the family watch chariot racing. Tyro is always on the move. He sails from Ostia to Britain, selling pearls to Finbarr, a Celtic chieftain, in exchange for bronze mirrors. He writes his views on Britain in a scroll sent back to the family. He is taken round an army camp after being rescued from the attack on Maiden Castle. Country-house weekends, sub Brideshead, are set at the villa of a friend.

From some very basic information, students build up a group picture of Tyro and his family and can decide the course of his adventures: what might happen on the sea voyage - storms and pirates; whether he will be a prisoner or honoured guest among the Celts; what is on Nadina's shopping list for the market - hunky slaves or olives? Major events are seen through the reactions of Tyro and his associates. The only imposed rule is that Tyro should not die in the first episode.

Through discussing possible developments, students can feel their ownership of the narrative. We are unashamedly latching on to the appeal of TV soaps and the idea of the cliffhanger, enticing students into developing a sense of empathy as they contrast their world view with that of their adoptive family. Such an approach makes it easy to explore attitudes and generates sharp observations of the social scene. It is possible to encompass a range of historical information in the space of one episode - just going down the street to the market taps into topics such as towns, trade and the evidence of a cosmopolitan empire in easily assimilable form. Class activities could include scroll work; the creation of Tyro memorabilia; listing items to be taken on board ship; constructing dialogues with interesting people; drawing up family timetables.

Setting up such a scenario is straightforward. All you need is a family tree and cast list. Geographical locations and key events provide the framework and from there you ask the open-ended questions needed to get a class decision on how the narrative will progress.

Naturally there are caveats. Critics will point out that there can be some crude stereotyping of individuals along with the danger of going over the top - the with-one-leap-Tyro-was-free kind of plot. There is the danger that the micro approach may ignore the complexities of mega events. History's bitter debate between empathy versus skills is exacerbated.

In practice, classes do seem to spend more time on creating the scenario than on acquiring hard data about the Roman Empire. Therefore, teachers need to integrate the Tyro perspective with background analysis.

Student reaction seems to be favourable. In Year 9 a similar type of reconstruction has been piloted, taking a family thrown off the land due to enclosures, moving to a mill town, getting involved in Luddism, facing cholera.

Many teachers have found that perhaps the most effective way of coping with covering the Holocaust is through the viewpoint of individuals in Schindler's List. Film-makers understand the potency of this focus: there are two hours of young love in Titanic before tragedy intervenes.

Stories have a respectable lineage in historiography, and adventure always appeals. When the role of the humanities in the curriculum is under threat, it is even more important to make the past "interesting". A literary emphasis might be no bad thing.

Nicholas Tyldesley is head of history at Birley School, Sheffield

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