Sean Lang learns everything he ever wanted to know about the Saxons . . .
A friend once told me of his shock when a humanities teacher set off from the staff room to teach a history lesson, only to pop his head round the door a few seconds later and ask, "Just a sec. Who came first? The Saxons or the Romans?" Primary teachers will have surmised, correctly, that this little incident took place in a secondary school: having to teach a whole range of subjects beyond one's expertise is meat and drink at key stage 2.
Never was there such a compelling case for an idiot's guide, and from Scholastic Publishers comes what Woody Allan would no doubt have called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Saxons and Were Afraid You Might be Asked.
"A Complete History Study Pack" it says on the front, and there cannot be much that has not made it into this impressively thick spiral-bound volume. There is a digest of scholarly findings for the teacher, with lists of books for teachers and pupils, lesson plans and schemes of work, worksheets for pupils and checklists to help them reflect on what they have covered as well as a set of very attractive colour posters and an engagingly written (fictional) diary telling the story of one eventful year in the life of Alfred the Great's little daughter, Elfrith.
Poor Elfrith. She tries to please her father, but she dries in the middle of reciting a psalm, trips up her brother when he wins a book for his reciting, and breaks her harp in a fight. At one point she is even ambushed by Vikings, but she survives to savour her greatest triumph, when she performs well on the mended harp before her father. It is simply and convincingly told, and in the course of the narrative a lot of details of Saxon life and history emerge. There are ample opportunities for curricular work, not just in history, and these are explored in the main pack.
It is perhaps the high standard of scholarship in the pack which makes it so valuable. There is sufficient background detail on all aspects from the reasons for the Saxons coming in the first place to the fine detail of Saxon church design. We learn not only of the Saxon origins of our days of the week, but also of common surnames, like Browning, Smith and Webster.
Important Saxon women get due prominence, and rightly so: Abbess Hild of Whitby would have been a notable figure in any age, but I did not know about Aethelflaed, Queen of Mercia, who defeated the Vikings and took Derby from them. Hild hosted the most important summit conference of the Saxon period, the famous Synod of Whitby, which constitutes the only significant trick I could find that the pack has missed: the bitter arguments between the Roman and the Irish monks, laced with plenty of personal abuse, about the precise date of Easter or the correct way to wear a tonsure make for wonderful drama with children.
Still there are details on how much "wergild" you had to pay for damaging different parts of the body - one shilling per finger (thumbs were dearer) but fifty for a foot - which could add spice to breaking up playground fights.
The pupils' materials are divided into fact sheets and activity sheets, all designed for easy photocopying, and the assessment sheets will help show how much has sunk in. The assessment is tied to the post-Dearing level descriptors, which gives it a shelf-life of at least five years. The pack is not intended to be a substitute for textbooks - indeed, many of the pupils' exercises depend on their being able to go away and look things up in their books, but for any teacher who wants to explore this tremendously rich period in greater depth, the pack provides both the academic material and the practical guidance to do it. Invaluable.