Primary history - The streets where we have lived

Pupils at one Scottish primary school perform plays based on past local life - just where it happened. It brings the community closer, says Diane Donnelly

Diane Donnelly

Teaching local history has traditionally been a main part of history education in our primary school. In previous posts, I have had elderly residents come in to speak about life in the local area in years gone by. While this can be effective, it is still a second-hand experience.

When I arrived at Queensferry Primary in Edinburgh I discovered the school had addressed the issue by giving pupils the opportunity to step into the shoes of previous residents from the rich history of the Royal Burgh of Queensferry.

What began as a local history project with an informative performance as the finale has now become a school tradition.

Every year in their final term at primary school, the Primary 7 pupils (ages 11 and 12) re-enact the Heritage Trail. Pupils audition for parts such as guides, briggers, schoolmaster and town cryer, to name a few. Costumes are assigned and scripts adjusted to account for any fine-tuning required. The pupils are supervised on the high street where they perform, in role, to educate younger pupils, family and occasional tourists about the history of Queensferry.

The Heritage Trail is usually performed about six times over a two-week period and all pupils in Primaries 4, 5 and 6, accompanied by teachers and school staff, have the opportunity to become the audience for a performance.

As a result, the children build a good knowledge of their local history and have a fairly good idea of the part they would like to play when their chance to participate finally arrives.

As well as informing pupils about local history, this project involves many cross-curricular links. There is the dramatic input with children acting in role, working from a script and performing to an audience. This gives a new dimension to primary drama, as most pupils have experienced improvisational work within a class setting.

The impact on writing was best demonstrated when pupils received a homework task a week after their final performance. They were presented with a letter of complaint, which they were informed had been sent to the school before being forwarded to the local paper. The letter writer was complaining about "pupils on the high street in unusual clothes, not school uniform, causing an obstruction while they told other pupils about Queensferry".

He went on to ask why the pupils were not learning from books in "the perfectly good school they had up the road". The children were set the task of replying, and the following day the school office had to deal with a number of parents demanding to know the identity of the "small-minded" letter writer. It's better to warn them in advance about any "imaginative" writing task of this type.

Being cross-curricular and set within a real community, this project fits perfectly into the new Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Under the social studies guidelines, children can say they have been "exploring places, investigating artefacts and discussing the past" and that they "can interpret historical evidence to help build a picture of Scotland's heritage". They can also say: "Having explored my local area, I can use my discoveries to prepare a guide showing different places to live, work and relax and interesting places to visit."

The cross-curricular aspect, the support from parents and the eager anticipation of the children will ensure that the Heritage Trail remains a traditional event for Queensferry pupils during their final few weeks in the primary school.

Diane Donnelly teaches at Queensferry Primary School in Edinburgh.

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Diane Donnelly

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