Secondary history - Zooming in on the past

Hand pupils control and a camera if you want them to understand the impact of war, says Neil Smith

Neil Smith

History came to life for a group of our pupils recently, when they came together to research and create a film about the impact of the Second World War on our school.

The opportunity came during our annual activities week, when the pupils come off timetable. We were fortunate that a large number of former pupils who had been at the school before and during the war were still alive, and willing to take part.

Their recollections were hugely informative, providing a real sense of what it must have been like to have experienced war from the perspective of a schoolboy, with the school basement transformed into an air raid shelter and enemy prisoners of war held in the camp behind the school.

Current pupils enjoyed playing the role of historian as they interviewed and videoed their predecessors about their dramatic schooldays. And the inclusion of this footage provided a human element to the project, providing first-hand tales of the whole school evacuation to Blackpool in 1940 and the attempts to maintain core elements of the school day.

Some of the most moving interviews focused on the effect losing his son had on Douglas Miller, the high master. Each of the interviewees agreed that this left him a broken man, and he retired in 1945.

A further source of information was Ulula, the school magazine, which provided an insight into a wartime school. The July 1943 volume included a treatise on school discipline composed by a boy in detention, a poem about queuing for a bus, and reports on societies and sports teams. In short, it didn't differ too much from the modern version of the school magazine.

Both Ulula and the Book of Remembrance were also invaluable in helping us to compile a database of old Mancunians killed in action. Handling these resources helped develop key research and source evaluation skills.

Electronic media also proved incredibly useful. The Commonwealth Graves Commission website provided details about old Mancs killed in action, while the Learning Curve ( and British Pathe ( sites allow users to download film clips for free.

The biggest challenge was to ensure the group would work together as a team towards the common goal. Clearly not everyone could be a Sorkin or a Spielberg, but it was important to emphasise throughout the week that even the most mundane task contributed to the finished product, and to providing a valuable resource for future historians.

This type of project required a large degree of self-motivation and initiative. It is a credit to the pupils that they demonstrated tremendous resourcefulness in researching materials, and in suggesting ways the film could be put together. Even though there would be inevitable lulls in proceedings, the positive group dynamic ensured everyone stayed on task during the week, and everyone felt like they had a made a contribution.

The biggest technical hurdle to overcome was editing our material into something resembling a focused, fluent film. We used Windows Movie Maker as it is user friendly and compatible with the hardware we requisitioned for the project. After loading, sequencing and trimming the plethora of video clips, we added voiceovers and appropriate background music.

This was one of those occasions where the teacher had to recognise that they are probably not the expert, and hand technical control of the project over to the pupils. Quite simply, without these boys, the film could not have been made.

Neil Smith teaches history at Manchester Grammar School.

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