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Tell it like it is

History is full of fascinating stories about people but these are often overlooked, much to the detriment of students, says Alf Wilkinson

Imagine the scene. Thirty Year 5 pupils have spent the day dressed up as Ancient Greeks, making olive oil and burning it in a Greek-style lamp, going to the doctors to be cured of an illness and making mosaics.

Now they are listening to the myth of Persephone: how Pluto fell in love with her and stole her away to the Underworld; how Demeter stopped work while searching for her beautiful daughter; how Zeus arranged a compromise of six months in the Underworld (winter) and six months above ground (summer).

The pupils are rounding out their knowledge of Ancient Greeks - of the way they lived, how they explained their world and, of course, how they enjoyed a good story.

In fact, the whole day has been a story, woven around the Battle of Marathon and the Athenians defeat of the Persians in 490 bc. While doing practical activities, the pupils have heard - and spread - rumours and gossip about the main preoccupations of the day, including what would happen if the Persians won the battle and arrived unopposed at the gates of Athens. The story of Marathon has been seamlessly woven into the learning of the day.

In another classroom, 30 Year 8 pupils are reciting a nursery rhyme:

Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie.

He put in his thumb,

he pulled out a plum

and said what a good boy am I.

This rhyme, first appeared in a book in London in 1764. The story goes that when Henry VIII was threatening to dissolve the monasteries, the last Abbot of Glastonbury sent Jack Horner (his real name was Thomas, but anyone who was a knave was called Jack, hence the name on playing-cards) to London with the deeds to most of the manors owned by the abbey. He hoped this might be enough to placate Henry, and stop him taking over Glastonbury. The deeds were baked into a pie - partly to avoid highwaymen and partly because "surprise" pies were popular then (remember the "four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie", who flew away when the pie was cut open?).

Jack Horner is alleged to have "dipped" into the pie and removed the deeds to the Manor of Mells, 24 kilometres from Glastonbury. It is a matter of historical record that the Horner family became owners of the manor at about the time the monasteries were dissolved, and their descendants still lived there in 1975.

This story, once explored, adds a new dimension to students' understanding of 16th-century events in England. It tells of an abbot who will stop at nothing, including bribery, to keep his power and authority. How Christian is that? It also tells of a corrupt king who is only interested in the monasteries' wealth, of servants who steal given the slightest opportunity to improve themselves, and of everyday life that, in many, ways is not so different from today.

We have grown accustomed to thinking of history lessons as developing the skills of the historian - interrogating evidence, weighing up interpretations, being a historian, being critical consumers in a modern-day society, where everyone is out to con you, mislead you or dupe you into going along with what they want.

All these "survival" and intellectual skills are, indeed, critical to the development of a well-rounded citizen who is capable of taking their place in a modern globalised world that's dominated by spin and big-business.

Yet we must never forget the human side of history - how the events happened, individuals' motivations, the similarities and differences from today - because it is endlessly fascinating to pupils. We live in an "instant" generation, where everything is "now". Even history textbooks have to be anatomised into a double-page spread, normally containing three short and simplified sources, two illustrations and a few questions.

We do our pupils a disservice by not giving them the depth, the detail, a full rounded understanding of past - and, therefore, present - societies.

Story is an ideal medium to do this. Not only do pupils of all ages find it fascinating, but it also gives us the opportunity to humanise the past in a way that, as the two examples above illustrate, extends our understanding of the past.

History is not a dry academic discipline, it is the story of people and how they act and react in different situations. Let's not ignore a powerful tool in our armoury as teachers.

Alf Wilkinson is the Historical Association's professional development manager and provider. He is working on History First, a key stage 3 series for Longman Pearsons, aiming to re-establish the place of narrative and story in history teaching and learning


* History Off the Page, specialists in activity days for key stage 12 schemes of work, organised the day of events. Similar activities for KS3-5 are also available Tel: 01954 212281

* Myths and Legends, a KS2KS3 website provides narrated and animated stories, with their historical origins, and teachers' notes and tools for creating your own myth or legend

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