A far corner of a field

10th May 1996 at 01:00
MENU - For his history lesson, Peter Brinton used: SPADESTROWELS (seaside spades will do) TOY SOLDIERS, CANNONS GUNS TANKS STRING STICKS AND STONES ASSORTED JUNK, ETC You need: a far corner of a school field, an act of God (or packet of seeds), several lessons, variable weather, and children aged 10 or more

There's one lesson - well, really it was a set of lessons - that I specially remember because, as well as being successful in itself, it had a strange ending, very moving and memorable. It was when I was deputy head at a school in Newquay, and my Year 6 class was doing the First World War.

I wanted to dig a trench on the school field so the kids could sit in it and sing First World War songs and write letters home... then actually go over the top and charge across No Man's Land. But the headteacher wouldn't let us for safety reasons, so instead we decided to make model trenches.

Models are a great way of bringing history projects to life - and cover some design and technology, art and English targets at the same time. We once made a whole Victorian village. You invent suitable inhabitants for all the buildings and develop their stories as you learn about the period. The children start identifying with the people who live in their bit of the model, and they write diaries and letters and news reports about their lives.

When I did the Second World War we built a house out of cardboard boxes and each group decorated a room from looking at pictures of Thirties' homes. Then we took the family who lived there - and eventually loads of their friends and relations too - right through the war.

Anyway, back with the First World War. Model trenches turned out to be much better than a real one. We made several lines of British trenches, with connecting trenches and gun emplacements behind the lines, then left a big piece of No Man's Land and dug German trenches opposite them. We used books to find out how the trenches were built and what they looked like.

We used string for barbed wire and tangled it on to crossed bits of wood all over No Man's Land. The children trampled the ground a lot, and it rained, so we got plenty of mud. Then they brought in model soldiers from home and we put a couple of divisions together to people each of the trenches. The soldiers weren't all in perfect period costume, and some of our cannons were a bit doubtful too, but they soon got muddy and the overall impression was OK.

And then we used our little soldiers to enact bits of the Great War. We had foot soldiers and cavalry and we staged bombardments, going over the top, stretcher bearers, the lot - later on we imported tanks too.

I used a tape of songs from Oh! What a Lovely War and some poems from the period to help with the atmosphere. The children wrote some brilliant letters home from the trenches, reports about the battles and so on.

It stretched over a few weeks, on and off. Then when the project was over, I told the children to fill in the holes and rake over the bit of field so that grass would grow again. There was just this muddy patch left.

And a couple of weeks later, poppies started growing all over it! We couldn't believe it - it was really moving, and the children were staggered. I've no idea how it happened. As far as I know, it was just an act of God. Though If I ever do that particular project again, I'll make sure I buy a packet of seeds.

Peter Brinton is now headteacher of Nine Maidens Primary School in Cornwall

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