A Pepys into the past

25th January 2008 at 00:00
How a burning question can be as relevant today as in 1666. Michelle Dexter explains.


London's burning! This sequence of lessons turns pupils into young detectives to discover what really happened on that fatal day in September 1666.

First we find the capital on a large map of the UK and look at images of the city, discussing if the pictures are new or old.

We study London at the time of the Great Fire. The children are keen to explain why the picture is from the past - most pick up that it is black and white, but some look carefully at methods of transport.

Next they are asked to complete a mind map demonstrating what they think they know and encouraged to write the key questions they want to investigate.

Then we move to different forms of evidence. The children watch a short extract from the BBC Famous Events video collection about Samuel Pepys (no longer available). In the classroom, they look at photographs and information books, explore "real life" through role-play using a Tudor-style house and character masks. They also discover more about the important people of the time.

Pupils are asked to share facts they have learned and discuss how they used sources.

They also look at one painting in detail, using the whiteboard spotlight tool. This focuses their observational skills and makes them dive into the picture so they can see people's faces, modes of transport, how citizens escaped the flames and the fire overall. On individual laptops they label the important features.

In the next lesson, the children focus on the key events, using the eyewitness account by diarist Samuel Pepys. From this a timeline is produced.

The children discover why and how the fire spread by looking closely at the types of houses and streets in 1666 London. The curriculum focus, which also covers literacy, drama, ICT and geography, shifts to art and the children are encouraged to produce their own houses by looking closely at the materials from which they were built.

By reproducing their own street scene, they understand the closeness of the houses and why the fire spread so quickly.

Next, we turn to assessment and find out what was learned. In literacy, the children are encouraged to produce a newspaper report. This pulls together the project's key skills - the use of evidence sources, questioning, investigation and chronological awareness.

The pupils return to their mind maps and, with a coloured pencil, write what they now know about the Great Fire. This is important for the class teacher and the children - who are amazed by what they have discovered.

Finally the focus moves to now. The class has already investigated how the fire was halted in 1666 - with fire hooks and firebreaks. Now they consider what would happen if it started in London today. The local fire and rescue service visits and talks about how blazes are tackled.

The topic allows the children to use many styles of learning and, through cross-curricular lessons, they get a real feel for 1666 - and know exactly why London was burning.

Michelle Dexter is history co-ordinator and Year 2 teacher at Manor Leas Infant School in Lincoln.


Book: The Great Fire of London, Heinemann.

This literacy-based big book talks through all the major events of the fire in 1666.

Video: Famous People with Magic Grandad: Samuel Pepys, BBC video. This video uses Magic Grandad and takes the children back in time to the Great Fire of London.

Software: Young Explorer CD-Rom, Heinemann. This CD explores the key information surrounding the Great Fire. It incorporates a quiz and simple games.

Software: Magic Grandad: The Great Fire of London CD-Rom, BBC. This CD allows the children to complete a range of detective-based activities looking at the important events of the Great Fire.

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