Actions speak louder

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Susannah Kirkman hears how the antics of a humanities teacher are bringing history to life for his autistic pupils

Roman banquets, Anglo-Saxon ploughing, making wattle-and-daub and an Armada with paper boats are all on the history syllabus at Wilsic Hall, a residential school near Doncaster for pupils with severe autism and challenging behaviour.

"Our students can't learn from a textbook," says David Senior, class teacher with responsibility for humanities. "Instead, we try to engage them through real-life activities."

As part of Anglo-Saxon history lessons, for instance, pupils have made jewellery and wattle-and-daub and have followed a trail in the school grounds to discover a replica Sutton Hoo treasure trove, which they then excavated. "I like thinking of exciting things for the pupils to do; it's a very effective way of making the curriculum accessible to them,"

David says.

The highlight of lessons on Tudor history was a small-scale Armada; pupils made paper boats which were blown across a container of water using a fan. The models were then set on fire to make "hellburners", the boats fired by the English and sent in among the Spanish fleet.

A Roman chariot race in the school grounds, staged with help from a nearby riding school, captured students' imagination.

David makes full use of local resources. Classes have visited Conisbrough Castle, where a Romano-British general, Ambrosius Aurelius, beheaded Hengist, a Saxon leader, and they have ploughed the school's allotment, using an Anglo-Saxon plough constructed by Wilsic's gardener.

Drama activities are very popular and make a lasting impression on pupils. Almost every lesson involves dressing up, whether it's in a Roman toga or a Viking tunic. Face and body paint is used to re-create Anglo-Saxon warriors preparing for battle.

Role-play scenarios include pretending to be a Catholic priest hiding from Protestants in Stuart England, and a cabin boy enduring the privations of a Tudor ship fighting the Spanish Armada. In Anglo-Saxon history, students play the part of Christian missionaries, using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to send messages asking for holy manuscripts.

Opportunities to communicate are vital for Wilsic pupils as many are non-verbal. Making runic symbols out of salt dough gives them the chance to explore symbolic communication; more able students write their names using runes. One activity in the school's Roman project is writing a shopping list using Roman numerals on a wooden or wax tablet.

David is also a great believer in historical cookery.

Making and eating ship's biscuits and tasting Turkish delight, for instance, are methods of exploring Tudor seafaring and trade, and of improving communication with PECS.

"Food and cooking are a strong incentive for pupils to exchange picture symbols, particularly if they are requesting ingredients,"

David says. "I always try to get a feast in somewhere."

On the curriculum menu is a Roman banquet, with honeyed bread pupils have made themselves, and an Anglo-Saxon feast with singing, juggling and music-making; the songs reinforce new words.

Using the five senses is an effective way of stimulating pupils and helping them remember what they have learnt. As well as tasting the tea and coffee first introduced by 17th-century merchants, students smell different spices and make nosegays of herbs and flowers as a protection against the plague.

Pupils handle artefacts in most history lessons. The objects range from a Tudor watering pot to be used in the school garden to copies of Roman mosaics or Anglo-Saxon coil pots, which the pupils might then make themselves. One of the most popular is a Roman soldier's kit, complete with helmet, shield, sword, javelin and eagle standard.

Whenever possible, David explains history in a tactile way. To learn about how the Roman public baths worked, pupils were given warm, hot and then cold bowls of water into which they dipped their hands before massaging them with olive oil.

A game of musical chairs demonstrates the migration of the Saxons to England, after they were forced out from their homelands by flooding. As the number of chairs reduces, the pupils have to take refuge on a mat which represents England.

But one of the most challenging concepts for David's students is historical chronology. To help pupils grasp the passage of time, they construct a timeline on a long roll of wallpaper which is unscrolled at the beginning of each lesson. It starts with a small series of everyday events going back to the previous day - breakfast, sleep, bath, tea - and gradually adds on things which happened in the recent and then the historical past. By the end of the year, it will feature all the periods covered in history lessons.

David admits that many of his students will struggle to grasp the sequence of history, but he believes that they have the same rights to lively, well-taught lessons as their mainstream peers.

"Pupils won't understand the more complex concepts, but this doesn't mean we can't open their eyes to new things," he says.

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