Fighting talk

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Assessing castle defences is just one of the lively classroom activities shared in a busy website forum for history teachers, says Russel Tarr

The History Teachers' Discussion Forum is a grass-roots community of 1,500 or so teachers who are able to explore ideas, resources and experiences. It reflects a real cross-section of the history teaching profession: practitioners in the UK can exchange ideas with those working in international schools; those in the state sector can compare experiences with those working in the independent sector; NQTs can call on the support and advice of heads of departments, textbook authors and experienced examiners.

The forum is free for any teacher to participate. A particularly lively discussion addressed the "funkiest" ways of teaching medieval monarchs, which forms a central part of the Year 7 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority scheme of work.

One great idea was to teach students about the methods of defending castles by providing pairs of students with an envelope full of slips, each one outlining a different method, for example having machine guns on the battlements, using spiral staircases, building a chapel to pray in.

The students arrange these slips into meaningful categories and then feed back to the class about the choices they have made. The teacher then introduces the concept of anachronism, and students have to go back to their slips and dispose of those describing methods which would not have been available at the time.

Next, the students have to write down what they think the 10 best features of a secure castle would be. During this time the teacher can draw a basic castle on the board. Each pair then explains their choices and the other groups must comment and make suggestions for improvements.

For a plenary question, you could ask students to consider how people defend their homes today, and a good homework task would be to design an ideal Norman castle with the best defence.

The great thing about the forum format is that this suggestion encouraged other teachers to then share their own best ideas.

One of the most inspired activities suggested was that students play an extended history version of "rock, paper, scissors" in groups. The teacher produces a pack of cards outlining defensive techniques, another pack outlining attacking techniques. The game involves one student choosing a card from the attacking techniques pile, the other from the defensive. They then count "one, two, three" and show the cards. They then have to decide which technique would be most successful and why. This can be repeated a number of times before the students then draw up what appear to be the best forms of defence and attack.

As well as these organic threads of discussion, the forum provides a regular programme of seminars, where an enthusiastic member produces a short written piece on a topic they are interested in and then others are invited to share their experiences and offer comments and suggestions. At present there are more than 50 seminars of this sort. One on using art to teach history suggests that a great first lesson on the English Civil War for Year 8 is to provide students with a woodcut print of the execution of Charles I and get them to interrogate the source and come up with a series of enquiry questions that can form the future lessons on the Civil War:

"interpretation of the source and ownership of the work; an excellent combination".

The History Teachers' Discussion Forum is essentially one large staffroom full of helpful, innovative and enthusiastic colleagues and as such provides an outstanding source of inspiration.

* History Teachers' Discussion forum is on the SchoolHistory website at Russel Tarr is a history teacher and author of the award-winning website

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