History - Animating the past

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
Using digital media to explain the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland can be a difficult place to teach history. Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, have different narratives about the past. Even the name of the country can be a source of dissension: some call it Ulster, others the Six Counties or the North of Ireland. For most it is just Northern Ireland. As the recent unrest in Belfast attests, here the past and its symbols are still controversial.

So how do you teach pupils about the conflict in a place where history can be so contentious? The answer, in general, has been not to. On both sides of the Irish border, teachers often shy away from discussing the Troubles, the 30 years of violence that racked Northern Ireland and cost more than 3,500 lives.

But an innovative project is using everything from comic books to animation and films to teach secondary pupils in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland's border counties about the conflict.

Teaching Divided Histories (bit.lyYr9Y9F) trains teachers to use digital technology to enable pupils to create their own responses to their conflicted history. "It is about trying to get young people to see that there is more than one side to any argument and to give them the tools to design their own response," explains project manager Emma McDermott.

The project is aimed at key stage 3 pupils in Northern Ireland and transition year pupils in the Republic (typically aged 15 to 16). Teachers attend six two-hour sessions at the Nerve Centre's creative media arts centre in Derry. Four sessions are given over to technical training in a range of software for creating graphic novels (Comic Life), audio recordings (Audacity), images (GIMP) and short films (Movie Maker and iMovie).

Two sessions are dedicated to content development. So far one module has been designed, on civil rights and the outbreak of the Troubles. Nine more are anticipated, covering topics such as the hunger strikes and Bloody Sunday.

Education in Northern Ireland is heavily segregated along religious lines, but the project has received support from a broad spread of controlled (Protestant), maintained (Catholic) and integrated schools. Six Protestant schools in border counties have also signed up, and cross-border, cross-community screenings of comics and films created by pupils are planned.

Training on the project began just over a year ago but early evidence shows that teachers and pupils find using digital technology a less confrontational way to negotiate the difficult terrain.

Peter Geoghegan is an Irish writer and journalist.

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