Honest history

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Last July I attended the Facing History and Ourselves workshop in London.

We examined how to tackle "difficult history" by being honest about our own ideological stance, and considered issues such as ethical decision making, "race science", identity and propaganda.

I adapted the strategies to teach an AS unit on Parnell and Home Rule 1877-1894, and devised a range of documentary evidence to introduce major themes and events in Irish history. One cartoon portrayed the Irish as an ape-like savage; I used it as a visual aid to introduce the issue of racism and linked it with personal and national identity.

We created our own identity chart in the form of a spider diagram, using words or phrases that best described us. I read mine and commented on the importance of my Irish origin. The sixth-form girls described themselves as English or British; this led to a discussion on the characteristics of Britishness and Irishness.

I then used a reading about science and prejudice from Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement, including quotations from Morton's Crania Americana of 1839, which suggested that a group's physical differences can predict intelligence, personality traits, and even morality. This was followed by extracts from the video The First Measured Century and from biologist Stephen Jay Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man, which exposed Morton's bogus methods. Some of us then went to the West End to see Brian Friel's The Home Place, which looks at 19th-century eugenics as the means through which the English tried to demonstrate the inferior place of the Irish in the natural order and scientifically predict their potentially dangerous behaviour. Students were forthright in their responses. They said they could understand the issues better because we emphasised emotional as well as intellectual aspects. To lend the subject contemporary academic authority, we invited a leading expert on Parnell and the Irish question, Dr Alan O'Day of Oxford University, to speak.

I now make use of the excellent FHAO Online Campus and website at www.facinghistory.org for ideas and resources, encouraging students to make connections between history and the choices they face in their own lives.

Margaret Conway Head of History, Rye St Antony School, Oxford Poetic meaning

I found a short poem, "Lake", by Thomas Lovell Beddoes in Paul Keegan's New Penguin Book of English Verse: A lake Is a river curled and asleep like a snake.

It uses, in its 11 words, a metaphor and a simile - two central components of poetry. I tell children that "metaphor" comes from Greek, "to carry over"; it is the description of one thing in terms of another. Simile makes the comparison more explicit... by using "like" or "as".

Beddoes here describes a lake in terms of a river, then adds an animal in his simile. I wrote the poem on the whiteboard, asking the class to imitate it. All the poems, like these two, show pupils playing creatively with language: Lightning

Is the flash of a torch on a black silk cloth.

A raindrop

Is a tiny tear as if someone in heaven is crying.

I taught the same poem in another school, pointing out alliteration, assonance and rhyme as well as simile and metaphor. Amy's first draft was: A cloud

Is a fine field in the morning, it looks like God has it ploughed.

Before she wrote her second draft, she asked: what is that cloud that looks flat? The answer led to this: A cirrus cloud

Is a fine field at dawn horse-ploughed.

The rhyme stays the same, but has more point. Amy has written a poem.

I bet this was only the second time the spirit of Thomas Lovell Beddoes had walked in a modern primary classroom.

Fred Sedgwick Ex-head, now supply teacher in East Anglia Pop psychology

I have taught psychology and biology for three years, and am often concerned that psychology lessons can appear dull and paper based. As part of psychology AS-level, students study social psychology, including obedience - why people obey orders and what can increase obedience.

Although fun, the following lesson can be hard work, as it invariably results in my pupils refusing to do what is asked of them, claiming that now they know the principles of obedience they will not follow my instructions any more. Luckily, this never lasts long.

A few lessons before starting the topic I ask another sixth-former to come into the lesson. I then leave, to "get an important book from the office".

While I am gone the student asks the class to stand up, then sit down. I come back, hand the book to the student and carry on with the lesson. A couple of lessons later we repeat the procedure, but this time I invite a teacher to do the asking. Invariably they obey the teacher but not the student. I then carefully de-brief the class. It is interesting to see that after the second episode they have usually worked out that something is going on. This is a fantastic way to introduce obedience, as students realise the importance of authority and see how they themselves respond.

This activity can be used to prompt students to come up with examples of when they do or do not obey. Are they more likely to write an essay with the teacher in the room, or when it has been set as work? When these and other "real-life" situations are used, students become engaged and eager to find out more about psychology, finding it increasingly fascinating.

Helen Bell Teacher of biology and psychologyHelsby High School, Cheshire

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