Teaching Ancient Rome to 12- and 13-year-olds shouldn't be difficult. Certainly, there is no shortage of amazing stories to sustain their interest: the famous battles of the Colosseum, despotic emperors, powerful women, dodgy Hollywood films - the list goes on.
But, too often, I have been at the epicentre of what should be the students' discoveries. I wanted to get out of the way, and in doing so I hoped to empower my class to ask their own questions and shape their own learning experiences.
I am an avid Apple user and have recently been experimenting with the iBooks Author program. So, as an enquiry-based project, I asked my students to work in pairs to produce a section for an iBook about the Colosseum. For good measure, I decided that I too would contribute a section called "The Colosseum today" (the students, of course, preferred the blood and gore of the past).
As a result, the class and I were a team. We were all working towards the same outcome: a quality iBook that we could proudly put our names to. I became less of a "sage on the stage" and more of a "guide on the side".
The first task was to organise the chapters. As students watched a documentary about the Colosseum, I asked them to think about how best to organise into major chapter headings what they already knew, what they had learned and what they wanted to know. Each chapter was then divided into sections, with students working in pairs to develop the written content about their particular issue. So, for example, a chapter called "The games" contained sections entitled "Gladiators", "Christians and criminals" and "Wild beasts".
Students also had to provide definitions for the glossary, as well as a short YouTube video to complement the written text. Perhaps the most fun was searching for quirky facts for the "Did you know?" section within each chapter.
After scaffolding the structure of each paragraph, students then set about locating their information. Given the ancient nature of the subject, it wasn't long before they found contradictions between sources. This provided an opportunity to teach digital literacy and consider the reliability of online sources.
Perhaps the most telling moment came when students became engaged in a debate about what the thumbs-up sign from the emperor meant. This was a piece of history that they had discovered entirely by themselves, and one that I had never fully explored until then.
The project also reinforced the importance of editing. At best, the average 13-year-old could expect to have their work published on the noticeboard outside the classroom. This work, however, was going into the iBook Store in 51 countries. Students therefore felt a real need to get it right. I guided an editorial team to check for inconsistencies in our narrative, evaluate the quality of sources and fix any grammatical, syntactical and spelling errors.
At the end of the project, the students had learned far more than I could ever have hoped to teach them in one of my stand-up routines. And their learning on an ancient subject had been driven by a real-world, contemporary medium.
David Van Tol is a history teacher at the Fukuoka International School, Japan
Top 10 Ancient Rome resources
1. Military moment
In a series of tasks, including a card sort and labelling challenge, this exercise explores how the Roman army was organised. Lining up in regiments is optional.
2. Roman census
Introduce students to plebians, gladiators, slaves, emperors and many more players from the Roman empire using this PowerPoint.
3. Dinner date
Use this presentation to take your class on a culinary journey through Roman dietary habits and delicacies.
4. God complex
This who's who of Roman gods and goddesses includes depictions of the deities in paintings and statues.
5. Creative conscription
Put your students in the shoes of a would-be Roman soldier by getting them to describe their role in the army and write an application to join their legion.
6. Enter the empire
Tour the Roman empire with this comprehensive guide to its people, life and society.
7. Ancient architecture
Let your students explore the colossal structures of Rome with this video, which showcases the buildings that hosted chariot races and gladiatorial battles.
8. Line of enquiry
Plot the crucial moments of the Roman era with this timeline activity and accompanying information booklet.
9. Musical manifesto
What did the Romans dance to? Who was ancient Rome's Rihanna? This resource will provide the answers and more.
10. Piece by piece
Piece together the secret of Roman mosaics in this presentation and scheme of work. Suitable for use as an introduction in history or art lessons. bit.lyMosaicResource.