I hear dead people

22nd May 2015 at 01:00

I've been spending a lot of time hanging around dusty old churches lately. Although I was raised Anglican, this isn't some sort of return to the fold (although my 35th birthday brought with it a rather pathetic attempt to grow a beard that wouldn't have looked out of place on a "groovy" 1970s vicar).

No, I've been spending time around churches because, as a history teacher, they are where I experience a real connection with what I teach. Across the county of Norfolk, where I live, I've found buildings that buzz with the stories of bygone Britons. I am now making the time to listen.

Recently, I knelt in the church of St Catherine's in Ludham and examined a rood screen of figures painted in 1493. There was a rather weak, chinless Henry VI on one side and a far more butch King Edmund on the other; each was flanked by a bevy of supporting saints. What leaped out at me was how viciously scratched some of the figures were, their faces obliterated. This was the work of 16th-century Protestant iconoclasts, enraged at the "Popish" art in their church and lashing out in white-hot fury. The violence of the damage was present and visceral. How angry would one have to be to do this in a sleepy Norfolk village?

Then I found memorials showing the last resting places of several prominent families. What struck me was the number of parents who survived generations of their own children - young men and women lost to illness, civil strife or conflict. Reading the lines of doggerel carved into the dark slate, I couldn't help but feel deeply for the families who lost so many to the whims of a seemingly brutal world.

Seeing the physical traces of sectarian violence - great gouges in wood - and the heartfelt memorials to lives cut too short, I felt an immediate, electric connection to the lives of the people I teach my students about. I could truly empathise with those who came before me.

I'm not suggesting that we all conduct our history lessons in the pews of our local church. I don't want TES to receive a barrage of mail from overwhelmed clergy. But we are blessed with an abundance of relics from the past, from listed buildings to protected heritage spaces, prehistoric barrows to Second World War bunkers.

These places are all around us, in nearly every city, town and village across the isles. If you are teaching in the UK, I would suggest that you're no more than 20 minutes' walk away from a place teeming with tales of the past. What's more, most of these locations are staffed by people, volunteers mostly, who want nothing more than to share it.

If we want history to thrive in school, we have to get students excited about it. Central to this is an emotional attachment - something that sparks curiosity and wonder. We need to make physically accessing the history around us a priority in developing our courses. If we don't, we will miss out on hundreds of stories and many of those sudden moments of understanding.

History isn't just a list of names and dates - it's something we can experience. Let's not forget that.

Mike Stuchbery teaches history, geography and PSHE at East Point Academy in Lowestoft, Suffolk

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