Letters from the Front Line

18th March 2011 at 00:00
A school in Aberdeenshire has discovered that modern languages can inspire history, and vice versa, writes Jean McLeish

They read out wartime letters written home from the Front by teenage soldiers, boys not much older than themselves, who write about the cold, the mud and sickness in the trenches during endless winters.

The young soldiers were from France or Germany and reading their accounts in French or German lessons is giving Scottish pupils a new perspective on the First World War.

Learning history in French or German has been an educational experience for these Aberdeenshire pupils and their teachers.

Modern language teachers learned from their colleagues how to evaluate historical documents critically, before they began teaching third-year pupils how to interpret source material about the war.

There is a good relationship between the two departments at The Gordon Schools, Huntly. Teachers are neighbours who share the same corridor and their heads of department car-share to work. This rapport will be further strengthened on joint third-year trips to the battlefields of Belgium and on to Paris.

French assistant Mathilde Moreau says she is amazed at the success of this collaborative project and how pupils have adapted. "It's new, it's innovative and it's a challenge, but they are doing it like it's normal. They are getting over the fact that it is in French."

French or German is spoken as much as possible during classes and Miss Moreau says children's language skills have improved significantly. "Of course, there is a difference in their language. They don't notice it, but their level is going up and up as the project progresses."

It has surprised her that pupils embraced the concept so enthusiastically. "They don't resist, they just go for it - it's really amazing. So I think we should not limit the context. We should not limit what we teach them, because they think they can do it and we have to think the same."

Miss Moreau and modern languages teacher Helen Duncan have been sharing their observations with colleagues at a recent Curriculum for Excellence event, Leading Literacy Across Learning, run by the school of education at Aberdeen University.

Both women are passionate about this strategy - Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) - and the impact it has made since its introduction a few months ago.

"You don't just give them a text and say `translate this into English', because that's really not the point," says Miss Duncan. "The point is understanding how to handle sources, evaluate and analyse them and to make judgments on how useful they are and whether they are primary or secondary sources."

Their colleagues and pupils are also impressed. Fourteen-year-old Jamie King takes French, but not history, this year. However, he's continuing the First World War theme in his French class. "It's really interesting: there is lots of variety and lots of stuff to cover, so it's good," he says, as he packs his bag at the end of the French lesson.

Brian Prosser, head of modern languages, enjoyed learning more about First World War history for these French classes. "I knew the rough background to what happened and the events. But it's only by preparing materials for this project that I have had insight into things that I didn't know before.

"I think it's a reminder that many more things are possible than we sometimes think," he adds.

His class has been studying a letter from a French boy in the trenches, describing conditions to his family. Next, they will invent a life for Richard after the war, assuming he survived. They will write about his marriage and career, revising vocabulary with descriptive writing about his imaginary future. Across the corridor, colleagues in French and German are doing similar work on the war with different third-year groups.

Pupils such as Ashleigh Munro, 14, find the work can be a challenge. "I enjoy it because it's different and makes the history more interesting than when it's just in English."

Her friend, Annabel McLeod, 14, says: "I do history as well and it's quite interesting doing it in French, because you get to hear different sides of the story."

Motivating children to learn languages

Academics at Aberdeen University are investigating alternative ways of motivating children to learn languages and are supporting and monitoring the work at The Gordon Schools in Huntly.

They are also observing similar projects at another nine schools, where subjects such as geography, maths, ICT and science have been taught using different languages.

Do Coyle, professor of learning and innovation, says the research explores what happens when parts of the curriculum are taught through the medium of another language. "We made sure there were some schools that had been doing this for some time and other schools that were new to it, so that, hopefully, we will be able to bring people together and share ideas."

At Huntly, the project is enhancing pupils' learning experience, teaching them to evaluate sources in foreign languages and encouraging their sense of identity as young Europeans. It's also an ideal Curriculum for Excellence project - drawing in any number of disciplines across the curriculum.

The subject is close to home for Belgian-born modern languages teacher Nathalie Grant, whose mother was born near Passchendaele. She hopes to link with a school near Ypres, which has offered to assist them with local research.

She thinks the First World War topic is helping to engage boys with modern languages: "It's interesting because it's about weapons, you've got the military and it's action-packed."

History PT James Davidson helped to plan and prepare his colleagues: "The project makes pupils see that they can go from history to modern languages and there is a connection."

Turning the diary pages

L'hiver 1917 fut tres rude.

Nos soldats ont terriblement souffert du froid, beaucoup auront les pieds geles. Lorsque l'on pense qu'hiver et ete, par tous les temps, ils ont continue de vivre dans les tranchees, la longueur de cette guerre leur devient de plus en plus eprouvante .

Diary of Blanche Braconnier, aged 14 in 1917.

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