Magic touch

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Dorothy Walker visits St Cenydd School in Caerphilly to experience a spellbinding lesson with Martin Williams - Secondary School Teacher of the Year

We think you are a brilliant teacher!" That was the message Martin Williams received from his Year 8 class when he was voted Secondary School Teacher of the Year in October.

"Gripping, enthralling and highly entertaining" was how the judges described his history classes - a verdict that is reinforced by today's lesson. The subject is witchcraft and Martin has employed his interactive whiteboard as the focus for a classroom extravaganza that keeps his students spellbound.

Martin is head of history at St Cenydd School in Caerphilly and the recently trialled lesson has already won rave reviews from his fans in Year 8. Coming towards the end of a year spent learning about the Tudors, it is designed to dispel popular preconceptions about witchcraft.

"People think we are going to talk about Harry Potter," says Martin. "But we are talking about real people who were persecuted."

The action begins as students enter the classroom and are greeted by the strains of Queen's "Too Much Love Will Kill You". All eyes turn to the whiteboard where the memorable moments from more than a century of Tudor reign are flashing past in a mere five minutes: portraits, cartoons, maps, facts and figures captured in a scene-setting series of 60 slides.

"It provides a recap of everything we have done," says Martin. "By the time the students have settled in their seats, they have been reminded of all the attitudes and beliefs that people held in Tudor times."

He shows a modern picture of the storybook character Winnie the Witch, as a lead-in to an exploration of what the class knows about witchcraft. One by one, pupils are invited to come to the board and draw their version of a witch. "They draw exactly what you would expect," says Martin. "Black cat, broomstick and pointy hat."

Now it is time to look at the reality, with the help of two 16th-century drawings. The original images show witches being dunked and hanged. But Martin has doctored his slides to remove the witches, and the class has to guess what is happening in the pictures. "Most of the time they get it right. The exercise gives them the gravity of understanding they need - the person being dunked is an old lady, and the people being hanged are just normal young girls. It really shatters their illusions."

Martin now displays the objectives of the lesson: to investigate the types of people who were accused of witchcraft and study why they were believed to be witches or warlocks. The students take a quiet moment to reflect, "then I put them in a time capsule," he says. "The whiteboard turns into a time machine."

"We are transporting you to 1592," says the caption on the board. The words disappear in a swirling vortex and the class finds itself in a witches' coven. Two witches appear, surrounded by cauldrons, a spell book, skulls and flying demons. The picture is interactive so pupils can come up and explore. When they touch the spell book a slide pops up with more information about spells, and they discover, to their horror, why the two witches look so alike. In Tudor times, simply being born a twin could mark you out as being evil. "I didn't know that until I started preparing this lesson," says Martin. "Thousands of twins were killed - that really brings the shock home to the class."

Martin hands out worksheets with the same picture and asks students to add captions and summarise in a couple of sentences what it tells them about Tudor beliefs. He can usually get everything into a double lesson, but prefers a double and a single. The class can then tackle questions from their history textbook, In Search of History, making links with what they have covered in the lesson, or they can attempt a set of questions shown on the board, trying to finish the exercise in the time it takes to play one track of music. "The theme tune from Mission: Impossible is a great track, because it gets faster and faster, and so the students quicken their pace. If you tell them they have three minutes for an exercise, it means nothing. But they know the music and know where it is going, so they do tend to finish on time."

He rounds off the lesson with a flourish, launching into a session of "Who Wants to be a Historian?", based on the TV quiz Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It was this that earned him an invitation to the show's studios last autumn before presenter Chris Tarrant gave him his Teaching Award. "When the studio rang, I thought they were going to sue me," says Martin, only half joking. He uses the whiteboard to display the set's backdrop and the questions, together with clickable options such as "Ask the Audience" and "Phone a Friend".

Students compete in teams, writing their answers on wipe-clean boards, which they display at Martin's request. "We can show almost anything on the whiteboard - graphs, maps, keywords - so I can include questions on literacy or numeracy, as well as asking how many witches were burned in 1570 (answer: 46)."

As a follow-up to the lesson, Martin conducts a chat-show-style interview with a sixth-form volunteer who dresses up as one of the witches from the coven picture. "I use this technique to recap, but it would work equally well as a scene-setter for the witchcraft lesson," he says.

Martin is renowned for his tireless energy and admits that the lesson probably took between 15 and 20 hours to put together. But he stresses that it was the collection of the historical source material - mainly the illustrations - that was most time-consuming. "I put so much into it - and collecting material takes a long time - but now that I have the resources, I could put together another lesson in 20 minutes."



Before Martin (pictured below) had a whiteboard, he used a large-screen television to display what was happening on his classroom computer. He says: "In some ways that was just as effective as the whiteboard, as pupils came out to the TV and drew on the screen with a normal dry-board marker. It is a cheap option - simply add a pound;50 video-card to your computer, make sure the TV has a connection for the Scart cable that links it to the PC, and you are away."

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Martin makes extensive use of Microsoft Office. "Almost everything we do is in PowerPoint, Word, Publisher and Frontpage. We want to keep things simple, so we can all share resources. If we used more complicated packages, it would be more difficult for pupils."

He also uses photo-editing software that was supplied with his Kodak digital camera. "I use it to cut people's heads off," he says. "Sometimes I replace them with the heads of colleagues. It raises a laugh and having a bit of fun is important."

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Martin admits to using "tons" of websites. Two years ago, he volunteered to produce a website directory for his local education service. It featured 700 websites and was distributed with an accompanying CD-Rom.

"Pupils here still use it," he says. "Some of the sites have gone, but nine out of 10 are still running."

The following are sites Martin finds useful:

The BBC site features its Bitesize revision resources, games and activities to support primary and secondary history topics. "The site is excellent for revision and topics such as 'Medicine through Time' are very good," says Martin. "They are interactive, so students get a lot from them - they can actually chase rats down the street, which is great. Horrible things such as disease and rats are a way into history. Once you have sparked students' imaginations with the macabre, you can expand their scope to take in village life and all the pleasantries."

A treasure-trove of material on the First World War, including maps, music, posters, photographs, biographies, book reviews and trivia. It also has links to other web resources and offers theme-based site tours for new visitors.

Run by teacherhistorian Jerome Bruner, Spartacus offers a wide range of history resources to support active learning. It includes encyclopaedic guides to topics, lesson plans, website reviews, games, and the newsletters Teaching History Online and Education on the Internet.

The education section of the Public Record Office site includes Learning Curve, which offers activities and lessons to support history at key stages 2 and 4. There is also Pathways to the Past - a gateway to web-based exhibitions and resources - and Virtual Museum - an online showcase for some of the many treasures held by the PRO. The site also includes details of advisory services and events aimed at teachers.

A guide to more than 400 Welsh castles, including some of the finest surviving examples of medieval castle construction in Europe. Includes historical essays, notes on castle builders and a guide to terminology. "The children here are on first-name terms with Jeff Thomas, who runs the site from the USA," says Martin.

Award winners

Martin's skill in using ICT to bring history alive has won his school two awards from the Welsh Heritage Schools Initiative. The awards are designed to encourage young people in Wales to value their heritage and improve their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills through the study of history.

In 1999, St Cenydd's winning project focused on the controversy surrounding a local castle, Castell Morgraig. Experts were divided over whether it was Welsh or Norman in origin, and St Cenydd students worked with archaeologists, local artists and historians to gather evidence that would contribute to the debate. They detailed their findings on the internet and on CD-Rom, creating a valuable resource that future generations of pupils can employ to help construct their own historical arguments.

"The pupils are now sixth-formers and they still come in to tell Year 7 about the project and help the younger pupils with their studies," says Martin.

Links to the resources can be found by visiting the school's website (

Last year St Cenydd won the award again, this time for a project on medieval Wales. Martin says: "We are in an area where pupils can't often get to historical sites or even afford the journey. We realised that if we went to sites and took digital pictures we could create three-dimensional walk-arounds of castles."

The students visited Tintern Abbey, Chepstow Castle, Caerphilly Castle and Castell Morgraig, and now any young historian can use Martin's interactive whiteboard to take a fascinating tour. The pupils added presentations about each site and created a CD-Rom that was distributed to junior schools. They also worked with a web design company to produce a website, which is due to go online soon.

The Welsh Heritage Schools Initiative Tel: 029 2051 Martin Williams has also written a book and CD-Rom, History on the Internet - a teacher's guide, available from Mid Glamorgan LEA

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