Rise to the challenge

17th February 2006 at 00:00
As part of its centenary celebrations, the Historical Association is encouraging schools to hold one-day events. Ben Walsh's school made documentaries about the Blitz, while Jane Cowie's pupils created a museum of local history

Last year, Merseyside students and their teachers from Notre Dame Catholic College, Anfield Community Comprehensive School and Hillside High School came together in the City Learning Centre in Liverpool's Speke area to create their own documentaries about Liverpool in the Blitz.

The day was challenging and fun, and we learned a lot about how to run such an event and how others trying something similar might avoid some of the errors we made.

The first essential is to find inspiring and interesting materials. With a little digging around, most history teachers are blessed with a range of freely available resources. The Merseyside schools also used the British Pathe archive and were able to view, edit and reshape its news films. This activity formed the backbone of our day.

In addition, schools in Merseyside are fortunate to have access to the Mersey Gateway website, which has made available a vast range of photographs, maps, diagrams and reminiscences. Our students found the collection of German reconnaissance maps particularly interesting. In many other regions similar websites have been set up by the local archives services.

The Luftwaffe reconnaissance map for south Liverpool shows the Garston docks, a short distance from the City Learning Centre where the students were working. Sources like these made it easy for students to tackle one of the day's key themes, researching the reasons why Liverpool was bombed so heavily. The crowning glory was an official government film from 1941 showing the extensive damage done to Liverpool. It had been provided by the Imperial War Museum for an exhibition on Liverpool at war which had recently been mounted at the city's Central Library.

Once you have the resources, you need to plan how to make the best use of them. Our goal was to make an historical documentary. We showed a clip from an episode about the Home Front from a TV series about the Second World War, but it didn't mention Liverpool. This was our hook. Students were challenged to make the missing minutes from the programme. Of course, you can't always go straight to the hook - a complex process like making a documentary needs to be broken down. First, the students investigated key themes such as reasons for the bombing and its impact on the city.

Second, they began using film like they would use other historical sources; they were aware of the uses of text and still images through their regular history lessons. We guided them by asking them to look for evidence in stills that Liverpool was prepared for the Blitz, and then to use the same methodology on the moving image clips. At one exciting moment, a student spotted in a film clip what appeared to be the top of a big dark building moving around, but was actually a huge water tank.

Finally, we learnt that the simplest technology can sometimes be just as effective as the fanciest. Most students were using Windows Moviemaker to edit their film clips and record soundtracks, but some preferred PowerPoint. With silent clips it didn't make a lot of difference. The technical staff accommodated these mavericks with ease, and after a hard but enjoyable day we were able to sit back and enjoy the results.

The following lessons emerged from our experiences of the day: lPlan well ahead, the further the better.

lContact people in museums and archives - in my experience they have phenomenal knowledge and always want to help.

lDon't be afraid to spell out your maddest ideas to the technical people.

Usually they are as keen as you are to have something special happen when their equipment is being used.

lBe ambitious with the activity you are setting the students.

lIf you expect students to be able to make sophisticated use of challenging and inspiring source material, your expectations will usually be rewarded.

lAsk the Historical Association if they can put you in touch with anyone whose experience you can draw on.




Ben Walsh is a history teacher and member of the Historical Association secondary education committee

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