A chance to quiz Henry VIII for a newspaper report prompts pupils to tease out the interesting angles, says Neil Smith.
Introducing a new topic provides an ideal opportunity for giving the type of "left field" lessons that teachers look forward to delivering and pupils remember for some time afterwards. A lesson that forces a class to think and act independently, and allows full rein to their inquisitive nature, often results in work that is more dynamic and better written than more conventional activities.
This lesson for Year 8 is designed to introduce the reign of Henry VIII, while providing a framework that tests the class's questioning skills. It is based around the concept of a special edition of (an obviously fictional) TV show, Meet Ye Presse, which features an interview with the recently crowned Henry VIII. The object of the lesson is for the class to ask the new king sufficiently penetrating questions so they are able to go away and write their newspaper profile.
The lesson begins with me informing the class that a special guest is going to join us today. However, I then tell them that I have to leave the classroom for a short time, and if the guest should appear they are to treat him with great respect.
Before I leave the room, I get a couple of members of the group to distribute the principal resource for the lesson: a mocked-up Tudor document, entitled Meet Ye Presse, which presents the scenario for the bulk of the lesson.
I leave the room for a few seconds, and return wearing a plastic crown. It slowly dawns on the class that they have to interrogate me to gain the information needed to write their newspaper report. They must consider what it is someone might want to know about a new king and about the nature of kingship.
After about 20 minutes, "Henry" leaves the room and I return, apologising for being so late, and inquiring whether I had missed the special guest. I then distribute a further worksheet that provides technical advice on how to format a word document so it appears like a newspaper, with three columns, and a distinctive heading.
Homework is to write up the report, format it and copy in a picture of Henry from the internet. One of the strengths of this lesson is that it allows the group to learn from each other; indeed there is a strong collective element to the lesson.
If the range of questions is too narrow or insufficiently challenging, they will have less material for the newspaper and everyone's piece of work suffers. Clearly, there will always be the twin dangers of a small group of pupils monopolising the questions, or no one asking questions.
Experience suggests that a bit of prompting by the king will lead to every individual in the class making a contribution.
It also demonstrates one of the many ways in which history serves a wide range of purposes within the curriculum. Firstly, exercises such as this enable pupils to develop a range of computer skills, without detriment to their study of the subject. It is easy to assume that all teenagers can word-process, format a document or even research material on the web, yet attempting to tackle this type of exercise without formal instruction will likely lead to work of much inferior quality. Above all, it requires them to think critically, to make judgements and to listen.
Neil Smith teaches history at Manchester Grammar School.