Soak up the scene

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Russel Tarr's ideas for role-play encourage his pupils to imagine themselves at the centre of issues

Hot-seating and role-plays allow teachers and students to use and hear different voices. Bringing historical characters to life to answer questions about their lives, beliefs and achievements is a great way of imparting knowledge and understanding and raising issues of interpretation.

The most straightforward hot-seating activity has the teacher doing the acting. Answering questions as if at a press conference, King John defends his actions against a vicious panel of questioners; Henry VIII justifies his changes to the Church; Chamberlain defends appeasement.

Don't worry about your thespian skills - ham it up and they'll lap it up!

But hot-seating is not the same as flying by the seat of your pants. To deliver a worthwhile performance, you need to know what questions to expect. Provide younger students with worksheets with pre-prepared questions to be volunteered during the "interview". Better still, use the first half of the lesson before the interview to get pairs of students to come up with their own questions. Then lead a class brainstorm until a dozen or so different questions are on the board, and each student then votes for their three favourites. These can be placed in rank order - the most popular to be answered first - with the student who framed each question posing it to the interviewee. Between the two lessons, you will have enough time to do any necessary research to answer every question effectively.

Interviewing a single character can be fun, but a new dimension is added by making the interview a "head to head" between two characters with opposing opinions. One of my favourite Year 8 lessons involves presenting myself as Martin Luther and giving deliberately provocative but substantiated responses to a series of prepared questions ("Do you think the Bible should be in Latin?", "Are pilgrimages important?"). Storming out at the end of the interview, I then return as Pope Leo X to answer exactly the same questions from the opposite viewpoint.

In the follow-up lesson, students explain which point of view they found most convincing and consider what the speakers agreed about (issues of fact) despite their obvious differences (issues of opinion). They can then produce biased newspaper reports in favour of their candidate ("Luther wisely arguedI; but the Pope stupidly raged thatI"), complete with a one-sided headline.

Even more challenging, students can act as arbitrators, writing a verdict on key issues which they hope will be acceptable to both sides. This format can easily be adapted for any historical issue in which partisan viewpoints are the order of the day: the clash between Becket and Henry II; the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland; the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

Pushing things further, the ideal scenario involves the teacher taking the back seat and the students getting into the hot seat. For example, a classroom witch trial in which five girls play women accused of witchcraft and choose their own defence lawyer. The rest of the class is divided into five prosecution teams. Each "witch" is then given an information slip outlining the case against her, and the paired prosecution team is handed the same information. The job of all 10 teams is to come up with three questions for their "witch", designed either to let her off the hook (in the case of the defence - for instance: "Is it not true that you only confessed because Matthew Hopkins kept you awake four days and nights?"), or to damn her ("Is it not true that directly after you cursed the farmer he dropped down dead?").

The defendant then stands in "the dock" answering questions from both sides, with the rest of the class taking notes on a structured worksheet.

At the end of the trial, each student can cast three votes against the witches they think are most guilty. The one receiving the most votes is then subjected to the dreaded "water test" by having a glass of "holy water" poured over her head. If it appears to "reject" her by dribbling off, then she is guilty, whereas if it soaks into her, she is innocent.

This lesson is an absolute hoot for everyone, even for the witch: just make sure the weather isn't too cold and the glass isn't too full.

At this point, we are moving towards a full-blown debate, with the issues becoming more important than personalities. At GCSE, one of my favourite debates concerns the causes of the Second World War. Students divide into small groups representing Italy, France, Britain, the US, Germany and the USSR. Each pair of countries is then asked to come up with one "killer" question designed to establish the other's guilt. These are then written up on the board and each team is given 10 minutes to prepare an answer. One representative from each country then has to take the stand and answer their question using whatever evidence they have available. The rest of the class take notes throughout the trial and, at the end, allocate blame to each country to a total of 100 per cent, and explain their reasoning.

Russel Tarr teaches history and politics at Wolverhampton Grammar School and is the author of the website www.activehistory.co.uk

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