Some talk of Alexander

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Different interpretations of a Greek hero gave primary pupils a head start in secondary history. Andrew Wrenn reports

"We are going to create a picture with our bodies," explains Matt Stanford, a newly qualified history teacher at Cottenham Village College, a comprehensive school near Cambridge.

At the front of a mixed ability Year 56 class at Cottenham Primary School stands Ellen, who changes posture according to fellow pupils'

instructions. "She could grit her teeth to show determination," volunteers Ben. "How could she make herself both great and noble?" Matt asks. "Make herself look as tall as possible," suggests Amie. Ellen, still gritting her teeth, pulls herself up to her full height.

The class is creating tableaux based on different interpretations of Alexander the Great. Some groups, for example portray him as "Iskander the Accursed", a figure hated by later Arab chroniclers, others as a Hollywood-style romantic hero. All groups select an event that reinforces a version of Alexander's reputation, such as his alleged drunkenness, or heroic behaviour in battle. Photographs are taken with a digital camera of the pupils with props against a backdrop on the interactive whiteboard such as a battlefield or temple.

These activities form part of a scheme of work on the Ancient Greeks written and taught by Cottenham Village College staff, led by advanced skills teacher Geraint Brown and Cottenham Primary. This scheme is one of nine developed as part of the Historical Association's key stage 23 history transition project. The schemes, along with video clips, resources, samples of pupil's work and training materials, were published online last month, funded by the DfES's Innovation Unit.

The project's aim is to increase expectations of Year 6 pupils by including nine Cambridgeshire primaries in collaborative planning with good local secondary history departments. All the schemes of work, which overlap with literacy, focus on raising standards in historical interpretation and ICT in history.

At a project training session, the HA's Dr Tim Lomas advised teachers that primary history works best as a combination of "soap opera and detective story".

To avoid dependence on a dull and unchallenging diet of worksheets and closed questions, the teachers planned exciting activities that form a sequence of teaching or "historical enquiry" spread over several lessons.

At Godmanchester Primary, for example, pupils produced their own commentary to accompany original Victorian film extracts, and at Buckden Primary they considered why Queen Boudicca's reputation shifted over time.

The teacher groups wrestled with an over-arching question for their enquiry that would help pupils grasp the learning objective more easily. Those working on planning for Great and Little Shelford became interested in the way that some British people living in the drab austerity of post-war Britain looked back to Elizabeth 1's reign for inspiration.

Suggestions for an engaging question summarising this idea include: "Why did British people in 1953 look back uncritically on the reign of Elizabeth 1?" (too long and too adult), "Why did British people in 1953 only remember the good bits of Elizabeth 1's reign." (interesting but clumsily worded).

The final question "Why did some British people in the 1950s describe themselves as New Elizabethans?" retains the subtlety of the concept of looking back nostalgically to Elizabeth's reign, but in language easily explainable to Year 6.

Refining questions in this way illustrates one of the project's assumptions that a historical concept may be considered too difficult for Year 6 pupils at first, but a question can be framed in an accessible way. Provided teachers plan scaffolded tasks with appropriate support, Year 56 pupils often exceed teachers' expectations. A teaching assistant at Buckden Primary, observing a class led by Giles Fullard (a teacher at Hinchingbrooke Secondary), said: "It's like they've gone up a year."

But it isn't just primary colleagues' expectations that are raised.

Secondary teachers involved began thinking about the appropriate level of challenge for KS3 pupils. As one colleague says: "It makes you think if Year 6 pupils can do this, what am I doing with my Year 8s?"

In the current Year 7 at Cottenham Village College, those who have studied Alexander the Great at Cottenham Primary have a head start in their history lessons. In Year 6 these pupils created tableaux on Alexander's life, analysed a historian's view of him and examined a trailer from Oliver Stone's film, Alexander. They also, as "journalists" at a news conference, quizzed teachers in role as a historian and Oliver Stone himself, complete with leather jacket and accent.

These activities answer the question: "Why do historians and film makers say different things about Alexander the Great?" When they reach Year 9 and consider how the Second World War is commemorated in different countries, the foundations of understanding will have been laid by their Year 6 analysis of Alexander the Great.

Andrew Wrenn is history adviser for Cambridgeshire

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