Special education - Past perfect

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Dressing up history, with the help of props, helps bring the facts to life, says Louisa Leaman

History is a subject rich with creative teaching possibilities, which makes it an enjoyable area to explore with pupils with even severe learning difficulties. It doesn't take much to bring an historical era or event to life in the classroom. A bit of imagination and some exciting resources - home-made if easier - are all that is needed to ignite curiosity and generate enthusiasm.

The two key questions you have to ask yourself when preparing a scheme of work are:

- What are the needs and abilities of your pupils? Issues such as physical mobility, visualhearing impairments, cognitive difficulties and level of concentration need to be taken into account when devising activities.

- What is the topic? It helps to start gathering relevant resources as early as possible, whether they be artefacts, images, sound clips, videos from the internet, picture books, or ideas for trips and speakers.

Using artefacts

Tangible objects are a good starting point for pupils who may have difficulty relating to written or spoken information. Items that can be physically explored will have more resonance. For instance, a topic based around the Ancient Greeks could include bits of pottery in a tray of earth (sensory) or sheets to be worn as togas.

Food can be a motivating resource: pupils could experience the enjoyment of modern treats versus wartime rations. One of the most successful lessons I have taught involved a visit from a soldier, dressed in full uniform. Pupils were fascinated by his authoritative presence and the textures of his uniform. Fortunately, our soldier didn't mind being touched by the pupils.

Model making

Again, activities that involve hands-on interaction can help to engage pupils' interest. Models can be made of anything: junk, clay, papier- mache, natural objects, recycling - all providing opportunities for sensory exploration as well as being easy on the budget. Big things can be done as a group, allowing for co-operative and communication skills to be developed. The only snag comes with storing them. After such endeavour it seems criminal to throw things away. So I have a cupboard, big enough to stand in, stuffed full of Roman temples, sand-encrusted pyramids, clay castles and even a papier-mache cave complete with Neolithic paintings.

Drama and role-play

This can literally bring an historical era to life. It can be as detailed as getting pupils to re-enact scenes from a famous person's life, or as simple as dressing up and checking their altered image in front of a mirror. I have had many memorable lessons involving battle re-enactments (soft weapons only), tea dances and Tudor banquets. Events such as this can be the climax of a project, with props such as costumes, food and music being prepared over the weeks by the pupils. If events are recorded on video, they can be enjoyed over again. Reliving them in this way will also help to reinforce learning.


Another useful method of tying learning experiences together is a scrapbook. This can contain photos, worksheets, researched images, maps and collages that pupils have amassed over time. For more able pupils, a scrapbook provides a concrete record of their work and achievements and may also serve as a useful resource if the topic is ever revisited in the future. After all, history has been known to repeat itself.

www.primaryresources.com or www.senteacher.org

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Enfield, north London - a school for special needs children of all ages with profound disabilities.

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