Tomb raiders

9th September 2005 at 01:00
A graveyard visit - plus a little ICT help - had pupils at a Welsh primary digging up local history. Hugh John reports

Take the coast road out of Caernarfon along the Lleyn Peninsula, turn inland at Clynnog Fawr following the hedgerowed lanes, and you'll eventually arrive at Ysgol Brynaerau, a small rural primary in Gwynedd, north Wales. In the playground, the Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) chases its tail around the school flagpole; behind, the purpling hills. It's "A place huddled between grey walls of cloud for at least half the year," as local poet, RSThomas, would have it. Headteacher Robert Wyn Roberts greets us. A graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, Robert taught singing and sang professionally before entering teaching 15 years ago.

I'm here with Haf Jones, ICT adviser for Cynnal, a private company responsible for providing and maintaining ICT and curricular materials, to observe a history lesson. One of the themes is graveyards. The local graveyard is a focal point of the lesson Robert is taking with Years 5 and 6. It is, he points out, a trove of local history, and the granite-set runes can yield fascinating results. Births and deaths, occupations, locations, inscriptions, type of material used I every headstone tells a story.

ICT, says Robert, allows him to bring this local history into the classroom. "In the old days, you'd have to go out and write all this information down. Now, they don't have to write down anything in the churchyard. They can bring the gravestone back here via the digital camera and display it on the whiteboard."

That's just the start. Data from the churchyard and local census records is extrapolated into graphs and analysed. How many people were farmers, how many labourers, how many scholars and so on. It's a history lesson but the children are also learning maths, geography and ICT.

Robert uses a panoply of ICT resources - still and video cameras, scanner, microphone, tape recorder, memory sticks - but it's the interactive SMART Board that brings it all together, giving the class the opportunity to discuss their findings.

"The whiteboard is brilliant for developing lessons - for example, a field visit, pictures, and then the census records can be shown as natural steps.

It brings the topic to life, is an effective medium for drawing information from a variety of sources, and for making links, for example from PowerPoint to the internet.

"The whiteboard", he says, "has also made mapreading and orienteering skills much easier to explain. It has brought history to life - children can study documents much more easily, and any discovery can be shared with the whole class. We can look at old photos and compare them with present-day pictures that the children have taken with the digital camera."

All teachers in Gwynedd and Anglesey LEA have had at least one day's whiteboard training. Winner of the 2002 BETT Award for Support for ICT, Cynnal (it means "support") supplies Welsh online content in different formats. Training, says Haf Jones has concentrated on "developing visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods of teaching and learning with particular emphasis on thinking skills".

Robert has worked as an ICT, history and geography advisory teacher for Cynnal and is unstinting in his praise. "Cynnal courses always present me with a challenge. The advisory teachers are accommodating and genial, always ready to come out to the classroom and help, and we have a wonderful rapport with all the staff. They have been the backbone of ICT development in Gwynedd schools over the last 10 years."

The whiteboard is also used to introduce new software to pupils and, since Years 5 and 6 are learning in the same classroom, Robert employs the older children as student-teachers.

But it's not just intimations of immortality and elegies in country churchyards that occupy these young pupils. They employ the same research procedures in other history projects. To celebrate the school's imminent centenary, for instance, the children have taken digital photographs of the houses where they live and each child is compiling a history of that house and its previous inhabitants. Annotations and maps are appended to the photos and the subsequent living history saved in either PowerPoint or HyperStudio complete with links to maps of 1891 and relevant internet sites (such as Pupils, says Robert, are experienced in both programs so they are able to choose which software is appropriate for a particular project.

They now have a choice of English or Welsh software. Primarily a Welsh-speaking school, English is introduced orally in the top class or earlier, depending on individual levels of attainment. Until recently, most software menus were presented in English but within the last year Microsoft has produced a Welsh interface for its XP operating system software and for its Office suite. And UK software firm, 2Simple - whose software is used throughout Gwynedd LEA - has worked extensively with Cynnal to customise its programs so that users can toggle between English and Welsh menus.

Chronological awareness; historical knowledge and understanding; interpretations of history; historical enquiry; organisation and communication; these are the core curricular requirements for the teaching of history at key stage 2. Robert's teaching ticks all these boxes and then some. ICT, he maintains, has brought the curriculum to life. Pictures of gravestones, census records, extracts from school log books, living testament recorded on tape and transferred into multimedia software - these all help capture past times and stimulate children's imagination.

Alongside these activities the children acquire analytic and reasoning methodologies that will inform the rest of their school lives. And beyond that, something far more profound; self-esteem, confidence, team spirit, inquisitiveness and co-operation. Little wonder that this school has been recognised as a good exemplar for ICT training and has been the subject of a BBC video, produced in English and Welsh, showing good practice in ICT across the curriculum.

"Presenting history through ICT, and giving the children an opportunity to create their own multimedia presentations, has brought history to life," says Robert "and the work that children have created in the past can become very useful reference material for the children of the present and future.

I would find it very difficult to explain the concepts as efficiently without ICT resources being available, and it has had a positive effect on all pupils, not only when using the computer, but also on their general understanding of history."

It's time to leave. Robert has just sung - on request and unaccompanied - a beautiful version of "Dafydd y Garreg Wen" (David of the White Rock), one of the great traditional Welsh folk tunes, his bass baritone soaring to the roof. We talk of future plans. It's clear that this school holds a special place in his heart. "Everything is here, isn't it? This is just the right place." He grins, "And you've got the churchyard just down the road. It would be hard to imagine teaching anywhere else." That's wonderful news for future generations of pupils at Brynaerau.



Still digital camera

Digital movie camera

Flatbed scanner

Interactive whiteboard


Tape recorder

Intel digital microscope


SMART Interactive whiteboards

Microsoft Education UK

Welsh Microsoft Link

2Simple Software; (Infant video Toolkit and Talking Stories are in Welsh)

Cynnal Online Curriculum

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