What grandma said about the past

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Speaking about the Past, Oral History for 5 to 7 year olds, By Sandip Hazareesingh, Penny Kenway and Kelvin Simms, Trentham Books Pounds 8.95. 1 85856 023 3.

Local and personally-related history has become an increasingly important aspect of primary history, hence the wider use of oral history as a resource. Enthusiasts such as Sallie Purkis, whose contribution is acknowledged in this book, have done a great deal to help bring this about, so now one commonly comes across groups of small children, huddled in corners of infant classrooms, busily interrogating the postman or grandma. "Adults talking about their past" is in the revised national curriculum - a frozen asset during the big five-year freeze.

Any book that provides help and support for teachers using this form of evidence must be welcome and Speaking about the Past is helpful enough in parts. The chapter on remembering suggests questions to ask parents and grandparents and adds a new dimension to this sort of activity by focusing on children whose roots lie outside Britain. Nevertheless many of the strategies do not really seem concerned about getting an answer to the over-arching question "What was it like in those days?" Questions such as "When were you born?" and "Where were you born?" can only be the first step. A sense of evidence being interrogated is largely missing.

Sharp editing might have corrected the lack of clear focus here. The oral history theme becomes lost when attention is on peripheral and not always complementary material. For example, in the chapter on artefacts and visits, we are told that these offer a context for supporting "bilingual literacy" but no other link to oral history is made.

Some very good story webs are reproduced, but stories such as "The Bird who was an Elephant" have little to do with oral history. Similarly the topic webs in chapter two seem somewhat otiose. Apart from being school-specific, their lack of rigour is painfully apparent. The web from Woking on Journeys manages to include both racing pigeons and 3-D models. Frankly they are old hat.

A quarter of the book is devoted to lists of resources. A heavy London bias is apparent and the local history list is an obvious waste. "A Pictorial Record of Camden Town" will not be too useful in Chipping Sodbury or Scarborough.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the nine-page list of storybooks from different cultures. Even so, many are off-target as far as oral history is concerned and given the wealth of fine history information books, it is a mystery that only one series is mentioned.

The authors' concern with bilingualism contributes new and interesting insights, yet even this sometimes leads them astray. One wonders whether they have written the right book. I sense that there are several volumes here struggling to get out.

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