Who is Castro hectoring now in canteen queue?

21st December 2007 at 00:00
History comes to life when Orkney pupils dress up as famous figures for a day, writes Henry Hepburn.

A cigar-toting Winston Churchill has just shuffled past Julius Caesar. Robin Hood, resplendent in garish green tights, is nonplussed by the Black Panthers patrolling the playground. Meanwhile, William Wallace is belying his belligerent reputation - and historical chronology - by waiting patiently behind a suffragette in the canteen queue.

Pupils at Orkney's Kirkwall Grammar had been invited to dress up as a historical figure for the day - an idea that has proved a source of light-hearted seasonal fun and animated ethical debates.

This week's event was open to any of the 200 history students in S3-6, and followed a successful launch last Christmas when more than half took on a new identity for a day. Teachers are aware that a lack of enthusiasm can be infectious, so a conscious effort was made to create a buzz in advance. Lord Kitchener made several appearances on school walls, extending an authoritative digit and bellowing, "Your history department needs you."

Most pupils - and some staff - spend the entire day in their costumes, though some are a little coy and prefer to change at lunchtime. All had to make a small financial contribution for the privilege, which goes towards charity and school trips.

The centrepiece of the day was a fashion-style parade after lunch - against a soundtrack of theme tunes from historical films. Costumes are judged and vouchers awarded to the top three.

But this was not just fancy dress. Pupils were expected to talk knowledgeably about their chosen historical figure. Many costumes were not instantly recognisable and the most commonly heard question of the day was "Who are you supposed to be?"

History teacher Graham Shearer, who came up with the idea, said: "Teachers have said it brings the school to life, which is a good contrast from other times of year when exams and other pressures can make the atmosphere a bit staid.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's also very important on another level, that all of the pupils go off and do some research on their character. This can lead to some really interesting and topical discussions."

The choice of controversial figures by some pupils has led to intense classroom debates, not to mention a few headaches for teachers. Last year two S5 girls who had studied the civil rights movement asked if they could dress up as Black Panthers - by blacking up. When told that this was not allowed, they countered by asking whether a black child wishing to portray a white historical figure would be told the same.

Cue a call from the history department to the Commission for Racial Equality asking for guidance on the matter.

The girls were satisfied with the explanation that blacking up had social connotations and historical resonance that would make it entirely inappropriate.

One boy - in the flippant way that some like to test boundaries - asked if he could dress up as Hitler. That led to animated classroom discussions about why the Nazis were a no-go area, but dressing up as other brutal dictators, such as Stalin, would not be seen as so offensive.

"We don't vet all the pupils in advance for the figures they've chosen, but they know there's a general rule that if it's likely to cause offence, don't do it," said Mr Shearer, who was Lawrence of Arabia last year and Napoleon this time around.

Social subjects departments at Kirkwall Grammar are flourishing. Numbers have been going up and the dressing-up day is just one of the inventive ruses that have drawn youngsters in.

Teachers were stunned by how well history pupils responded when asked to record contemporary-style TV news reports on the Russian Revolution, with attention to detail that included grainy footage, subtitles and wittily convincing "live" commentaries.

In geography, an interest in Third World urban poverty was stimulated by creating a mock shanty town of cardboard boxes that took up much of a classroom.

"The fancy dress day is one of the many ways of bringing our subject to life, although it can get surreal when you turn the corner and see Fidel Castro chatting away to Abraham Lincoln," said Mr Shearer.


Emily Sarrer, an S4 Standard grade history student, was Florence Nightingale this year and one of a gaggle of Italian prisoners of war this year. Orkney famously held many Italian POWs during the Second World War.

She says: "I think it's a really good, original idea - I've never heard of anything like it at other schools. You're learning about your character but it's also fun getting your costume together."

Hannah Graham, an S5 Higher student, who dressed up as a pirate last year and Pocahontas this year, is unfazed by the prospect of walking through school in exotic garb alongside pupils in their usual uniform.

"It's good because most people that do history do dress up - it would be worse if they didn't. Most of the time it's obvious who everyone is, but I didn't recognise Fidel Castro or a Russian tsar last year."

She added that history had a reputation as a fun department that had attracted her to the subject.

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