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War zone, at home and away

An online exhibition reveals the enormous scale of the Second World War and its effects on people's lives. Becky Hewlitt reports

In shopping centres up and down Britain, the Imperial War Museum has been exhibiting a selection of personal memories and artefacts from the Second World War. People who would never normally visit a museum have been breaking off from perusing the latest trainers and learning more about the experiences of local people during the worst conflict the world had ever seen.

Now, the same team have brought the exhibition online in a free resource which is easily accessible, interesting and moving. It also lends itself very well to independent and differentiated classroom use.

The exhibition begins with an emotive and thought-provoking introduction which would suit being shown to the whole class via a projector. Against a background of stirring music and images, we are told facts such as one in five people alive in Britain today lived through the Second World War, three million men and women served in the armed forces and more than one million children were sent away from their homes. This gives children some idea of the enormous scale of the war and how everyone was affected in some way.

The website then divides into five sections - timelines, personal stories, war diaries, regional images and commemorative films.

The timelines section is an interesting concept as it moves away from the usual Anglo-centric approach. Pupils can follow the sequence of events across the world as well as policies and events within the UK as a whole, or look in detail at the impact of war on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England.

With a click of the mouse they can compare events in their home region with world events and consider questions of cause and effect - for example, the impact blitzkrieg in Europe had on the evacuation programme back home - and make the link between them.

The personal stories section carries a wide range of experiences, including those of evacuees, members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, and prisoners of war. They include the sad story of Beryl Myatt, who died at the age of nine on a ship bound for the safety of Canada, and the heart-warming tale of the Birkenhead boy who fell in love with Wales as a child and lives there still.

This section would be particularly useful in class, as the different stories are covered in different ways and with differing levels of accessibility. More able children could explore the story of Mary Harrison, who tells her story of being in the WAAF through diaries and illustrations, while the less able could look at the postcards, pictures and telegrams sent by evacuee Terry Matthews. It would be ideal to use in a mixed-ability classroom and would give children of all abilities suitable resources for independent learning.

The war diaries section contains two of the personal stories in depth, providing instant extension work for the talented historian. The regional images are quite limited in number and a little small when displayed on screen but would make a good start for further research. There is an interesting picture of the destruction of the Bull Ring in Birmingham, which formed the basis of a thought-provoking starter activity.

The website ends with a selection of commemorative films on such topics as "When the war ended", "The cost of war" and "Remembering the war today".

These were short enough to hold pupils' interest and were a good way to finish off the lesson.

This site would be most useful for Year 9 and middle and lower ability KS4 pupils. There is such a wide range of material of varying levels that all pupils can access it and it is so easy to navigate that they could be left to "get on with it" after some initial teacher preparation of an enquiry.

KS2 pupils could also use this site but would need more teacher support and structured guidance. I would use this resource as the basis for a short unit of work fulfilling the criteria for citizenship, local history, ICT and literacy.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this excellent resource is how much we have to be grateful for.

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