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The way we were

How your class can make the most of visits from people who can tell tales of the past. By Gerald Haigh.

The novelist LP Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". You can't visit a country named "The Past", but you can bring people who recall it in to talk to your class about it.

By listening to what society'solder members have to tell you - and by examining objects they may bring with them such as clothes, books, ornaments, memorabilia from the cars they used to own or things they used to have in their kitchens - you not only bring history to life for your pupils but you can also help bridge the widening gap between the young and old.

Below are four stories which have all been heard in schools.


In the almshouses close to my home there lived for many years a man who ran the quarter mile for England during the Stockholm Olympics of 1912. His memories of the occasion were clear and fascinating. The team disembarked from a steamer, he recalled, and then had to ask the way to the sta-dium. At the time, I was working with John Cooper, silver medallist in the 400-metre hurdles in the Tokyo Games of 1964.

I introduced them to each other in the presence of some of my pupils and was privileged to witness an illuminating encounter. Sadly, not long afterwards, John Cooper died in the Paris DC10 airliner disaster of March 1974.


When I was a head, one of our school governors, a quiet, softly spoken man, turned out to have survived two complete tours of duty as an air gunner with Bomber Command in World War Two. The odds of surviving one tour were slim. To come through two was something special. Two tours is 60 missions. Bomber losses ran at about three per cent on each mission, sometimes more - you can work out the maths for yourself.


In a residential home in our town lived a lady who remembered and shared with my pupils much of the history of our school. What made the most impression, however, was her vivid and moving recall of the brother who had died in infancy 70 years before.


In Coventry recently an 80-year-old man on his way to a military memorial service was attacked by a boy of school age. The boy spat at the man, snatched the precious medals that he was wearing and made off with them. The incident was one of a number of attacks and harassments that have blighted the lives of the elderly residents of one area of the city. Other towns, presumably, are not immune.


The first three stories clearly show that people who have been around for a while can bring history to life. Most teachers have always known this, but the idea had something ofa renaissance when the national curriculum came along, with the history study unit, "Britain since the 1930s."

The fourth story, though, shows that there is a much more significant problem to be addressed than any posed by the history curriculum. It is because some children see older people as insignificant and defenceless figures of fun that schools hould help to bring about productive encounters between the two groups.

Every older person has a story to tell - harrowing, funny, heroic, but always fascinating to hear. Nobody who has lived through a large chunk of the last century has had a mundane life.

By listening, drawing these stories out and reflecting upon them, children can come to realise that outward appearance and manner are no real indicators of a person's his-tory. Meetings between generations, therefore, are always useful and important.


Oral history is a good foundation for bridging the age-gap - but there are some important points to consider, and a few caveats.

* Prepare carefully - but be ready to go with the flow if your visitor goes down interesting side tracks.

* At least to begin with, limit your contacts to people you know personally. You need to be able to have preparatory conversations, and assess how your visitor really feels.

* Decide whether to have one visitor, or two, or a group. Each arrangement has its advantages. A group can be mutuallysupportive, and spark each other off. A single person can be more introspective and frank.

* Don't stereotype. You haven't brought yourvisitors in because they are old, or even "elderly", so try not to use such words with your pupils. They are there because they have stories to tell. Take care how you address your visitor. It's too easy to be patronising just in tone of voice.

* Try for feelings. You can get facts easily. You want the tears and laughter.

* Don't try to make the stories fit your own perceptions. It is possible, for example, that not everyone spent the Blitz cheering up their neighbours and singing "Run Rabbit Run".

* You might decide to let your pupils run the interview, with prepared questions. If so you must help them to see, perhaps by rehearsal, that there will be times when they should abandon the script and follow the story where it leads.

* Bear in mind that memory can play tricks. Some people think they were at one event when they were actually at another, or are certain they witnessed incidents that they only heard about. It's good for children to see the limitations of oral history.

* Throughout an encounter with a visitor, make your own notes of points to follow up. You might, for example, be able to turn up a newspaper account of an incident - a fire, a royal tour, a Jubilee event - which your visitor has told you about. This cross-checking and broadening out of the story is as important as the oral account itself.

* Sometimes you may want to take pupils out to see someone who is housebound, or who has things to show you. Think before you do this. Be especially careful about letting a wider circle of people know that someone perhaps frail and elderly has interesting or valuable objects in the home.

* Use audio cassettes, video recorders and the digital camera to make a record of such meetings, but don't let them destroy spontaneity, and don't let children become too wrapped up in all the technology.

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