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What was life like back then?

History is all around, and children need look no further than their relations. There is no such thing as ordinary, says Peter Heaney. Looking at the past through the eyes of their grandparents has made history come alive for the 10-year-olds at my school, Steelstown Primary in Derry.

What they ate and wore, how they played - pupils have a living resource that makes their research even more fascinating. They have been sharing and comparing the results with two other schools - Birchley St Mary's Primary in St Helens, Merseyside, and Plockton Primary in Ross-shire - on a videoconferencing and virtual learning environment (VLE) project.

It started with an extended homework assignment, where they asked their grandparents questions, including: what was life like when you were 10? How were your school days? What games did you play?

The pupils discussed the responses and then, in groups of five or six, used it to create a "pastiche grandparent", filling in gaps with their imagination. The character would have a name, a personal CV and a store of interesting memories, and would be illustrated.

Each child had input into the joint character, with amusingly diverse attributes. There was Henrietta, a granny from St Mary's, who recalled having to walk three miles to school, and visited the seaside when her dad bought his first car. In her day, the coalman and the milkman used horse drawn carts.

- Meanwhile, Tony, a Steelstown granddad, had a more exotic history. He lived in Brazil and started work as a young boy on a chicken farm. His favourite game was to throw stones into the river.

Each school put its characters' details on the VLE (we use and this highlighted similarities and diversity. The schools were rural and urban, with common levels of poverty. Differences included food and transport. One class went on a two-mile nature walk in honour of their grandparents having to walk that far to school.

Next, using the Ask Me tool, the children posted questions for the other schools' "grandparents" based on their profiles and memories. These were answered by pupils in character, considering how a 70-year-old might respond.

As their confidence developed, we decided to set up a videoconference where the "grandparents" could introduce themselves.

After raiding wardrobes and applying make-up, the "grandparents" explained who they were, related some history and had a brief chat.

The groups rehearsed speech, movements and mannerisms to ensure authenticity. I think that inhabiting this other world helped the children understand their grandparents better.

Peter Heaney is head of maths at Steelstown Primary School in Derry. is a free online platform for schools.


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Jim Merrett.

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