Kate Cunningham, aka Reading Riddle, offers innovative ideas for exploring the infamous 1666 fire in the primary classroom
When teaching the Great Fire of London, it becomes very apparent that pupils are more disconnected from their ancestors than ever before. Although their grandparents would probably have experienced cooking over a fire and living without central heating, there are many children who may never have seen fire or ash in real life. This, of course, makes a difference when explaining the events that took place in 1666.
Making the right impression
Using fire in the classroom is undeniably a health and safety risk, but being able to show it to pupils is an important part of bringing this topic to life. Some teachers do so by setting light to model houses, which is certainly memorable. However, this is potentially hazardous and all too often takes place at the end of the topic once writing opportunities have passed. And I am, understandably, slightly uneasy about making them excited about setting houses alight!
In this lesson plan, I suggest using tea-light candles to observe little flames. While this too has limitations in terms of size, it is manageable, controllable and real. I have found that even the liveliest children are absorbed by the flame enough to follow the rules and not risk having it removed.
Breaking down the topic
Following this introduction, I start the class on a range of activities that lend themselves to discussion, negotiation and explanation. For example, I introduce timelines and the concept of chronology with this interactive activity, in which students must use verbal instructions to put a series of events in the right order. It is a good idea to model the type of language you want the children to use, such as “You are 1969. You are later than 1935 but earlier than 1975 so you go in between”. With this firmly in place, you can move on to order different events during the fire using these cards.
Adding something extra
A visit or a visitor is another way to bring the topic to life. To teach the Great Fire of London, I recommend inviting fire service education officers or storytellers into school, or even heading out to a firefighting museum. Alternatively, the National Archives and Museum of London offer online sessions.
Making memories in class
Bringing history to life in this way can make your lesson unforgettable. I will always recall the day my history teacher put down the textbook and re-enacted the battles of the Spanish Armada. By using these innovative resources, you too can have a memorable impact in the classroom.