Accounts of teaching methodology and experiences
“Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”
If you’d asked me that a year or so ago, I’d have said, “Not particularly, no.” Like so many others, I’d spent my youth fascinated by the peoples and cultures and events of the ancient world and then, in the early 1990s, I’d gone to Exeter University to pursue my interest with a BA in Archaeology where the expertise of the staff at the time had meant a heavy focus on the Roman era.
After the requisite years in the wilderness following graduation, I had then settled on a career in History teaching, a career which, I’d presumed, would allow me to indulge my passion for the past and to share it with the next generation which, of course, it did.
But it gradually sank in as the years went by that, at Key Stages 4 and 5, the options to teach the periods that interested me personally were very limited to say the least. Instead, with absolute inevitability, I found myself teaching, year after year, in school after school, the twentieth century at Key Stage 4 and maybe a little of the nineteenth at Key Stage 5. Yes, there were other topics available if you searched hard enough for them but, early in my career, the choice of Units wasn’t up to me but to my Heads of Department and, by the time I’d achieved promotion, I’d managed to accrue or produce such a range of resources and develop such a depth of expertise that change seemed an unattractively laborious course of action. After all, I had enough to be getting on with, didn’t I?
I’ve often wondered how many other History teachers are, or were, in the same boat as I was. How many of them would rather be teaching other periods, other themes, than those they find themselves teaching? What proportion of our Key Stage 4 and 5 History teachers would genuinely admit that the twentieth century really was their first love?
And so it was that, for 13 years, I found myself teaching the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, Weimar and Nazi Germany, 1920s USA, the New Deal, the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, with a little Russian Revolution and Gladstone and Disraeli along the way…and all following a degree for which I’d studied nothing more modern than the castles of the Anglo-Norman Marcher Lords!
Until, that is, last summer, I snapped…
Many of you may recall The Daily Telegraph’s sting on the WJEC Examination Board in December 2011 during which some of their History Examiners were caught on film dropping hints about what wouldn’t appear (not what would) in the forthcoming exam. The resultant scandal, combined with Michael Gove’s reforming zeal, led WJEC to proclaim that they were going to be “strengthening” their GCSE, extending the scope of some of the Units, banning certain popular combinations of Units and restructuring the exam paper to cover all aspects of each Unit every year, not just certain, predictable parts. Yes, I was going to have to put together a new course. Yes, I was going to have to teach more Germany. No, I couldn’t face either.
I initially began by searching online for other WJEC Units that would have been of more interest to me and then for other Modern History courses from other Examination Boards. I wanted to minimise the workload, ameliorate the impact on my work-life balance. But then, out of the blue, I recalled inadvertently stumbling across OCR’s Ancient History GCSE a year or so back and thought I’d have another, closer look at it. If I was going to have to revise my course substantially anyway, why not do it wholesale?
However, fascinating as the Specification undoubtedly was (who wouldn’t want to teach Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Cleopatra?!), I reluctantly decided it wasn’t the right course for my pupils. I teach in a comprehensive that can claim as its catchment area the most socio-economically deprived district in its county. My school has 63% of its pupils entitled to Free School Meals and nearly 40% are on the SEN register. Attendance figures, literacy levels and, consequently, results are low. This year, only 6% of our Year 11s left with 5 A*-C including English and Maths (though 85% achieved A*-C in History). It may not surprise you to learn, then, that we are currently languishing in Ofsted’s “Serious Weaknesses” category. In this context, and in my professional judgement, AQA’s Ancient History would have been the wrong choice. It depended a little too much on a detailed understanding of the complex and challenging original sources. I wanted to inflame my pupils’ passion for the ancient world, not run the risk of dousing it.
Whilst scanning around for alternative ideas and inspiration, a brief snoop online at other local schools revealed that I might be about to become the only teacher in the area to offer pupils the chance to study the ancient world at Key Stage 4. I was then stunned to discover on JACT’s website a reference to a survey in 2010 that had established that 83% of state schools no longer taught any of the Classics-related subjects at all. Why not? Where has the perception arisen from that these subjects are, and should remain, the preserve of Grammar Schools and the independent sector?
I was determined not to give up, though, and, after a little more research, I came across AQA’s Classical Civilisation course. Immediately, my excitement rocketed! Here, I believed, was a GCSE that was accessible to my pupils in my school. Its civilisational Units were knowledge-based and required personal responses, properly developed, that I knew my pupils would be more than willing to explore; it was, very fortunately, supported by recently published, comprehensive textbooks (James Renshaw’s superb In Search of the Greeks and In Search of the Romans); and, crucially, it was jam-packed with absolutely thrilling content! I could teach about Athens and Sparta?! Rome?! Pompeii?! I could focus my Controlled Assessment on the archaeology of Roman Britain?! Are you serious?!!
I immediately convened a meeting of all the Year 9 pupils who’d elected to do History GCSE with the understanding they’d be studying the USA and Germany in the twentieth century. Slightly anxiously I proposed to them that we change the GCSE completely and, instead, head 2,000 years further back in time to study the ancient Greeks and Romans instead…
There was not one voice of dissent. Not one.
Why does the twentieth century so dominate our young people’s educative experiences? Where does this obsession come from? What was the thinking behind removing the ancient world from our state schools? Does studying these ancient societies not tell us as much about ourselves as studying the modern?
It was then, of course, that the work began! I was going to have to produce an entirely new course from scratch, browse and select the best resources, write new Schemes of Work and put together brand-new PowerPoints for the interactive whiteboard. The prospect was quite daunting to say the least, but I was so excited by the decision I had made, so invigorated by the enthusiasm my pupils had displayed, that I dived in head first without a second thought.
And it was during this initial preparation last summer that it struck me; I was learning again! Yes, much of what I was going to be teaching was personally familiar to me from my degree or from my private reading or from countless documentaries over the years, but there was no denying that I was now, in every sense of the term, a “non-specialist”. I was going to have to prepare my lessons to a degree I had not had to for some years.
And I loved it!
In fact, I loved it so much, if I’m going to be honest, that I got completely carried away! I long ago lost count, thankfully, of the hours I’ve spent these last twelve months voraciously trawling Google Images for vases, frescoes, mosaics, statues, reliefs and artefacts to best illustrate my new PowerPoints. I dread to think how many pennies I’ve spent on background reading material. I even went as far as writing two of my own 25-page Introductory Booklets for the “Athens and Sparta” and “Social Life in First Century AD Rome” Units in order to provide my pupils with some sort of historical context before delving into the actual examined content!
But it didn’t stop there. A few months into the course, I came up with the idea of setting up a Facebook page that my pupils could “Like” that would keep them up to date with interesting developments in the study of the ancient world. I didn’t want their experience and understanding to be confined solely to AQA’s specified content, rich though it was. I could let them know a certain archaeological discovery had been made, remind them to watch a certain documentary that night, alert them to a relevant activity day somewhere at the weekend. However, try as I might, I couldn’t get my Page to publish and so I contacted an old school friend who’d given up a career as an IT Technician to become a Primary teacher (and, of course, not regretted it for one second). I thought he could solve my problem for me. Instead, he planted the seed of something slightly more ambitious in my head!
He recommended I abandon the idea of a standalone Facebook Page and instead set up a website using WordPress. The blog part of it, he informed me, could link to a Facebook Page anyway if I wanted it to but having a website would provide me with so much more flexibility. I’d never done anything remotely like this before and so was a little apprehensive when I set to it but, sure enough, with WordPress’s idiot-proof guidance, I managed it.
Quite what I would fill the rest of the website with struck me immediately; I would put together a One-Stop-Shop for other teachers just like me, from whatever background, who were thinking of making the change over to Classical Civilisation or Ancient History. I was having such a fantastic time teaching about the ancient world and, as we all know, the subjects are in need of as much support as we can possibly muster. If I could make it any easier for “non-specialists” to make the switch, if I could make the transition any smoother, then I had to seize that opportunity. I could save them hours scouring the internet, try to ease any anxiety they might have about the difficulty of taking such a daunting step. I’d create a Page arguing the case for introducing the subjects to any school’s curriculum; a Page detailing the various Specifications and the differences between them; a Page highlighting the most appropriate textbooks for each course; a Page suggesting the best organisations to join or to appeal to for funding; a Page for students to visit who were thinking of opting for the subjects; a Page, eventually, with my own Schemes of Work and PowerPoints for them to adopt and adapt as they saw fit…
If you’re still reading this and you’re interested in visiting my website, its address is www.nonnedelectamini.wordpress.com. It’s still in a fairly embryonic form and I’ve yet to begin actively promoting it. In fact, this article is the first public admission of its existence! Also, if after having visited it you have any comments or recommendations you’d like to make (either about the design, the content or especially about how best to promote the site) then please, please feel free to contact me at the email address below. If listening to others, especially experienced specialists, can improve the site and ensure it has the biggest impact possible, then I’m more than willing to do so and take the advice on board!
And so here I am, halfway through my first run at AQA’s Classical Civilisation GCSE. Well, I say halfway, but I’m actually over-running quite considerably as I’m enjoying teaching to an unnecessarily great depth and I’m also getting stopped every five minutes by my pupils’ incessant questioning! I have never, ever in my entire career experienced this level of inquisitiveness in Key Stage 4 pupils.
When I return to school in September, it won’t be long until we’re all off on our trip to Hadrian’s Wall, the frontier I was examined on in my finals, before we start the Controlled Assessment on the Romanisation of Britain, the topic I chose for my own dissertation way back in 1995.
“Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”
Oh, yes. Absolutely.