Is it too late for last minute revision?

Here is a poem I wrote to help year 11 remember key facts about the League of Nations. That is how desperate I became to cram in the facts. It is a poem because it rhymes, so there.

The League of Nations

In Geneva, League of Nations
Hoped to stop more confrontations
Altogether they brought muscle
To prevent a violent tussle.

Weaker countries were effective
Now they had the safe collective.
Everyone would ditch their arms
Talk instead and cause no harm.

But they only had persuasion
To prevent a large invasion.
Or they could have all stopped trading
With the one who was invading.

Things worked well with the Commissions
Helping people’s life conditions
But membership caused worried doubt
When several countries were left out

And then the US didn’t join
Which was a hard kick in the groin
So though the twenties saw success
The 30s were a dreadful mess.

The League was proved to have no might
To stop an international fight
And Woodrow Wilson’s dream was dead
The world had chosen war instead.

Everyone loves a treasure hunt

Last term was a knuckle-scraping slog. By the end of term the students seemed ‘full’ and unwilling or unable to take on board any more information. I’m reminded of it because I have just been to the Science museum in London, and although I was determined to spend the entire day there, having seen the range of exciting exhibits, after 2 hours my brain was leaking and I had to crawl out.
As we beckoned and cajoled the students towards the Easter break I did manage to light the fire of enthusiasm in my year 9 class with two particular lessons. One of them might be called foolhardy but I took a risk.
The purpose was for them to gather both facts and personal source evidence about rationing. The Enquiry Question centred on the variety of experiences of the Second World War at home; weighing up opinions and measuring them against the ‘stone cold facts’. However shunting a pen across the page had become a Herculean task for many pupils so I needed to make them desire the information. In a moment of pure optimism I decided to bill the whole exercise as a treasure hunt.
Each pupil was given two different coloured slips of paper. One with a fact and the other with a contemporaneous quote. They were informed that they needed to answer the question, ‘What was the impact of rationing?’ by finding relevant evidence. I thought I might be dreaming; the minute I mentioned a treasure hunt they visibly contracted into a state of high alert. This notwithstanding the fact the ‘treasure’ was a hoard of History information.
Having frequently organised Easter Egg Hunts, only to forget where I put the eggs I decided they should each hide their own two pieces of paper. Thus they could also retrieve them at the end of the game and avoid irritating the cleaners. The ground rules were that they had to allow at least a corner of the ‘treasure’ to peep out. Apart from that they could hide them anywhere. Then I let them loose, within certain parameters, on the corridor and inside the classroom. They scattered away, revelling in the subterfuge needed to secrete their evidence, without detection. After this they returned to class and grabbed their exercise books which they needed to record the information. The primary objective of discovering where others had hidden the information seemed to diminish the arduous nature of having to write things down.
Everyone swept off again, buzzing with excitement, whilst the LSA and I gawped in disbelief at the lack of passive resistance. The least motivated students simply tried to circumvent the exercise by sharing quotes with each other rather than hunting for them. They went to great lengths to hide their subversion without appreciating that their collaboration equally served my purpose. Actually a passing senior teacher on walkabout feared there was a riot in the corridor until she noticed they were all talking about History. It might possibly have disrupted everyone else’s lessons in the vicinity, but my mug was not deliberately smashed in the staff room later, so I think I got away with it.
After 20 minutes everyone legged it back into the classroom declaiming about the obscure locations in which they had successfully discovered quotes. Their energy translated into a heated discussion about the enquiry question, because everyone had different evidence. I hadn’t even dared hope for that, period six on a Thursday.
In the throes of my gambler’s lucky streak I then decided to design another risky, crowd-pleasing lesson for this class, set in a court room. The results will be outlined in another blog.

Charles I comes up Trumps



How can you teach the demise of Charles I? It’s a fascinating period; the build up to the Civil War, after all, shows the buds of democracy, the culmination of religious upheaval set in motion by Henry VIII and the prelude to a war which set families against each other and traumatised the English people for decades.
But it is ever so complicated for year 8.
We try to get students to unpick the decisions that Charles made and assess whether they showed good leadership or terrible judgement. Ideally they can tease out the differences between conflicts centred on religion, economics or power. However there are so many decisions over the course of seventeen years that they tangle together in an impenetrable knot. It can be difficult for a year 8 student to see the trees in the dark wood of history.
We use different media. For instance there are clips from Cromwell, with a rather fey Alec Guinness as Charles, to evaluate,
and excerpts from BBC class clips to explain his relationship with religion.

They can also split into groups to defend the behaviour of Charles or parliament in a court room scene.
But the best learning opportunity seems to come from Top Trumps. Everyone played it when they were young and by year 8 they have a sort of nostalgia for the game from ‘when they were children.’ I made 15 decision cards to fill in and illustrate. The illustrations highlight their relative understanding of the issue. For each decision Charles’ leadership is assessed for decisiveness, intelligence, strength, listening skills and trustworthiness. Students have to score each decision and then decide if it was aligned to religion, power or the economy. They are all inter-linked, of course, but one might be more dominant. More able students write his decisions themselves, right up until Charles raised his standard in Nottingham to declare war on parliament in 1642.
Making the cards is a creative homework and they come in excited with the promise of playing games. The scores given for his leadership then determine who wins each round of cards. It gets surprisingly competitive.

As you can see they enjoyed playing whilst unconsciously reflecting on the role of Charles. Following this the students had to organise the cards on their desks into categories and within these order them according to the quality of Charles’ decision making. Thus they had a ready made essay plan, divided into three paragraphs, with evidence of the events to cite and a criteria for judging Charles’ decision making.
They barely noticed they were learning which is much better than the assessment brain-ache  I used to observe contorting their faces before I thought of introducing Top Trumps.


I’m not having that…

‘The Provisional government in Russia failed because they were too weak and refused to use repression or the secret police to maintain power.’
This was supposed to be a recap of the previous lessons on opposition in Russia 1855 – 1917. I had a plan for the lesson which did not involve having a fierce discussion about whether dismantling a repressive apparatus is weak government. But that summary from a highly intelligent student snagged me in my headlong journey.
‘Wait! I’m not having that!’ ( I think I slapped the table with my palm.) They all looked up, alert, eyes glinting; *Game On!*
‘What do you think the Provisional government should have done? Do you support the use of terror to maintain government?’ I demanded.
Another student joined in, ‘It was necessary to be repressive in Russia at that time, in order to keep control.’
‘It was “necessary” to arrest people in the middle of the night, torture them and remove all civil rights, in order to rule?’
They were grinning, certain that they had the better of the argument. It was clear that I was just being an old hippy again, clinging onto idealism, playing acoustic guitar in Peace Park.
‘It was the only thing which would work in Russia. The Provisional Government should have used those methods for a while until they had established control and then gradually eased off, once people were ready for democracy and liberalism.’
I tried to drill down into what they were proposing, as the lesson ticked on.
‘Er. So, begin with mass arrests, censorship and torture and then gradually ease off? Perhaps torturing people less often, or slightly less rigorously? Ending with tickling – as a prelude to the introduction of democracy.’
They exchanged looks. I was being ridiculous. They needed to get it through to me.
‘They just needed to repress people for a while until they had established their control. There is no point being liberal if you cannot hold onto power. The Bolsheviks may have been ruthless but they were successful.’ The students all nodded in agreement.
‘Is it usual for rulers to establish a repressive regime and then use this as a platform to introduce democracy? Do you think Saddam Hussein needed a little more time to introduce his liberal ideas? Yoweri Museveni aimed to end the repression of Idi Amin in Uganda. He just needed to ensure stability and control before he could begin. 27 years later he is still dictator and threatening to execute gay people.’
They were wearing their, ‘What’s she going on about?’ faces.
Then someone said,
‘But sometimes it is the only way to rule a country when there is so much opposition.’
I tried a different tack,
‘What about if the coalition government here began to arrest people using a secret police force?’
At this point the class divided into those who felt this can be justified to prevent terrorism and those who felt it would be inappropriate in Britain.

It seems acceptable if it is happening to other people.

The debate raged on. In the meantime my carefully crafted lesson had exploded at the seams. But I can’t bear to hear A level students nurture a perspective of history which, although convenient , is simplistic and callous. History is about real people and real values. To make glib comments justifying repression and murder is to ignore the fact that at the sharp end of those methods were the beating hearts of other humans. Stopped dead.
It might work in the exam. But I’m not having it.

Right, where did I put my acoustic guitar….

Befuddlement and confusion

Launching straight into Year 10 GCSE with the ‘Creation of the Weimar Government’ can be problematic. It is like thanking students for choosing History and then tipping a bucket of  concepts and vocabulary on their heads.

“Before hitler was elected the weimar government had been in power, this was a communist run party with right wing beliefs.”

So began a student with an A* target the other day. Apart from the fact that the Weimar government wasn’t a singular political party, the Communists never formed a government and Communists are left wing, I think I have conveyed the issues clearly. Although I acknowledge a slight problem with capital letters.

I might be doing it wrong. After several attempts to unravel the Weimar constitution by explaining Proportional Representation vis a vis the First Past the Post system (with pictures and diagrams) , constituencies, the Reichstag, coalition governments, presidents and chancellors, a third of the students will have dead eyes. They think it has no connection with their world. I probably need to think up an X Factor analogy. In the meantime students extract their own meaning;

“in 1932 hindenburg was still the president he was a weak leader because he had to ask all of the people what to do because he couldn’t decide for himself”

Ergo ‘Democracy is the terrible consequence of weak presidents who can’t decide for themselves?’ (And punctuation is something which needs to be ditched at the first opportunity.)

Anyway, when someone asks, ‘What’s proportional representation again?’ I have been known to say, ‘Just remember it means lots of different parties who can never agree, so nothing gets done.’ An adequate response to vacuum up some GCSE marks on this topic perhaps but not very fair if the Lib Dems want to attract young voters in the future.

Unfortunately there are several opportunities to oversimplify in this course as students canter over the boggy sands of content to be ready for an exam. Appeasement was clearly a mistake (crazy pacifists) the League of Nations were weak because they didn’t use an army (nothing can be achieved without an army) the Treaty of Versailles was too vengeful (typical French over reaction) I can’t bear to let these one dimensional notions go unchallenged but students often cling onto them like buoys in the rough sea of complex ideas.

So I am resolved to scour popular culture for anything which might help me open the door into their minds. And I will endeavour not to release them into the world holding skewed notions of politics, democracy and international relations. After all, they will be in charge of the world when I am too old to go on a protest march.

The glorious differentiation wheel

I need to pay homage to the glorious differentiation wheel; saviour of my (occasional) one dimensional lessons, bounteous giver of time. I was alerted to this neat little lesson idea through Mike Fleetham’s thinking class room

It centres on creating a wheel of activities from a central oasis of content. Students choose their own activities; one which they can do easily and one which is a challenge. When they have finished they need to find others who have done the same activities as them and compare. Another task is for them to organise the tasks in order of difficulty and explain their why they think certain tasks are harder than others.

186_0_Differentiation Wheel Apr 13

It works really well based on the idea that students like to choose their own activities and will often seek to challenge themselves once they have achieved something in the first task. The simplicity means that it saves lots of planning time (can’t say fairer than that) and frees up the teacher to offer support during lesson time because the students have more ownership of the task.

I tend to use it to allow students to apply different skills for instance using a sources or sources, but you can easily write ‘Repression under Stalin’ in the central bubble and give a variety of tasks based on this content. If I’m feeling particularly on the ball I’ll base my tasks on Bloom’s taxonomy. My colleague used it for GCSE revision and the variety of tasks meant that it avoided the heavy treacle-wading sensation that revision sessions can sometimes engender.

Thank you Mike Fleetham wherever you are…

Year 9 and competition

By the time year 9 have decided on their options it gets harder to motivate some students to work. With my current year 9 class competition seems to be the key to injecting energy and focus into the lessons. The other day they needed to obtain some basic factual evidence about evacuation which they could use to compare to source evidence. I decided to type the easier ‘describe;’ questions on red paper (worth 1 mark), explain questions on blue (2 marks) and analytical questions onto green (5 marks). The information was available in a text book or online.  Each student had to gain 10 marks in order write their name on the whiteboard. They could answer a combination of cards to reach 10 but they could only take one card to their desk at a time and it needed to be marked before they collected another card.

It seems that it doesn’t matter what the competition is about, my class want to win. It was a hectic lesson as they  raced to get their work marked so that they could attain 10 and write it on the board! Simples. (No one seemed to question why it was in any way rewarding to write your name on the board…)

In future I will select certain pupils to have answers to the simple questions so that I do not disappear under a throng of gigantic, impatient year 9 boys thrusting their books under my nose.

Incidentally, when I was berating members of the same class for not including titles and dates in their class work I threatened that if they continued to forget I would obtain permission from the Head to have it tattooed on their forearms to remind them.

‘We’ve done it before, and it worked!’ I asserted.

Horror crept across their faces, ‘Really?’

I think all this tells me is that they imagine I am so lacking in humour I couldn’t possibly have been making it up.