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.
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.
‘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….