Recently, I have finished what is always one of the most powerful episodes for Year 9, an enquiry into the significance of the First World War for Cottenham and the other villages that feed our school. We begin by visiting, or examining detailed images of, the local war memorial and asking questions about the war and soldiers’ experiences of it. Starting this way enables the students to have ownership over the enquiry, where they can decide the direction and focus depending on what motivates and intrigues them. Back in the classroom, pupils examine a detailed database, which contains the stories of the 200 or so local people who died during the war. With knowledge of just a few simple tools on MS Access, pupils can search for the answers to their questions, whether it is as simple as, 'How many died from each village?' or a more complex question such as, 'Was it really a world war for local men?'. Letting pupils do their own searching always has an impact because they are thrilled and moved by what they discover for themselves. Often, the most powerful point is where pupils, wondering if any people on the memorials were related, discover that the three Worlands listed were all brothers and that two died on the same day: 1 July 1916 on the Somme. At other times they are amazed by the story of Bert Lack, who received the Military Medal for his bravery. With a few more clicks on the internet they can then relate such details to the bigger picture.
In recent years we have developed this scheme into a significance enquiry, in which pupils compare the local picture of the experiences of the First World War to the national picture and others' views about why the war might be considered the 'Great' War. Although this means a more rigorous enquiry and a more meaningful outcome, it is the power of local people's stories that make it work. Of course, all the information is easy to find – we used www.roll-of-honour.com to get the relevant information and then spent a couple of hours, with the help of the ICT department, putting the data into the database.
We have therefore tried to build personal, family and local history into both the KS3 and the KS4 curriculum because it is relevant to pupils and has the power to engage them in challenging thinking and in-depth inquiry. Another example is through homework research projects. A couple of years ago we started using half-termly projects for homework tasks so that we could do something more creative and rewarding, where pupils had a choice of task. The most popular tasks by far are the family history research projects, which pupils often link to conflicts such as the First and Second World Wars, as well as more recent conflicts such as The Falklands and Bosnia. Take these two stories of what pupils discovered in their own families and consider what they got out of it that they would not have got from a textbook:
- Just this week Harry brought in his research and gave a 15-minute presentation to his classmates about his great-great-grandfather who was a captain in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps during the First World War. Harry had known little about this man's story, other than the fact he had won a medal and had been killed in action. As a result of the homework project he sent away for the full citation and got his family involved in digging for information and pictures. He was able to capture the total attention of the class as he told of the bravery of the actions of his relative who, under fire, helped to capture a key position and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the process. Harry is joining us for our annual trip to the Somme in May and we will head to the cemetery to find the grave of his great-great-grandfather, a site that none of his immediate family have ever visited or that, until a few weeks ago, Harry even knew existed.
- Last year Imogen wanted to find out about her living grandfather's experiences of the Second World War but thought that she would have to choose an alternative project, as he had never spoken about it. A week later, Imogen had an incredible story to tell and held the Year 9 audience captive for 30 minutes. It turned out that she had told her grandfather about some of her studies and then just tested the waters with a few questions. It hadn’t taken long for her grandfather to locate his wartime memorabilia and start to tell his story to her – a story he had not told his own children or wife. He had been on various convoy ships during the war and survived being sunk three times in different theatres. Incredibly, one time he was meant to be in his bunk when a torpedo hit the ship. However, he had swapped his shift with a friend who came off shore-leave drunk – the friend died as the torpedo destroyed the bay in which the men were sleeping. Eventually, Imogen's grandfather was billeted with a family in Australia as the war ended. The family had their niece staying with them at the time – she later became Imogen's grandmother. Great story, but apparently the family have not been able to stop grandfather telling his war stories ever since!
I wonder what the pupils are going to discover next …?