Hands up how many of you out there like going to museums? You liar! It is a whispered truth that history teachers hate museums.
Another one is that History teachers like historical sources.
I find the best method of psychologically torturing a class is through sources. Sources are boring, and must be avoided unless needed for an exam. For me, sources stale a lesson and bog down the students with meaningless discussion. The endless prefixes to source questions; how useful, reliable etc do not address the passion of the subject or advance the advocacy of the discipline. But I have changed my mind. Like Winston Smith I have grown to accept and love that which had beaten and tortured me.
I recently took part in the first stages of the Transatlantic Teacher's Project involving the National Archives and the University of Virginia. The project revolves around building a series of lessons centred on historical documents. Although I wanted to be involved in the project I was apprehensive of overcoming my psychological aversion of sources. The first day eroded my reluctance. Within two hours we were given a masterclass in the power of sources with Ben Walsh, Andrew Payne and Lauren Winters. These expert practitioners enthused us all through their passion and dedication to the subject and discipline.
We then got to go behind the scenes at the National Archives. The back rooms reminded me of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark – miles of documents and storage, but no Ark of the Covenant that I'm aware of! Then we got to the bit I was not really looking forward to, the sources. But my opinion was about to be exploded. The sources shocked, appalled and ignited me (hyperbole intended). The most profound were the intercepted Nazi police battalions reports from the eastern front.
As you would expect, these made grim reading, however, I was shocked by my reaction to these. I'd have expected that, having read Browning, Overly and Grossman as an undergraduate, I would be well-accustomed to the horror of the Nazi occupation, but I wasn't. These sources detailed in bureaucratic banality the utter depths of the Nazi invasion. The stand-out source for me was an intercept of a request for fuel, food and 'two Tartar girls'. For me seeing this sentence was more powerful than any documentary or film covering the event.
What gripped me from this source was not what was written down but the myriad of questions it raised. Who requested the girls? Did they procure them? How did their families react? What happened to them? Was this a common practice? What happened to these girls will never be found out and we can only hazard a guess in horror what fate befell them.
What impressed me the most over the weekend was at no point did anyone ask how useful the source was or how reliable it was. Instead the teachers involved on both sides of the Atlantic speculated the significance of the source and focused on what it revealed about the historical events we were studying.
I returned to the classroom rejuvenated and ready to dish out the sources. Instead of using the sanitised textbook version of the sources I used the massive text heavy originals. The students at first felt challenged, then empowered by using the same sources as 'the adults'. By focusing on significance and speculating what the source left out the students were engaged in a sophisticated enquiry.
My opinion of sources has completely changed and now my students discuss significance not reliability – we look beyond the source to connect with the past.