Hodder History Expert Blog

'The Mitford Sisters' - an exercise in collaborative planning
By Neil Bates & George Dollin
29 Aug
The starting point
Sometimes inspiration comes from odd places. Noodling around on Facebook one night a film clip appeared. Upon watching it I was presented with Andrew Marr talking about two mad sisters who shared a room, fought pitched battles over their political beliefs and decorated their respective halves of the room with opposing Communist and Nazi memorabilia. It occurred to me that this would make a good starting point not only for an historical enquiry but also an opportunity to work with George, our excellent SCITT trainee on a collaborative project.

For readers unfamiliar with the Mitford sisters they were in the words of Guardian writer, Katy Stoddard, a “group of aristocratic siblings whose lives mirrored the turbulence of the 20th century and fascinated British society.” With an eye to building overviews and helping students see the big pictures of history, this seemed too good an opportunity to forego.

I will let George take up the story…
The lessons
‘Our starting point was to consider how to use the story of the sisters to greatest effect.  As more research was completed it was found that these sisters could in some way be linked to a great many of the key events of the 20th Century and we worked on a way to show this to the students. 

The Mitford Sisters

The idea was
Lesson 1: to explore the connections and introduce the events and then
Lesson 2: the emphasis was on the students using their new knowledge to plot the different links for themselves with a limited degree of teacher support.  By creating a grand links diagram showing the links between the events and the sisters we ensured that there was a high degree of stretch and challenge. 

The lessons were risky. Lesson two in particular had students working independently from the teacher for the best part of forty-five minutes.  However by setting clear guidelines and expectations for behaviour and by carefully framing the work that should be completed students were able to work in confidence and work hard.  We were very honest with the students at this point that this was a new lesson and we were very keen to hear their feedback. We made sure that at the end of each section we built in a chance for students to offer us suggestions and ideas on how best to proceed.

The lesson was a huge success each group created fantastic work showing the depth in which they had engaged in the topic of the lesson.  Moving around the room talking with students it was clear how much the students were enjoying the lesson and also how much learning was going on.’
Mitford Sisters lesson

Mitford Sisters lesson
Key learning points
  1. Remain open to inspiration. When a film clip or a story lands in your lap then file them away as they will be grist for your creative mill.
  2. Joint planning is hugely beneficial as you can bounce ideas back and forth between, in this case, an old dinosaur and a fresh enthusiastic trainee.
  3. There will be false starts and dead ends. Having another colleague involved in the process helps to build in some quality control.
  4. Use student voice. We chose to consult students on when in the course they thought the lesson would best fit- at the start or end of Year 9. Their feedback was that they needed to know things in order for the lesson to make sense and that it allowed them to draw upon their fingertip knowledge. This consultation also allowed students to reflect on how they learned best without specifically asking them (which can tempt them to tell you what they think you want to hear).
  5. Having been involved in the process of helping plan the lesson, students had more buy-in.
As history teachers we must seek to show students that the past was populated with real people- with the depth and breadth of beliefs and experiences. The Mitford sisters not only allow students to see the webs and links between big historical events but they also show and humanise the diversity of beliefs and ideologies that helped to characterise the Twentieth Century.
Guardian article on the Mitfords: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/17/looking-back-the-mitford-sisterslooking-back-the-mitford-sisters
Andrew Marr programme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLLlIRezUks
George Dollin (History Teacher- The Vyne School) & Neil Bates (Humanities Lead practitioner Cranbourne Business & Enterprise College)
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