“Unseen history” – a new blogpost


Building up a sense of anticipation and curiosity within a history lesson is always a great way to engender a sense of interest and engagement. What follows are a few ideas which I have found work particularly effectively.

What’s in the Bag?

I am a big fan of using artefacts in the classroom to bring history alive. Be it reproduction Roman coins and dice, Medieval weaponry, Victorian curios or my (increasingly obsessive) collection of World War One memorabilia, I find that such items bring history to life like little else. Those artefacts which have generated the most interest have been those enclosed in a case, which allow me to ask students to speculate what might be inside: a World War One Christmas gift tin, for example, or a trench periscope. Based on this, I now make it a habit to place objects which are not hidden in plain sight into a bag, and get students to guess what’s in it after giving them the clue that it is something to do with the topic. After their ideas have run dry, get one student or several to put their hand in the bag and feel what it is. After their hand is removed (not before) they should explain to the class what it felt like and then students can speculate again what the object might be and how it’s related to the topic. Finally, the teacher can reveal the object and the story behind it, with (hopefully) a due sense of interest and anticipation having been built up.

Can you guess what it is yet?

Another technique involves getting two students to sit back-to-back. Provide the first student with a visual diagram relating to the topic being studied – for example, one of the medieval feudal system, or of the “Three Estates” in pre-revolutionary France – and the other with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. The first student then has to describe what they can see to the second student, who uses this information to try to recreate the diagram.

A similar technique can be used with one student at the whiteboard in with an image, which they have to sketch as quickly as possible and within sixty seconds. Cartoons work particularly well for this activity: in a recent lesson of mine, we had a collection of cartoons on the McCarthyite Red Scare. Each student was given one cartoon to look at privately, and then they were called up to draw it on the board from what they could remember. The rest of the class had to guess what was shown, and what its message was. Finally, the original cartoon was shared with the class, which had to decide if the student ‘artist’ successfully focused on the most appropriate details and whether the interpretation provided to them was correct. This proved to be a good way to get students to reflect on the most important details and messages of the cartoon, and to focus on these when sharing them with the class.

Mind Movies

With this technique, students have to close their eyes and imagine themselves into a particular moment in time as a teacher reads a brief account which encourages them to focus on the sights, sounds and smells of the past. It works particularly well with younger students when you are ‘setting the scene’ for a new topic of study. For example, I use it for my opening lesson on the Cathars in Southern France. Students close their eyes, put their heads in their hands and try to visualise the scene as well as they can:

They are then asked to produce an notated sketch to illustrate the events described in the story, including the people, clothes and objects described as accurately as they can.

Taking it further

I have provided an “image reveal” facility at www.classtools.net which allows teachers to upload an image of their choice and then slowly reveal it, tile by tile, so that students can guess what it is. (further ideas on the template itself – could also be a mini-post)

Maps – Germany – where is Berlin etc.