Category Archives: history

Teaching the Romans – Part 1

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One reason I was excited to join my new school in September was the way their KS3 history curriculum was being rebuilt. The school was moving from 1 lesson a week, for 2 years, to 2 lessons a week for 3. That sort of contact time for a humanities subject is getting more and more rare, and the chance to see Year 7, 8 and 9 students twice a week and give them access to a detailed curriculum was one that really motivated me. The chance to help design that curriculum, even more so.

Previously, Year 7 had begun with the Romans (once a skills unit was out of the way), and we decided to keep it. However as I was the only teacher who taught every year 7 class (2 of which were split), and since we had more contact time, it made sense for me to take more control over what a ‘redesigned’ Romans unit might include. I also had just read SPQR by Mary Beard and so was pretty enthusiastic about getting to work on it. With the unit coming to a close and the holidays coming up, I’m going to put together a couple of posts about what I aimed for, what we taught and whether or not it worked.

Firstly, the aims. I wanted the students to learn about specific concepts – Republic, Citizen, Dictator and Empire – not just for their importance in Roman history but for their links to future units we will study, such as the British Empire, French Revolution, rise of the Dictators, etc. My thinking had been prompted by others, especially Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell, who reference the ways that our knowledge of concepts and ideas is strengthened as we cover them in different contexts, over different time periods, etc.

With the concepts in mind, I focused on what is I suppose to most famous period in Roman history – the decline of the Republic and the establishment of the principate/empire. This period is so incredibly rich with individuals and events that I wanted them to share in it. A focus on this period introduced another concept to cover – tyranny. The main assessment that students would complete was titled ‘Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar?’ This brought together the republic, the Roman idea of dictatorship and fear of tyranny, and following this question we would move onto Empire, exploring what one actually is, how it is different to a Republic, and a smaller assessment point would ask the question of whether or not Rome was already an Empire before 27BC. This would enable them to use the knowledge of the unit so far and apply it to a new concept.

With that rough plan, I began to think about what I needed to teach to make sure they could do it well. For example, they can’t explain what the Republic was and why some felt so strongly about it needing saving, unless they knew a little about the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and what replaced it. This helped them to understand the Roman fear of kings and why Caesar, wearing purple and minting his face on coins, would have made some uncomfortable. Similarly, Caesar being dictator for life and wanting to choose consuls himself makes little sense on its own, but understanding the role of Dictator more, through the story of Cincinnatus, helps to understand what an overreach this was. Finally, judging whether Caesar was destroying the Republic isn’t fair if he’s presented in isolation, and so the story of gradual change/decline has to be told, with a small focus on the impact of Marius and Sulla and their breaking down of Roman conventions. This gives a base of comparison for analysing Caesar.

So a plan came together, roughly along these lines:

  1. Romulus and Remus – introduction to Romans and foundation myth.
  2. Who were the Romans? The creation of the Republic and overthrow of the Kings, how the republic was structured, who the citizens were, senate, consuls, patricians, plebeians, etc.
  3. Why was the Roman Army so effective? Beneath the general points here of discipline, tactics, training etc., I wanted to establish two things: the growing power of generals and why soldiers would be loyal to them first, and Rome second (land gifts, shared wealth, etc); and the fact that Roman soldiers were supposed to stay out of Rome itself. This sets up…
  4. What can be learned from Roman Wars? Development of Rome from Cincinnatus, Samnite Wars, Punic Wars, Social War and Marius/Sulla. A certain amount of information on each (varying by class as we have sets), but to get across a narrative of Rome’s growth, and some key points: role of Dictator, destruction of competition, ruthlessness and start of Civil Wars. Sulla/Marius especially focused on with top 2 sets to give them context – soldiers marching on Rome (despite what they learned previously), Dictatorship changing (despite what they learned previously), growing power of generals, decline of Republic’s values, etc. By this point there’s lots of layers going on.
  5. Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar? The story of Caesar, the events of 49BC to 44BC, the arguments for each side and an essay assessment.
  6. How did Rome become an Empire? Story of Octavian transforming into Augustus, what is an Empire and was Rome already and Empire before Augustus?

The numbers above aren’t lessons, but general topics/knowledge that I wanted to cover before I moved on. Point 5 for example, on Caesar, took 4 lessons to do. Point 2, about the Republic, took 1.

What I’ve Learned

Before I do a further post about what they learned and how they did on this redesigned unit, a little about what I learned in planning and teaching it. Firstly, about how important subject knowledge is. I’ve always known it, but it was hard to explain why. Being more knowledgeable about history seemed to be its own justification. Now I feel better able to articulate it. Simply, less knowledge = more genericism. I didn’t want the unit to wallow in the general, and I wanted it specifically to be more challenging and more content heavy than a Romans unit might include at primary school, even though it’s their first unit of Year 7. If I don’t know enough about the Republic, Cincinnatus, Sulla, Brutus and more, then I won’t teach it, and trying to get across those concepts – about Dictatorship and Tyranny and Citizenship and Empire – becomes much harder, or doesn’t happen at all.

Secondly, students have been very positive. The top 2 sets have soared, and while the arguments being made by the third are weaker, they are showing so much interest in class and able to argue about the merits of each argument with each other in a way that really encourages me. However it has to be said, for some it has been hard to access. It has been a challenging unit with lots of concepts and knowledge to retain. I’ve tried to lower the burden with constant reference to previous learning, showing where connections are, scaffolding and so on, but some – mainly the weakest set – have struggled. More needs to be done next year to ensure they are able to sink their teeth into it in the same way most did.

Finally, because of the focus I have set, there’s a lot which I haven’t covered. Again, this is partly a conscious decision to try and avoid things that might have come up at primary, but there’s a whiff of ‘great man’ history to the unit and we’re focusing on the narrative and the historic figures, leaving other voices unheard. We’ve not spent much time focusing on day to day life in Rome or Roman Britain, the impact of the Empire on its subjects, the decline of the Roman Empire, etc. There’s gaps, and that needs to be addressed when we move on to the Norman conquest, to show how the Romans fit into the big picture rather than leaving them like an island at the start.

With all this in mind, in the next post I’ll put up some examples of how the lessons were taught, how I tried to scaffold difficult concepts and ideas and how the students actually did at the written assessments. I was trying to help develop writing skills and I’m really not sure if I had any success at all on that. So that’s to come.

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Improving on my NQT year

It’s really quite alarming to find I’m only 7 weeks away from the end of my first full year as a teacher. It’s been tough and tiring, but my overwhelming feeling is one of success. I’m not quite at the finish line – I have another observation, my final one of the year, and my NQT report and sign-off meeting has to be done. At that point I’ll be fully qualified. With that in mind, I find it eye-opening to sit and thinking how much I’ve already changed since the start of the PGCE back in September 2014.

And while I think I am still improving, and I know I am better than I was in September, I still feel daunted by the total tonnage of what I don’t know. The experiences I’m yet to have. Life without the PGCE/NQT safety net, performance management, OFSTED, exam results, targets and so on. The professional life which has yet to really begin while I remain cocooned in this… gestation.

My thoughts have turned to next year, and what I need to do to improve. Reflecting on how things have gone, considering lessons, marking books and so on, I need to improve:

  • Routines. As a naturally relaxed person, I unwittingly allowed an overly relaxed demeanour to influence the start of my lessons. The first few minutes are a general hubbub and while I hold a strong rapport with my classes and classroom management is no concern, it’s still lost time. What makes me want to focus on it is the fact that my new school has 55 minute lessons – losing the start of every single one will have an impact.
  • Teaching for memory. My head of department and NQT mentor has said to me this year that I needn’t worry about what they remember ‘the first time around’. Everyone forgets things, just get the basics in and the rest can be topped up by revision. The more the year has gone on, the more I dislike this sentiment, and I’m convinced of the need to go slower but embed properly as we go along. The more I’ve read from people like David Didau, Willingham, Make it Stick, Heather Fearn, Lee Donaghy etc., the more I am convinced that I’m not alone – plenty of teachers out there are making it stick, for the most part, the first time around.
  • Modelling. I’ve done more and more of this as the year has gone on and, especially with Y7 and Y8, I am noticing benefits. The modelling chapter from the brilliant Making Every Lesson Count book by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby should be on every training course going, and has given me impetus to model in more constructive ways. The idea of shared construction of a piece of writing is one I haven’t yet done, nor have I yet written out answers and explained my thinking and development as I go along so they can see what ‘experts’ do and learn from it. I have used model answers, good and bad, got them to analyse and explain and improve and apply to their own etc.,  and I am seeing the benefit, but in this area I think I can improve more, and that it can have a big impact on literacy and extended writing.

Those are my 3 focus areas, I think. Next year will be a challenge on its own – new school, shorter lessons, teaching to 2 different GCSE specs and being responsible now for my own Y11 class, and all that comes with it. Hopefully by developing those particular areas, the benefits will be clearly seen.

What should everybody know?

The school I’m going to be moving to in September is changing from a 2 year, 1 lesson a week key stage 3, to a 3 year, 2 lesson a week version. As a result, the contact time with each class has increased dramatically and the current schemes of work need expanding, rewriting, etc. It’s a wonderful opportunity to think about and plan for a history curriculum that all students will receive, before the GCSE choices kick in.

So I’ve had the chance to begin to think: what should all students have the opportunity to learn about?

The one area I know I want to devote time to, that isn’t currently taught, is the fight for Women’s Suffrage. I’ve taught it this year and really enjoyed it, and it was received well by students too, but it was quite brief and surface level. The chance to explore the different groups and campaigns, the questions arising from them about , for example, use of violence, are interesting. So that’s a lock.

If you had curriculum control, or even if you do – what would you make sure your students learned about, even if not taking history to GCSE? What are the things everyone has a right to study?

Differentiation

I’m going to run through a sequence in a lesson of mine, today, and I’m hoping a few of you teachers wouldn’t mind giving me your thoughts on which of the options, down below, you think is the correct way to proceed. Background: a mixed ability Y10 class.

Students were given the following sheet:

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And the following task…

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(I changed the instruction to not cut them out, but in fact tick off the ones which were correct which would leave them with 5 unticked. They would later check these with peers to make sure they had the right ones).

So – read through 2 information sheets to verify which 10 statements/facts are accurate, and which 5 are not. Once done, move on to building a table which explains where there was progress and where there was continuity.

Given the mixed ability range in the class (lowest target E, highest A*), which of the following would, given this basic premise, have been your approach:

1 – Keep the resources the same – no differentiation in information sheet or content. Some students finish the first task within 5 minutes and move to the table, most finish within 10 and begin the table, some are not yet finished after 15 and not yet starting the table. Extend the activity by 5 more minutes – first group finish both tasks and wait for a couple of minutes, second group finish both tasks, third group finish first task and make start on table.

2 – Differentiate the resources so there is less writing and it is simpler/clearer where the answers lie and give these resources to a selected number of students, so the lower attaining students finish at the same time as the middle and move on to the table, higher attainers still finish a little sooner and get onto the table with more time to spare. Don’t use the extra 5 minutes.

Which of the above would be your approach? Please comment.

And… action

I’ve spoken in the past about the teaching and learning direction my school takes and how, at times, it has felt in conflict with my  own priorities and what I feel works in the classroom. There is a sense, more so than at my previous schools (PGCE placements) of following a school-certified method of T&L and through my observations so far this year, and NQT assessments, discussions, meetings etc, I have been gradually moved towards this.  As part of a target to improve planning, differentiation and challenge, I had a meeting with the director of T&L who gave me a number of strategies and ideas, many of which I have used and are very useful and productive. I was also set a challenge: to use the school cameras to ’empower’ the students with something creative, challenging and different to normal. Plan an activity whereby they go off and use them, and bring me the results.

This is common for the school and an activity they are particularly fond of. Y7 and Y8 students have skills lessons where this is regular, and it is used in other subjects at KS3 too, and occasionally at KS4. After going through the material or content, doing whatever I’d normally do in a lesson, to then introduce the cameras and give them a task. So, after spending some time doing the Battle of Little Bighorn with Y10, examining the role of Custer, whether or not it really was a victory, and all that, I gave them the activity (the lesson/activity had also been signed off by my HoD) – to take a camera and create a TV style news report about the battle. It had 3 specific criteria:

1 – Explain the events of the battle.

2 – Analyse the role of Custer – how far was he to blame?

3 – Assess how far the battle was really a victory for the Sioux and consider long term consequences.

And off they went. With it being camera based, they couldn’t do it all in one room, so the students go off to different parts of the school, find empty spaces, and get to work. I then circulate around and see how they’re getting on. As I did this, I was impressed – they had many good ideas, had constructed some nice little sets, were using props/resources, and I could see that they were engaged and enjoying themselves.

At the end of the lesson I took the cameras in, grabbed the video files and gave them a watch, and the results are mixed.

Group 1, 4 girls, did well – but only 1 appears on Camera. The others helped with script and filming, but my sense is the legwork, the thinking, was done by 1 or 2 while the others were glorified tripods. They covered the events in a patchwork way, and tried to examine the long term consequences but ended up just reading from a textbook and it was clear that it wasn’t being thought about or considered.

Group 2, 4 boys including a couple that are easily, uh, distracted – they spent too much time amusing themselves with voices and coming up with Indian names for their ‘interviewees’. They examined the battle quite well, and why it ended how it did, but little analysis of Custer or consequences.

Group 3, 4 more boys, did better – they looked at Custer and the long term role but didn’t really go over the battle. They also had an interview segment with such questions as:

“Did you kill some Americans? … yes

What was that like? … It was horrible.

OK back to the studio.”

Group 4, another 4 boys, were middling – they had more of the ‘lads’ of the group, including a couple of high achievers who held it together, and they presented it in a different way – interviews with Custer before to get across some of his character, which was good, and interviews with Indians after to talk about what they fear might happen as a result. These were interesting approaches. But they got some of the events of the battle wrong, and once again I think the legwork of it, the thinking, was done by 2 of them, while the others pratted about and answered the questions they were told.

The problems that arise from this are not unexpected and come up with group work even when its kept inside the 4 walls of the classroom. The heavy lifting in a group done by 1 or 2 students while others coast. The fact that less seems to get done as a combined group than they would get done individually in the same time. Not all of them have to think. It’s memorable for having fun, not because they know specific information (though some will). And, when errors and misconceptions arise, a teacher can’t correct them because I can’t stand over the shoulders of each group while they do all of it.

Now, a solution to this particular activity/lesson today that still keeps the task but could solve these problems is to remove the cameras, do the same thing in groups in the class and present to each other. I can monitor all the classes, the noise/recording issue isn’t there, I can check misconceptions, etc. I can also structure it more tightly – give each individual role cards to ensure they have specific things to do.

However, a similar problem comes to my mind with the actual thinking being done. If I give student A the role of TV presenter and B the role of battlefield reporter, they might remember excellently their little section, because that’s what they’ve scripted and thought about and done – but they have engaged less with the analysis of Student C or the long term consequences of student D.

There are strengths to the task too. The students are clearly engaged and I’ll be interested to see in the next lesson what has been retained. But too much is sacrificed on the altar of engagement and the problems that arose are problems that niggled in the back of my mind during the planning and delivery of the lesson. I fear that any feedback and reflection on this will imagine any ‘failure’ of the task to be about my scaffolding/delivery of it, rather than the inherent problems in the activity itself.

For me this all seems predictable. It’s nice to imagine them being creative with cameras and taking control and ownership of their own learning, and that they’re self managing little scholars. But it seems to me that without heavy scaffolding, supervision and correction, and a very, very well designed task that requires all the participants to engage with all the requirements, its flawed in a way that more typical, traditional classroom activities are not.

My First Month: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I’ve just finished my fourth full week as an NQT and there have already been ups and downs, some of which I’ve posted about on this blog. I thought I’d bring a few together to reflect on just how things have gone so far, what I can be proud of, and what I can do to get better.

The Good

Form Group: I love them. I wasn’t really expecting to, or really interested in having a form, but I really like these guys. They’re fun, they’re interesting, they take on board what I say and they respond well when I’m trying to make a serious point, give advice or give some direction. Within days of taking over a couple came to me with issues, concerns, or just for a chat, saying they felt they could trust me and things like that. I make a big deal about representing the form around the school and how I will be on their case for behavioural or other concerns if I feel they aren’t doing as they should – and as a result they are meeting some really strong expectations. It’s a relationship I really enjoy having and a positive, firm influence that I think some of them, boys especially, are reacting well to.

Y10 History: As an NQT I’ve only been given classes up to Y10, with the expectation of having exam classes and KS5 next year. As such, I sort of see my Y10 historians as my most important group, and I have them exactly where I wanted. Over the first 4 weeks I’ve developed a strong rapport with the group where there is a nice atmosphere in class, there are lots of contributions from all over the room, we can have fun and I can be myself, and they can also work hard, such as today when they just developed into silent, studious hard work for 25 minutes without me asking for it – they just fell into it. It’s a great balance, where the lessons are enjoyable and productive.

Statements: This is a new one, just from today – and my same Y10 historians. It was an idea brought to my attention by Mr Histoire. I asked them to rank a series of factors for something and gave them a few minutes to think about it and write it down on whiteboards. Once they held them up, I was just very blunt. “You think it’s X.” And I just stopped, and they took the baton and ran with it, explaining why, linking it to other factors and explaining why they thought it was more important, and so on. Then I went to another – “you disagree.” And then she did the same, explaining her disagreement, using examples and showing good, insightful analysis. Then I did the same with their bottom factors and included others around the class. After a couple of these, I didn’t need to say anything – they did it. When one girl said she felt the least important was Y, a voice from another table piped up in disagreement and explained why. I barely said a thing, never asked a question, but it was some of the most insightful, intelligent discussion of the term so far.

General Rapport: This goes for nearly all my classes. I am very pleased with the rapport I’ve developed with the majority of my classes. I get along with the students, and as a result I have many who comment on the classes going quickly, or how they like history now, etc. I’ve heard comments between students in corridors that I’m one of their favourite teachers, or students have asked me about things that happen in other classes after kids go away discussing it or mentioning it – jokes or comments, events, activities etc. Anything, really. It’s not all classes, but most I enjoy and can have fun in, and my relationships with most students are very good.

The Bad

Differentiation: Last year I only ever had mixed ability groups. This year my Y9’s are setted and I’m finding it hard to adjust lessons or material based on the set that I am delivering to. My top set are wonderful but then there is a long tail and I have a couple of groups, small groups, that are wholly SEN and extremely limited, and I’m not yet comfortable or experienced enough to have the mental resource bank or ideas to know how to explain certain concepts to them, or provide access to what is difficult material – the start of WW1. I’ve had better success in very recent lessons, but broadly it’s not been great and developing access for the lower sets and those with SEN is a big priority.

This also goes for a couple of Y7 students in mixed ability groups who’s literacy is so low that providing more or less any written material is completely pointless.

Middle set Y9’s: I find this group difficult as they are not particularly able, nor are they ‘triers’ who are limited by other reasons. They give up very easily, have little independence and, to me, often show a lack of effort. But again, going to a previous point, this could largely be because my teaching or resources are pitched too high and I’m not giving them the correct access. I find this group my most difficult and it’s a focus to improve.

Lack of Consistency with Routines: Self inflicted wound here. With Y7’s I have them pretty well drilled on entering the room and certain routines, but with Y8 and 9 it gets haphazard depending on the group and I’ve not been firm enough or consistent enough to enforce good habits early on. As a result there’s a number of groups I’m still fighting with to develop the routines that should have happened 2-3 weeks ago, and this wastes a good 5 minutes at the start of every lesson, telling them to do things that they should already be doing without my input.

Conflict over Style: See previous post on this.

The Ugly

Ear Infection: Missed three days last week after I ended up in A&E having lost all hearing in my right ear. It’s not quite recovered but I’ve been in work this week catching up. It was a bit of a combination of things – tiredness, exhaustion, working too-long hours, travelling for a wedding, stress over the style thing – all came together as I pushed myself too hard and paid the price.

Work/Life Balance: Follows on from the last but generally I have Friday evenings and some of Saturday to myself but the rest of my life is devoted to planning and marking any of my 16 groups. It is tiresome, and I know it gets easier as I get better at the job and build up experience and resources and lesson plans etc, it is just difficult to have any sort of social or personal life when every evening I come home, eat and work for 3 more hours.