“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”

ImageIt has not escaped my notice that I have not yet had chance to return to my series of blogs on medium-term planning. Fear not! I intend to do so soon. I have decided, however, that I want to start sharing some of my own practice on this blog a little more directly. For this reason, I have decided to share with any interested readers the process I am about to go through in creating a new medium term plan, a scheme of work that I intend to teach before Easter 2014. My intention is that, by blogging on the process by which I design the enquiry, I can elucidate clearly the stages that I go through in putting together a medium term plan.

The 2014 National Curriculum (which I quite like) makes clear that pupils should be studying late-medieval British (or at least English) history. Pupils have to be taught about the development of Church, state and society from 1066 to 1509, and it is recommended in the non-statutory list that this might include the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. My sense is that these are not periods of history that are taught frequently at Key Stage 3 these days, yet they represent a crucial period in the development of England as we know it today. I want an enquiry that teaches pupils about this period.

The new National Curriculum, like all iterations since 1991, always requires that pupils study the way in which the past has been interpreted; the document states that pupils must ‘discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.’ This is arguably one of the most difficult things for pupils to grasp: the idea that the past can be interpreted in different ways, and that there are important reasons for this beyond ‘everyone has their own opinion’ is quite difficult for history teachers to teach. This scheme of work is designed to address that.

To make my life more difficult, I also want to help pupils join up different periods of history. Many have rightly criticised a history education that is too episodic and which does not build up a sufficiently strong chronological ‘overview’. What the nature of such breadth should be is a complex question and much ink has been spilt on this. For this enquiry, I want to ensure that pupils can see a link between the late middle ages and the Tudor period of English history, a connection that I have too often failed to establish in my teaching.

So, this new enquiry has some big demands being placed on it! I want it to

  1. provide a narrative of English history in the late middle ages
  2. help pupils link this period with the Tudor period and
  3. get pupils understanding why the past gets interpreted.

The idea for how to achieve this occurred to me when I was watching the BBC’s excellent Hollow Crown series which televised Shakespeare’s history plays from Richard II, through both parts of Henry IV, to Henry V. If one extends this sequence further, and included the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, then one has an interpretation of the late middle ages. Shakespeare, of course, offers all sorts of opportunities to history teachers who want pupils studying interpretations as he plays with the facts of the past to quite an extent and the reasons for his doing this can, at least in some sense, be discerned. To explore this, pupils would need to look at the way in which Shakespeare interpreted the period in question, and they would need to see where he was twisting the truth for his own particular purposes. This was the angle I needed!

ImageWhere to go next, though? I know a bit about this period but I am far from expert in it. My undergraduate study was very much in ancient and early medieval history, and, since I began teaching, I have developed a fairly good breadth of knowledge on British and European history since the seventeenth century. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are weak periods for me, however, and so I have a lot of work to do. Subject knowledge matters enormously in planning, and I need to build up some more so that I can teach this enquiry effectively.

My plan, therefore, is to go off and do some reading. I have picked out the following as key things for me to read to begin putting my new enquiry together:

(1) Shakespeare’s history plays – Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III.

I have already read Richard II, Henry V and Richard III and so I am hoping I can skim through these fairly quickly, but Henry IV and Henry VI are going to take me a while to work on. I have just ordered these on Amazon – I rather like the Penguin versions, and they come with good introductions.

(2) Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays and Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare

My knowledge of Shakespeare as an individual is a bit patchy, and, for this to be a good interpretations enquiry, I shall need to find out more about the man, his plays and the conditions in which he wrote. For this reason I am going to make the most of my discount at the CUP bookshop and get the Cambridge Companion to the history plays. Although Michael Wood is rather on the popular end of things, I am going to read his book as well as I have greatly enjoyed his other work (and he is a fellow early medievalist as well!)

Image(3) Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation (Oxford, 2006) and Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown (Penguin, 2006).

If I get chance I am going to pop along to some lectures on the period at the Faculty of History in Cambridge next term (the benefits of being a paid-up doctoral student!) but I want to read some good introductions to the period. My favourite general introductions are the Penguin History of Britain and the New Oxford History of England. I think this will be more than I can manage in the time available, but I have a two-week holiday in the mountains coming up with some long winter evenings to fill, and these could be just the ticket!

So, I am all set and ready to go. I have an idea for a new scheme of work and I have drafted out some broad aims and ideas. I have identified where my subject knowledge needs improving, and I have got myself a reading list. I shall next be writing on this little adventure in January when I shall be able to update you on how my reading has gone. If anyone has some ideas in the meantime, then let me know!

4 Comments on “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”

  1. How did you get on with this, if at all, in the end Michael!?

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