Helping Year 9 to learn some cultural history

Students are entitled to engage with cultural history.  For example, the history of great thinkers and great ideas has shaped their lives.  Also, there are important lessons to be learned about how progress in science and technology has required open and enquiring minds, tolerance of free-thinkers and communication beyond borders.  However, exactly because this history is about big ideas beyond borders, it can be quite hard for young minds to engage with it. How can we make this history accessible?

We have developed a three lesson enquiry entitled: ‘How did one small town in Germany shape your life?’  Our hook is the 4 Weimar giants: Herder, Schiller, Goethe and Wieland.

We start with a short passage from Peter Watson’s book, ‘The German Genius’.  In it he describes Weimar in the late 18th century; a small place – more of a large schloss than a town.

We next give students the tourist map of central Weimar today and ask them to spot which four names come up more than once.  And so we arrive at the names: Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Wieland.  But who were they?

Students are divided into groups of 5 – 1 person for each character and an eavesdropper.  They then have a short role play card which they use to have a ‘conversation in a café’.  The more students ham this up the better.  Wieland might say: ‘Well did you know, I’m a poet!’  To which Schiller replies: ‘Oh so am I, but I write plays too!’  The eavesdropper’s role is to butt in and reflect on the connections between people.  From this we have a short plenary discussion to draw out what was important to these men.  Essentially they are fascinated with what it means to be human.

Students are then given an A3 tree diagram.  By the trunk of the tree are four ovals.  Into these they summarise the ideas of each of the four giants.  We model selecting the ideas from one of the character information sheets, and thus help them practise note-taking.  With some classes we even explain how these men saw themselves as part of classicism, and we certainly link the terms ‘classical music’ and the name of Mozart to them.

Homework from this first lesson is to find a short Goethe or Schiller poem and to comment on how it makes them feel.  We are trying to broaden the cultural horizons of our students.  German people know about Shakespeare, why don’t more British people know about Goethe and Schiller?

Our second lesson focuses on the roots of our tree diagram.  What we are trying to do is to show students simply that the 4 Weimar giants were themselves standing on the shoulders of giants.  That they took the ideas of great thinkers from across Europe and beyond and developed their ideas further. This is an important thing to understand if students are to understand how we make progress.

Students work in small groups with a factor card each.  They have to prepare a short speech to explain why without their factor the four giants could not have done what they did.  We usually run this as a balloon debate.  In plenary we then flag up how some causes are what we call underlying causes, while others seem to make change happen at a specific time.  Lots of discussion about links between causal factors is possible too.  Students then write the causal factors on the roots of their tree diagram, writing important ones in larger letters and drawing arrows to show links. All good stuff!  For the next lesson students research about another historical or contemporary thinker that interests them.

So, having explored the idea that our Weimar giants did not arrive from Mars with no causation, we turn to the branches of the tree.  Students have a whole host of things that exist today and they have to explain how their thing relates back to the ideas and actions of our giants.  We are, of course, not trying to say that these 4 men created the modern world, but we are trying to get across the idea that ideas that become universal often start with some leading thinkers who are extraordinary in their time.  The links from today are written in the branches of the tree and the summary activity is a student reflection on what they have learnt and thought about doing the enquiry.

Finding a place and some people to start our story makes this enquiry accessible; as does the simple tree metaphor.  The idea that every child is entitled to learn about such subject matter is really important to us, and feedback from students suggests this approach has been successful.  We are also pleased that it seems to work at different levels.  All students grasp the idea of the Weimar giants having big ideas, learning from others and inspiring others.  Some students start to connect this enquiry to their science lessons, to English literature and who knows to what else. The town of Weimar features in our Year 9 study of the Holocaust and in our GCSE depth study.  Students have some understanding of just how important Weimar was to 20th century Germans because of its place in German culture.

You can find all the resources for this enquiry on the Teaching and Learning page.  We’d love to hear how you adapt it and how it works with your students.

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