There is a lot of good discussion going on in the history teaching world about the power of writing narratives in the history classroom. This is something we have introduced to our new A Level course and this post is to share some of our ideas and experiences with you.
We began with the idea that we would add narrative writing into the course at regular intervals. This, we thought, would bed in understanding of the topics and flag up gaps in knowledge. We think it’s working, but we have refined and developed our ideas already.
So far we have done more narrative as part of the depth study. Our students follow the AQA specification, so they have two examined units – a depth and a breadth. We are thinking and talking about narrative in the breadth study too, but this post focuses on the depth study. Our students are studying the depth study on the Wars of the Roses 1450-1499 and, as part of the exam paper, they have to assess the value of three primary sources and write two essays.
A success has been to give students key characters to follow through the course. Various people are named in the specification, for example, Margaret of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, Richard Duke of York and Henry Tudor. Each student has two people, so that they have characters that span, more or less, the whole period. We have begun to expect students to be the expert on their characters’ perspective on events. It can liven up discussions no end when Richard Neville gets heated up about something the Duke of Somerset says!
At the end of a section we make time for each student to write a narrative of the few years from the perspective of their character. This has had a number of benefits. Firstly, it has made the task manageable and the narratives interesting. When we tried just ‘write a narrative of these few years’ there was endless rambling and it was difficult for students to know when to stop. We were asking a lot of their selection skills, writing abilities and we weren’t convinced the time needed to improve these would be time well spent. By taking a character they have a focus. It is obvious that their person would not have seen everything, been everywhere and been interested in everything. The perspective complements their class notes ‘historians’view’.
The writing is done in class. This means, people can be talked about and their views haggled over. The process has provoked good questions, such as ‘Where is X at this point while ‘I’ am in…?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ and ‘If I knew that, how much did I tell you?’ It goes on and on! This collaboration is fun and the students are identifying and filling in their own gaps of knowledge, making connections between people, and events and actions. In short, we are finding it is rapidly improving sense of place, sense of period and, something we are calling, sense of person. That is, what would we regard as ‘in character’ for this person? How would we expect them to think and act? How might we identify when something apparently out of character is said or done?
We hope this is going to have an impact on the source work part of the paper. To do this well, students will have to thoroughly evaluate provenance, tone, emphasis, content and argument. We are optimistic that if they have thoroughly explored characters from their location, to their motives and from their reactions to their declared intent, then they will be less likely to miss source details and be wrong-footed by a source that does not seem to fit their understanding.
Writing the narratives always focused on a particular person, has also given us the chance to get them reading more complex material. As this is a topic from British history, there is an Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for each character. Students in the upper 6th are now cheerfully using these every time they write. They have already read them several times, and it was not too stressful introducing them to this reading beyond the textbook last year, as they could read small sections for their first few years’ narrative and build up confidence.
Finally, our students use Google Docs, so we are building up a shared bank of narratives about each character for the revision period. Their level of supporting detail in essays is already really high; some of it drawn from these Docs.
The careful use of writing narrative is helping to turn the depth study into something our students understand in breadth as well as depth. Except, using the word ‘breadth’ is too confusing with the other exam paper, so we are referring to it as understanding something in 2d and not just 3D. They have a much more secure understanding of the 15th century world and its people than we would have dared to hope for at this stage. Of course, the exams will tell!