I introduce sources to my Year 7 classes the same way every year. I look forward to it. It’s become a bit of a thing.
It happens when we do the death of Harold at Hastings. We begin with reading an account of the battle that acknowledges the controversy around the way he died, explaining that he could have been hacked to death by William’s knights, killed by an arrow or struck by the arrow and then finished off by the Norman cavalry.
This always bothers at least some members of the class. “But how did he die really?” they ask, full of confidence in my infallibility as a history oracle.
I shake my head sorrowfully. “It happened nearly a thousand years ago,” I say. “Everyone who was there is dead. We just don’t know for sure. If only we had a time machine that we could use to go transport something from the time into our classroom that told us what happened. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
There is generally a strong agreement this would indeed be very cool.
I pause, for dramatic effect, for a moment or two. “Hang on,” I say, “we don’t need a time machine. Some stuff from around that time, from nearly one thousand years ago, still exists. There’s something in this classroom. Shall we have a look?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” They chorus, bouncing up and down like adorable meerkats.
“Hold on,” I say. “Are we just going to look at it like it was made yesterday? Shouldn’t we show something nearly a thousand years old a bit more respect? Don’t you think we should know who made it, and why they did, and where it is from? That’d be better wouldn’t it?”
They always agree.
And then we look at my book of the Bayeux Tapestry. By the time we’ve finished they don’t even mind that, of course, the tapestry isn’t much help in working out how Harold did in fact meet his end.
Of course it’s all a bit cutesy and affected but it is for eleven-year-olds and it does what it’s supposed to. Too often in history I think we thoughtlessly overuse sources and don’t treat them with enough reverence. By throwing snippets of sources at children in every lesson we imply they are commonplace and mundane. This divorces the bricks of history from those who carved them and makes it tough for children to see just how incredible what they are looking at is. Sometimes I am awestruck by the material in front of me. The beautiful drawings and notes in my treasured copy of “The Fabric of the Human Body” were assembled by Vesalius close to five hundred years ago. Skilled, long dead artists ran quill pens over parchment while Vesalius, in my mind, feverishly whispered the findings of his shocking semi-legal dissections into their ears. The beautiful drawings were carved into woodblocks and taken on carts all the way to Switzerland where they were pressed by the world’s leading printer. As they spread they changed the world. And sitting on a shelf in my classroom, somehow magically transported almost intact through half a century, is a faithful copy of that very book.
At a charity shop in the Peak District I found a treasure trove of books from the 1929 Modern Teaching series. There is much that jars with modern values in the history volume, but the way in which it describes the teaching of sources stopped my sneering and made me think. The guide doesn’t advise teaching sources at all until children reach the Elizabethan chapter, which includes a three page extract from a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, describing life in Elizabethan London. Before a very long and respectful paragraph on the provenance, the book says:
“It is very important to remember that extracts from original sources give the real historical and literary atmosphere of the time. They present the view of the period as the men of that particular day saw it, and it must thereby gain in vividness and accuracy.
This extract should be read straight through at first. It will be found to make an appeal by the quaintness of its language, and if the class is informed beforehand that this is the description of an eye-witness, it will awaken enthusiasm and command closer attention.”
If we want the children in our classes to feel the same sublime wonder we do, they need to be taught how and why they should respect what they have at their fingertips. An out of context snippet caged in a box and labelled Source A makes it hard to see the alchemy.
I’m planning to use less sources in my lessons. I want to more carefully choose the ones I do use and I want to show these sources the respect they deserve.
Some textbooks make this easier than others do.The new Anglo-Saxon and Norman England textbook by Ian Dawson, Esther Arnott and Libby Merritt, which is published by Hodder, gives a real sense of the scarcity and value of the sources that exist and make this seem exciting rather than intimidating.