Working with English to deepen knowledge in History

In December 2018 there was an excellent article in the journal Teaching History in which a history teacher had investigated how the writing of historic fiction helped students to construct a better, deeper understanding of the medieval past. In the article, the teacher had carefully structured a series of lessons to help students write their and, in doing so, develop their research skills and improve engagement in the subject. Reading the article as a history department here at Heathfield resonated with us: we were in the process of redesigning our KS3 curriculum with a greater focus on providing opportunities for our students to obtain a secure and deep understanding of the periods they were studying, and we liked the method of how this was achieved in the article. This was because we had been trying, unsuccessfully, to also incorporate independent enquiry into our curriculum (a skill we felt students were not honing either). However, rather than a medieval England focus like the article, we saw this as an opportunity for the students to deepen their understanding of the WW2.  Bonus: we could also work collaboratively with the English department, linking story writing skills students are learning there and ask them to apply it to their history stories. In this way, history teachers did not have to worry about having to teach how to write a story; they could focus on the research skills and the historical accuracy.

So, we planned a short sequence of lessons:

Lesson 1: What are the features of a good historical story? In this lesson, students were asked to read an extract from Goodnight Mister Tom and consider the aspects of it that indicated a sense of time, including language used by characters and objects they were using that would set the scene firmly in the 1940s.

Lesson 2 (and home learning): Effective Research. Students had to choose one of three scenarios to base their story on: London during the Blitz, the first day of the D-Day landings or the Battle of Britain. We felt it was important to narrow down the context of the story for the students because it built on lessons that students had already been taught so that it fulfilled our goal of deepening knowledge. The research process was modelled by their history teacher and based on the evacuation of Dunkirk (another WW2 event). This helped to familiarize students with what phrases to use when utilising their iPads to complete their research and prompted discussions about how to spot the most useful websites. The minutiae were important here: what was 1940s clothing and uniforms like? What specific weapons? What names were popular at the time? etc.

Lesson 3: Planning the story. When students create a main character in English they are often provided with an object or picture as their stimulus, so students were provided with the same in history: 3-5 images of objects for each scenario that were taken from the Imperial War Museum online collection that students could use as a starting point to plot their main character. They were then given a planning sheet to complete. We felt that this was another important  aspect of the writing process; students taking the time to fully consider all aspects of their story before they started to write, in order to increase historical accuracy.

Lessons 4/5 (and home learning): Via Google Docs, student wrote their historically accurate short stories. They had to conform to strict criteria set out (a combination of what would be expected in English for their age group and what was expected from a history standpoint, again to ensure that the stories maintained historical accuracy and depth), and this was checked by the teacher.  The benefit of using Google Docs meant that teachers could easily monitor students work and provide feedback/ additional help if the students drifted from the brief.

As a department, we were delighted by the work that the students produced and so thankful for the Historical Association article that provided us with inspiration! Consequently, this is a project that will stay within our curriculum (although we have moved it in the academic year so that students are now writing short stories about World War 1, rather than World War 2). Not only did it allow for greater creativity within our history KS3 curriculum, but simultaneously enabled students to hone research skills and deepen their knowledge, which was clearly seen in their final work (excerpts below).

The nose of my spitfire peaked through the billowing smoke from the Messerschmitts and Hurricanes involved in this suicidal mission to find my friend, William Jefferson who was trapped in a dogfight with a swarm of Messerschmitt’s. As I was swerving my plane through the smoke patches where planes had been shot down, I realised that I was too late to help him. William had been shot in the fuel tank of his MKII spitfire and was tumbling down to the dark abyss whilst his plane was slowly tearing apart in a ball of fire.

Adam, Year 8 student

But then, the alarm sounded we all rushed to our planes and jumped in them as quickly as possible. As we took off, Wojtek gave me a salute. We went across the British channel and then we saw them. A whole squadron of German planes. Their spitfires dived down and attacked as if they were a swarm of bees. I was now definitely stuck in a dog fight. I started firing at the German planes trying to put manoeuvre them. Then I got a hit on them and they started to fall down. I felt startled. Why did I join this war? Why even was there this war?  As the squadron turned around and headed back to dark Germany, we headed back to the airfield. 

James, Year 8 student

Last week I had been notified that I was needed for work in Plessey’s factory for the manufacture of aircraft parts. 10 shillings a week they said. Well, it wouldn’t make up for what we used to get before the war but it was better than nothing! I had been past the factory many times before. It was on Ley Street, the way I always walked home from the market with my mother and Lawrence. It was now known as normal for women my age to be needed in the war effort but to me it was unexpected.

Ella, Year 8 student

Emma Smith, History


Bateman, C (2018), ‘I Need to Know…creating the conditions that make students want knowledge’,  Teaching History, 173: 32-39

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