Sam and his Xmas tree

What would you give a new History teacher for Christmas?

My Christmas tree went up today.

Since having a son I’ve wanted to begin traditions and one of them is for my son to decorate the tree with his cousins. So the tree is now standing tall, proudly wearing its decorations. The fact they look like they’ve been thrown at the tree is EXACTLY what I wanted – not an over-designed, Woman&Home-quality look. Rather a childlike, exuberant style that shouts “we loved doing this!”

So I’m feeling festive. And this got me thinking about this series of blogs. I’ve spent the past few months blogging my ideas and thoughts and, rather selfishly, haven’t once asked other people to contribute. And as I’ve seen from my happiness-inducing Christmas tree, when people get together wonderful things happen…

…and thus I’m hoping that you’ll join me this week and contribute your ideas and thoughts for next week’s last blog of the term, beautifully-wrapped, mince pies and tinsel-trimmed Christmas present blog. What tip or piece of advice would you give as a Christmas present to an NQT and others new to teaching history? If we all contribute then next week we’ll be able to unwrap one hell of a letter, full of mini gifts!

Either tweet your tip to @1972SHP, @estarnott or email it to:
do include your name if you’d like us to say a public thank you (which we would like to do). Of course we wouldn’t share your email address.

I can’t wait to hear from you!


Taking the dismay out of display!

This week Esther sought advice from Richard Kennett about classroom display. What follows is their series of exchanged letters (well, emails!).

Richard is Specialist Leader for Education (History) and textbook author, Redland Green School, Bristol. He blogs at

Dear Rich

I’ve been wracking the grey matter to try and overcome the seriously grey matter which is the empty display in my classroom. I want to engage the students in some way and saw you did a word-wall style display. Why did you do this and did it work?

Hi Esther

I assume you mean this one…

The main reason I did this is that I am trying to improve the sophistication of my kids’ writing. I teach a very able bunch of students yet their writing does not often reflect this. This display is one of my tools to tackle this.

I’ve been working closely with the English department in the last couple of years, as I am Literacy Lead for the whole school, and all of them use display actively rather than passively, putting up displays that students can engage with, have some utility and importantly get them to think. This is one of the displays in my room where I am trying to emulate my, far too talented, English colleagues.

One of the English teachers has a ‘Word Graveyard’ on her wall – words that are ‘dead’ to her – all displayed on little gravestones. I loved this idea and decided early in the year to nick it so that’s where the banned words come from. There is nothing wrong per se with ‘small’, ‘bad’, ‘good’ etc. but I want my students to do better. Secondly I’ve been having a real push with Year 11 to use strong analytical words in their conclusions, for example short and long term, and hence I came up with the idea for doing the opposite of the banned words – the words historians love. I wrote a short list myself and then asked my team for their suggestions and asked my followers on Twitter too. This produced a massive list that I whittled down to these.

It’s important to point out that I have no idea if the historians in the picture actually love these words! But it makes it look prettier and secondly has really helped with the idea that history is an active and dynamic subject as I’ve had a lot of chats in the last few weeks about who these historians are.

As for your second point about did it work, well, time will tell as it’s only been up a week. It has definitely generated debate and especially amongst my Year 8s I’ve heard a lot of conversations about “you can’t use THAT word!” which is superb. In a couple of lessons I have used it explicitly in my teacher instruction standing on the table in front of the display and talking through what the ‘words historians love’ mean. In these scenarios the students work did improve. Some used the words in a clunky, obvious way. But I’d rather they use these words, even in a clumsy way, than not at all.

Dear Rich 

I love this! We’ve got word mats at my school but they suffer from not being out ALL of the time so they miss a trick – which your display cracks through its permanence. So it got me thinking: do you foresee having to create different displays based on what concept, skill or topic you are studying (eg specific language for talking about the nature of change)? This is a big question (for me) as I was also wondering about displaying student work and wouldn’t have enough room for both their work and different language. So what I guess I’m asking is which would you prioritise and why?

Hi Esther

Glad you liked it! I’ll deal with your two questions separately.

1. Which would I prioritise – displays about the process (like the one shown in the previous email) or displays of kids work?

The former – 100%. Displaying kids’ work is lovely but if I am being honest – a pain. You never have enough room to display everything which means you have to decide what to put up and what to leave off. In my NQT year this meant I always put the prettiest pieces up, but these were rarely the best pieces of history. The kids whose work is displayed always get a confidence boost, which is fab, but the majority of work doesn’t get put up due to space issues leading to annoying rants of “why didnt you display mine sir?” Additionally, displays about work get tired very quickly and need constant updating. If you’ve stopped teaching WWI months ago and yet your display is on that it’s obvious to you and your students.

However, displaying work with comments can be useful to model what a great piece of history looks like. I did this in my old classroom by taking a photo of a really good Year 11 essay and enlarging it on a computer. I then added my comments, as I would in an exercise book. This worked really well and I really should do this more, especially in Post 16.


On the whole though, I feel that displays about the historical process are far more beneficial. Wall space in your classroom should be used to progress learning. I liked that in your Letter about marking you quoted Michael Maddison “a piece of work in history deserves a history comment”. Well I strongly believe a history classroom deserves a history display. In your lessons you plan to progress your students in history and I think that display space can be a tool to help you with this as you can hopefully see in the photos in this email.

And it doesn’t just have to be display boards. Again nicking an idea from the English team, window-space is another surface to be utilized. Window pens cost a fiver for a pack and in Post-16 as a class we made a list of synonyms for ‘similar’ and ‘different’ to aid them with their source analysis question where they have to compare. This was a great tool for the entire summer.

2. Do you foresee having to create different displays based on what concept, skill or topic you are studying (eg specific language for talking about the nature of change)?

Put simply, no. I haven’t got the time to keep changing displays. In an ideal world what you are suggesting would be ace, but with my literacy job, SLE role, authoring and a million and one other things I can’t do it. As a result, rather than focus in on individual concepts I’ve kept things quite generic. This year I got a new classroom for the first time in years and starting with a blank slate I made this (sadly inspired by the Great British Bake Off at the time):


I designed it to be generic so that I wouldn’t need to change it again this year but useful enough that I can keep referring to it and the kids can to.

I think as a busy teacher (especially for you in NQT 2!) the key is designing something that can be used for a long period and have utility during this time.

In my own classroom, as a result of this, the other way I’ve used display is as a tool to inspire the students about history. I want my kids to love history and be as passionate and nerdy about it as I am. I’ve created a few displays that help do this. They were designed to be left for long periods of time and they have generated enthusiasm and questions. Here’s two examples:

Example 1: History Heroes


In Post-16 in the summer I got all my students to pick their historical hero and take a selfie holding an image of them (that’s me in the middle with my cat and famous cat lover Mark Twain). They loved this and in my Post-16 classroom these stretch round the room on a narrow board above all the windows.

Example 2: What makes a great historian?


In the summer when I was bored I came up with an idea to tweet famous historians and ask them what makes a great historian. This wall is a list of those who responded including Tom Holland, Greg Jenner, Ian Mortimer and my personal favourite Mary Beard.(NOTE: This photo is awful – sorry!)


I hope all of this was useful and I look forward to seeing some of your photos of your displays in future!


P.S. Apologies for the dreadful photos my mobile camera isn’t great.

Dear Rich

Wow. This is such a rich reply (no pun intended). I’m dissecting, ruminating and cogitating; to say my grey matter is whirring is to put it mildly. On a simple NQT2 level of worrying about time I’m so relieved to hear you say you won’t be changing the displays all of the time. Another instant reaction to your letters is HOW COOL is the window idea!? My classroom has 4 square windows and that will be such a brilliant way to use these spaces (not least because I don’t deny that some of my students will often gaze out of them – yep my teaching can leave a lot to be desired!). And I love all of your ideas, especially the historical hero selfies. I’m going to reply at length soon so this is just a quick reply to say …

THANK YOU, WOW and YAY – I’m inspired.


Rediscovering the plot with Year 8

One day I would like to write a novel. My Granny who was a prolific writer told me all the time “everyone has a book in them ducky” and I believe her. I even have an idea for a novel, and most days part of my time is spent thinking about it. More recently I’ve been trying to plan its structure and characters. It won’t surprise those who know me that it’s an historical novel I’d like to write. But even though I have made progress on the structure and characters, I keep coming back to the history – the meaty, living, breathing stuff that will make the novel exciting and its characters truly real. So I’ve been researching the ‘real’ history that forms the heart of the novel – out of which I will mould the people, places and events…

…at the same time I’ve been struggling with Year 8. Badly.

We’ve reached an impasse. They really aren’t enjoying their lessons and to be honest neither am I. The reason this matters here in this blog is that my thinking for the novel and my stresses about Year 8 very happily collided today. I realised that I’ve been focussing too much on the things we will DO in the lesson. This is a result of the fact that the class are one of the most diverse in need and ability that I’ve ever taught in my career. Even more so than the brilliantly mad class I taught in my NQT1 who had a student who insisted on taking her shoes and socks off and sitting cross legged, whilst another who had only one front tooth liked to whistle softly through the gap her missing tooth created; when the class got to the end of year exam they were totally lost: “Miss I got into the exam and there was no glue and scissors for a card sort”. It told me all I needed to know about the gap between my hopes and the reality of teaching. Anyway I digress. The current Year 8s are challenging, and as a result I’ve focused massively on differentiation.

So the happy collision that happened today is that I realised I’ve lost the plot – literally – for Year 8. There’s no story, no people, no living, breathing plot line that twists and turns because I’ve distilled the history to death by differentiating. I need to get back to the story and help my Year 8s to immerse themselves in the fabric and texture of the people of the past by allowing the history, the knowledge, to… Well… Be told or to unfold like a brilliant novel.

I recognise that this realisation for me has come at a time when all of us newbies are watching the history teaching landscape undergo major shifts. All over the land people are talking about the centrality of knowledge – the expert, deep knowledge that can come from immersion in the past. There’s also a lot of talk of not allowing level descriptors or assessment criteria that teams are busy thinking of to be too focused on process. Knowledge must be at the heart of getting better at history. I won’t immerse in those particular discussions here (yet), but I will say that in my NQT2 it’s going to take a degree of courage to allow my Year 8s to dive into the wonderful story. I am driven by a culture – like we all are – of having to report to parents and line managers about progress. Progress in history has typically been measured by getting better at doing history, with students showing us they can use what they know, rather than just knowing more. So yes it’s going to take courage as for the rest of the term I’m going to focus on knowledge / story / narrative / stuff (!) as I’ve realised that I’ve gone too far the other way and tried to help them make progress almost too much, differentiating history to death.

To do this I’m going to set up the classroom slightly differently. I’m going to lay the room out in groups of tables, and upon each table I’m going to provide knowledge in different forms. So one group might have a set of laptops and different films of the topic playing for the children to watch. Another table will have chapters or extracts from historical novels. Another will have contemporary sources, and another historians’ works or text books. I’m not even going to ask them to answer questions, instead I’m going to ask them to work in the way I have been for my novel. That means I just want them to explore the story, and in so doing begin to formulate their own questions about the topic. I hope that in so doing they are keener to go on and discover the answers to these questions. They won’t be getting better in the way the scheme of work planned, but they will becoming masters of the history and this will be leading to questions – and that is the start of all good enquiry.

Wish me luck!


Hitting the Mark

There’s a saying that the eyes are the windows on the soul. If that’s true then in the world of the teacher, the children’s exercise books are the windows on the brain.

In one of my first Letters I wrote of the importance of a regular marking routine. But also admitted I had never cracked this in my first NQT. Yet as this term has progressed I have found a way to conquer the marking – and in so doing am giving myself essential access to what the children are thinking.

The Method?

1. I take in their books every week. This shows the children I care about their work – about their ideas. (I won’t go into the mass of evidence that demonstrates how regular dialogue has a positive impact on the quality of the student’s work.)

2. I have set up a marking timetable. So on Thursdays after school for example I mark Year 8, Year 9 and one Year 11 class. This was part of a bigger medium term plan where I worked out which classes would have formative feedback when, and then made sure I didn’t have too much detailed marking occurring at the same time in the half term. It sometimes meant I had to jiggle lessons around but it’s far better to do that and make sure all children get feedback than find you’ve hit a crisis, unable to get all of your marking done.

3. Whatever feedback they receive I write it as questions that they must reply to. This is where it’s neat because that becomes their homework for that week – so it’s essentially a cycle of class work + home work > marked by me > home work to respond, which takes the burden off me when I mark the home work the following week as it’s relatively quick to check they’ve responded to comments.

4. I only ever mark for one thing. This is essential – I would never get my marking completed if I was marking everything that needed development. Even more essential is that I share my marking focus with the students when I set the work. For example “Year 9 I want to see that you can select and explain any evidence on this Victorian empire plate that shows they were proud of the empire”.

5. I don’t write comments out over and over – I use codes or colour coding where possible. This relates to point four as if you know your marking focus you should have a good sense of the positives (what went well) and the issues (would be even better if …) that will arise, so you can create a set of codes to annotate the work with. Of course I still write individual praise and cause for celebration in full as it’s very motivational (“you’re really showing great gains overall Tom, well done: I’m proud of you”).

6. I plan to give all students detailed formative feedback before they complete their final assessment. At my school we complete assessments once a half term. So usually around half way through the half term I plan to mark a piece of work that mimics or builds to their final piece. The formative feedback on this is an important step to achieving more highly than they would without such feedback. But just because it’s formative it doesn’t have to mean tons of writing. Again I use colour coded dots (bingo dabbers are amazing for this!). The magic here is I then spend the next lesson asking them to use colouring pencils to find examples in their work of the ‘what went wells’. So if I gave them a yellow dot representing they had explained changes in the church in 1549 well, they must use a yellow pencil to highlight where in their work they did this. This shows me that they know what they did well. To action their ‘would be even better if’ coloured dots they can then find someone in the class who has that colour as a ‘what went well’ – they can read their work as an example and then add the improvement for themselves or at least better understand what they need to ask for to complete that addition (eg “Miss I don’t have enough information on the changes Mary made to the church – where can I find it?”).

7. Finally I borrowed an idea from the fab Ed Podesta – a “verbal feedback given” stamper. We each have 100s of learning conversations every week and that don’t always get captured. So now when I give verbal feedback I stamp in the student’s book and they write underneath the action I ask suggested. Once put into practice the student draws a line from the stamp to the place in their work.

Above all the mantra from HMI Michael Maddison stays with me when I am marking: a piece of work in history deserves a history comment. Comments like ‘good, well done, good effort, nice work’ are meaningless if we want the children to get better at the discipline of history. So make your time spent marking meaningful for you and your students and give them history feedback. Thus my codes and colour codes all relate to the knowledge, skills and concepts we need students to understand if they are to work toward mastery of history.


Lunch is for wimps? Nonsense!

Margaret Thatcher ran the country on only 4 hours sleep. Lunch is for wimps. You can chill out in the holidays… There are countless phrases that made my NQT 1-self think I SHOULD be able to cope. That I shouldn’t have been feeling so completely tired, even tearful at times (lots of times if I’m honest). But as I go through NQT second time round (or what feels like it returning after having a year away to be a mum), I will not let myself fall into the same habits again – and I beg you to try the same.

It’s true: your work never seems finished. A trainee or new teacher always needs help. There is always more that can be done. And teaching history can be the very worst for this as not only do new interpretations of the past come to be, but we personally each interpret the past (small i) as part of our process of deciding how we should teach it to Anna, Dylan and Prabhjot. But it is also true that too many of us leave this profession within 5 years, burnt out, stressed, hopes dashed. That burn out can come of many causes, so that’s why it’s SO important that your own work habits regarding the teaching of the subject you adore don’t become one of them. History teaching needs brilliant graduates like you to stay for the long term. So let me share what I’m doing this time round in my NQT 2 to avoid brain frazzling.

1. Allow myself to use the textbook(s). I’ve now been privy to the monumental task it is to write a textbook. The hours, thought and care that go into each one are staggering. Sure I might not like every idea but I know there’s a lot that I do like and will make a great set of lessons. Don’t believe the mad idea that using the textbook is somehow cheating or winging it. I will allow myself to slightly tweak it for the children I teach but I will use it.

2. Tell myself I don’t need to jazz up a resource just because it doesn’t look right. It is possible to worry that history is a bit dry and so we can spend time jazzing up the look of things in the hope it makes history more enticing. But if I find myself doing this I am on a sure-fire path to hours of wasted time. Yes it’s good and right to want to dazzle the students and make them feel valued, but really, seriously, a pretty resource isn’t what we’ve all trained for so long to use our efforts for (how about I come up with a set of cracking mind-bending questions for the children instead?). AND there are better ways to spend such a precious hour. Sleep maybe?! With friends perhaps? Or how about a beer or a cuddle with a loved one?

3. Take a lunch break. By all means I’ll read a history book if that’s what I fancy, but get out of my room and into a different zone – physically and mentally. Too often in NQT 1 I would eat my lunch at the computer desperately trying to tweak a lesson. All it did was leave me stressed as I never finished the resource fully, and I’d not switched off, nor eaten properly. If I won’t do it for myself I need to ask how being a stressed teacher is serving the students or history?

4. Sleep. And have a lie in at weekends (or a nap if you can’t lie in). By god I wish I had done this in NQT 1. A good tutor reminded me that “even water takes time to digest” by way of pointing out that the learning that we experience as history NQTs is monumental. We are talking bigger than a Henry VIII feast in terms of what we are mentally digesting! So sleep is essential to allow me to mentally digest and process. But too often in NQT 1 I stayed up very late prepping or marking. These things are important – but I found that my marking and prep was far more efficient when I was fresh.

5. Take a full day off at the weekend. And enjoy the holidays. I look back and think how hard my NQT was. I think of the hours and hours I worked including weekends and holidays. But this time round I will be asking for more help – borrowing resources, using textbooks (carefully, not blindly), planning ahead so I don’t have to do last minute mad rush work at a weekend. If I don’t do this I won’t have time to just be me. And it’s ‘me’ that wanted to do this job in the first place. So I can’t lose her.

6. Say ‘not right now’. I couldn’t believe how many children came through my door asking for help. I was honoured actually. But I made the mistake in NQT 1 of trying to help them all, there and then. Putting my own needs to one side. In NQT 2 I will set a time and place for children to ask for help. I might even get all techie and do it on email so I can choose when I respond. (For those who arrive crying of course it will be different.) And I will also be having the courage to say not right now to a colleague’s request – not rudely but just “I have X and Y to do right now. I’d love to help so would it be possible to do it for you by XX date – or might someone else be able to help if it’s urgent?” I’m not saying no – I’m just saying not right at this minute which helps to prevent feeling overwhelmed.

Finally a serious word to myself (and you) about mental health. Teaching is a wonderful profession but it is also demanding. If you and I truly want to change the world (albeit in little baby steps) we need to take care of our mental health. All of the points above are about that – because burn out, being tearful, feeling overwhelmed (call it what you will) are all signs of stress. Yes, some stress is normal. But we should each do what is within our power to avoid too much stress. Working for hours and hours doesn’t make you a brilliant history teacher. Running around utterly busy doesn’t either. It just shows you work hours and are busy! But protecting your long term mental health is a key ingredient in being a great history teacher as it means you’ll be here for the long term, developing year on year into a brilliant history professional.

And finally if none of the steps above are helping you to feel less tearful then talk to someone and ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness but one of strength – knowing your own limits and when it’s time to reach out. I want to be in this game for the long term and I bet you do too. So lean on others and give yourself a break. The only burn out we should face as history teachers is that of the martyrs in the past whom we teach about.


and smoothing the transition to new history GCSEs in 2016

With significant changes to GCSE history on the horizon, SHP and OCR are delighted to announce a major new partnership. We’ll be working together to produce the best possible, and only official, SHP specification, which will be provided exclusively by OCR.

The development is being led by SHP Fellows and their Director, Michael Riley, so you can be confident that SHP’s core values will be fully realised in the new specification. Existing good SHP practice from current GCSE qualifications will be preserved, and improvements made so that the specification genuinely aligns with SHP principles.

Both SHP and OCR recognise that, although some aspects of GCSE history are in need of an overhaul, these changes will mean considerable upheaval and much hard work for teachers. So our specification will be fully supported with new books and resources, produced by SHP authors and published by Hodder Education. OCR’s own experienced team of specialists will be on hand to support the specification as well.  SHP and OCR will keep you updated with developments during the autumn and spring via our websites and e-bulletins.

Both SHP and OCR look forward to producing and supporting a new and genuine Schools History Project specification, and to ensuring that SHP’s 40 year tradition of supporting teachers and working to improve history teaching will continue flourish under the new GCSE criteria. We’re confident that we’ll end up with a rigorous and exciting qualification that will appeal to all SHP teachers.

SHP’s commitment to the new OCR specification does not mean, of course, that the Project will no longer provide support for other GCSE courses.  SHP will continue to work in partnership with all Awarding Bodies. We shall continue to provide support for all the new GCSE history specifications through our website and conferences.  Finally, working our publishing partner Hodder Education, SHP will be providing resources to support the elements of all new GCSE courses that embody SHP’s principles.


Dr. Michael Riley

SHP Director

Maintaining the GCSE momentum (or seeing GCSE through their eyes)

The once pristine exercise books are dog eared. The work inside shows progression … from neatness and care to messy scrawl and doodles. The bright eyes seem dulled. Sometime this term my once pert, engaged new Year 10s, eager to get started with their GCSE History, will seem deflated. What have I done? How did I manage to do this?

I’ve been here before so I need to give my second NQT self some pointers. Firstly, try to have a broad perspective. Is every single book – every single student – showing these same characteristics? No. But I’m a teacher and there’s something in me that always focuses on the have nots / will nots / can nots. Ok so I’ve not helped myself yet. Second question: Can I turn this around? Yes! But how?

My old self, NQT 1, found this stage with GCSE classes tough. But thankfully I’ve got a few years on that NQT and I hope the following advice to me as NQT 2 might aid you.

Turning around a new GCSE class who seem dulled and deflated is all about where you are sitting.  Imagine yourself as a 14 year old. For the first time in your education (which feels like an eternity) you’ve been given a choice about what you would like to study. Amazing. Gone are at least some of the subjects you despise (for me, languages – thanks to a French teacher who thought it hilarious to remind the whole class every lesson that “Esther Ar-NOTT very good at French”) For those students who’ve chosen to continue with History can you thus imagine what hope and anticipation was tied up in that choice? And so too with their other choices. So when September arrived for these children there really was a sense of starting afresh and hoping that their choice was the right one.

And then the work began. Oh dear. Real work. Hard work. A lot of it. Because this time exams are involved. Real exams. That will affect your life forever and ever (or so say the assemblies and lectures these children get given endlessly). And suddenly the choice doesn’t feel so sparkly exciting anymore. It feels like a burden. Perhaps they made the wrong choice; that history GCSE text book is very thick (how will I remember it all?). So if you are sitting where those 14 year olds are, GCSE history now seems very big, with an awful lot going on, with not a lot of guidance about which bits really matter. “All of it” isn’t a helpful reply. Hence I’m reminding my NQT 2 self that my students need me to help them learn how to digest this beast that is history. As soon as possible I need to teach them how to study – at the same time as covering the content. If I can help them to process and learn as they go (you might call it ‘revision’ or ‘consolidation’) then they are going to feel a lot less overwhelmed and they’ll stop worrying that they made the wrong decision. I need to have a look at Dale Banham’s material on revision as he has loads of ideas to make it fun and engaging, including a cowboy shoot out!

See BanhamHallGCSE on the SHP website

Secondly, I need to revisit my medium term plan. I’ve been following the department resources carefully, sticking to the plan and our shared approach. But perhaps I need to be brave and say a plan is a plan but I’ve got to think about the 20 individuals (20 x someone’s child) in my class and work out their likes and dislikes. How can I tailor the plan and tweak the lessons to better suit them? If Joanne can’t stand role play I shouldn’t force her to do it because ‘it will be good for her’ (have you ever been force-fed cod liver oil; don’t do the same – metaphorically – to your students). Instead I need to offer pathways or options for what we are doing. If you like X, try doing Y. If you enjoy P perhaps Q will suit you. It’s a type of differentiation (differentiating the how) but with a view to all arriving at a similar destination. Make that seat those Year 10s are sitting in a little more comfy and less like the seat at the front of a comedy club that no one wants.

Thirdly, don’t overdo it. I remember in NQT 1 being very worried that I wasn’t covering enough content and that I would be doing a great disservice to my students if they didn’t know every single fact about the Monkey Trial or Sacco and Vanzetti. But actually, GCSE specifications tell you exactly what you need to cover and the past papers and mark schemes give you more than enough pointers about what exactly you need to cover. So get to grips with them, do some analysis and then work out just how little of that monster GCSE textbook your students actually need! And then, magic of magic, teach them how to select. It’s a bit like a wardrobe: no one wears all of their clothes every day. They choose clothes based on the weather or what they are doing. So too with history. You have a wardrobe of stuff and you only ever need a selection of the things in it to answer a question. Do some exercises whereby you provide 10 fact cards and lots of past questions and see how many questions they can use those fact cards for. The answer will be ‘all of them’ but the children need to see this, visually, to make that perspective of theirs in their chair that bit more welcoming.

Finally, I will say to myself “don’t be afraid NQT 2 to inject some of that brilliant ‘Year 7 style’ fun into GCSE lessons”. Just because they are 14 it doesn’t mean to say they won’t enjoy something akin to Je Suis Le Roi (check it out on  if you haven’t come across it here. In fact Ian Dawson‘s Thinking History website has lots of great suggestions. Don’t just read the GCSE ones or the ones specific only to your topic – read around and let one idea fertilise another). And think creatively: bring the light back into their eyes by getting them tied up with string to show the links in the causes of the American boom, or make them go gaga over play dough to model the terms of the Treaty. I am not proposing we dumb it down, but rather that we help the students to access the demanding nature of our subject via avenues that are tree-lined and sunny, rather than grey and bleak!

So the next time things seem to take a turn for the worse I will go and sit in one of those student’s chairs and think carefully about what it is to be them right now. It’s usually not about you but rather about how to cope with everything that we are expecting a 14 year old to cope with.


Esther’s blog returns after half-term on November 2nd.

Planning for omission, misconception and assumption

Have you had this happen to you?

Today I was teaching year 8. We are studying the English Reformation, looking at change and continuity over time. In particular today we were asking what changes came about when Henry made himself the Supreme Head of the church, and the size of those changes. At the end of the lesson we reflected on what had changed and at least five students told me that the church had seen quite a big change because different people were going to church now Henry was the Supreme Head. ‘Errrmm, what?’ I inwardly puzzled whilst kindly asking “Where did you learn this?” The answers I got back each time were essentially ‘when the Pope was the head, one type of person went to church and with Henry another type’.

Now as an NQT I wouldn’t have been able to make head nor tail of this. But in NQT2 I’ve got a teeny bit of insight. What’s happening is what goes on BETWEEN the rhythm of the lesson, when the tune’s not playing. When you stop talking or the worksheet gets handed in, those year 8 heads don’t just stop thinking. They make links. Or they make sense. Either linking the things that don’t yet make sense. Or linking the things that didn’t get joined up for them by you.

And there it is. A glaring omission: it’s what I didn’t teach; they didn’t understand enough about the importance of King and church (as sources of power). The mistake the children have made is that they think that people have a religion and stick to it as people tend to do today (or perhaps as they are free to do in Britain today). The idea of changing your religion because the King says so hasn’t got a place in their minds.  By not understanding this they downgraded the nature and extent of the change: they simply thought with each new leader you get different followers.

So my notes to self…

A) Think about what’s happening in the children’s heads: what do they bring to the lesson (and not just from last year’s History!)? For example what assumptions from their world today might they bring? Try to work from their assumptions as their assumptions and my teaching material have to intersect.

B) When deciding what history topics to teach, be absolutely clear about the prerequisite knowledge and understanding the children will need to do the thinking we are hoping for. Then plan where they’ll get that prerequisite knowledge. It doesn’t have to be another unit – but instead could be a relatively straight forward homework task. (I should have done something on the power of kings and the all-encompassing nature of the church.)

C) When deciding what to teach, think about what we will NOT teach just as carefully. What omissions might that ‘not teach’ list lead to – and will this be a problem later down the line in term 3, or a year later for example? What I guess I’m getting at here is try to anticipate what sense children will make of the ideas and topics we teach, and the likely misconceptions. We can’t identify misconceptions all the time but it’s an important question to have in mind as it helps to intervene faster when we spot it. For example with regards the English Reformation, we don’t have any work on the power of Medieval or Early Modern Kings; nor do we have anything on the role of the church in everyday life (we used to but took it out…). If I had thought about the possible misconceptions that such omissions would lead to (as I outlined above) I would have been able to build an activity or two into the lesson series to make sure the children didn’t give me one of those “oh no” moments!


Beginning to teach A level – the puzzles and the joys!

Esther’s having a week off letter-writing so she can sort out Sam’s first birthday celebrations properly and hence it’s guest-letter-writer time – from me, Ian Dawson.

I won’t pretend my first year of history teaching happened recently. It’s 40 years since I completed my PGCE but the memories stay sharp and clear – that’s the power of the first year of teaching!  My first job was in a large comprehensive in Wakefield, the sort that carried the ‘if you can teach here you can teach anywhere’ tag. To my innocent delight my timetable included Y12 and Y13 teaching straightaway, then I discovered I’d be teaching British political history 1815-1914. At university I had overspecialised in medieval history so knew next to nothing about Lord Liverpool, Peel, Gladstone etc. However the history was only one of the things I learned that first year or two. Here are some of the others:

1. The students weren’t as mature as I thought they were …

Those first few weeks I felt younger than the students, especially Y13. That’s mathematical nonsense but psychological reactions are different. They knew the geography of the school, they were the oldest students in the school, they knew the staff. I didn’t know the school, was one of the youngest teachers and hardly knew anyone. More importantly they had that aura of confidence that sixth-formers adopt whereas at that time my confidence was easily shaken. The result was that at first I overestimated their abilities and their need for help. I didn’t realise they still needed telling things over and over, that they needed help with the basics – identifying what to read, constructing essays, spelling Disraeli (and even Peel). Of course when the first work appeared I realised I’d been wrong. They did need lots of help and I did know more about essay writing and learning history than they did but I wished I’d realized a few weeks earlier.

2. … and they certainly weren’t as keen and motivated either.

It’s A level and they’ve chosen History so they’re all bright, keen and well-motivated. Wrong! What I picked up slowly was that A level classes are a wide mix of ability and commitment. Some had always been destined for History A level but for others it was their second or third choice or the one they did because their best-friend was doing it and they’d have been lonely in biology. And even the bright, keen and motivated ones weren’t keen all the time, even the ones who one day might become historians or history teachers themselves. So I realised that I couldn’t and shouldn’t assume interest – I had to enthuse, stimulate, motivate, just as with younger students. Cynics say you shouldn’t have to motivate those who’ve opted for A level History. The cynics are wrong – and probably poor teachers too. It’s our job to motivate everyone as well as we can – and working out how to do that is fun.

3. I was in charge of where they sat

Initially I let them choose where they sat – basic mistake number 462. You can imagine the result – 14 people spread round a room for 30, sitting in odd corners, 2 here, 3 there, not able to see each other’s faces. And I was expecting them to discuss things! No chance. To discuss they have to be able to see each other, sit in a room that’s organized in a business-like manner, ideally in a square or rectangle so we’re all face to face. I therefore had to dictate the seating just as it was my job to dictate the activities and set the tone with my enthusiasm and interest.

4. I needed to structure lessons to stimulate discussion – it wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Why I expected students to speculate, offer ideas, buzz with excitement about Canning’s foreign policy I’ve no idea. Even at university we’d been far too busy discussing sport, beer, who was or was not going out with who to spend time discussing history. So if you want discussion you have to structure it, help students begin talking to each other about the topic in small bites. There’s a wide range of ways of doing this – decision-making games are excellent for example – and they help students mix if they’ve come from different schools and don’t know each other. For some examples and discussion see:

5. I needed to help them learn, not just teach them things

I was very lucky on my PGCE to meet a teacher who thought hard about A level teaching – not just about the history itself. He’d set up a system where he briefly introduced the topic  for the next 3 or 4 weeks – made it intriguing, puzzling – then gave students a set of questions and headings to help them make notes on the basic events of the topic. This was aimed at preventing his lessons degenerating into lectures where the students wrote down that basic information. He still made sure they’d got the basics as it was all in the follow-up lessons on aspects of the topic but by then the focus was on what we’d now call enquiry questions – exploring causes, consequences, why some people reacted in one way and others differently etc etc.

That was the start for me of trying to help A level students learn for themselves and become more independent. I discovered that they could read ‘difficult’ text so long as I helped them into it by introducing names and issues through structured role-plays or decision-making games. ‘KS3 techniques’ work really well at A level provide you explain to the students why you’re using them (so they don’t feel they’re being talked down to) and you set the demands appropriately high.

For some excellent advice on this and much else see the work of Dale Banham and Russell Hall and others at

6. The most important books for me to read were the books the students had

I didn’t know much about the topic so it was tempting to grab the latest publications – I was a graduate after all and proud of it! – but first I had to read the core books the students had access to. That was the only way I’d know what they would be reading and what reading guidelines to plan for them. Plus I needed the basics too.

I also needed to learn not to try to read everything! Lack of confidence could tempt me to read one more thing but all that led to was me delivering mini-lectures and their eyes glazing over. By doing too much reading I wasn’t spending enough time working out how best to create stimulating activities or how I’d answer the essays I set – what my argument would be and what knowledge I’d use to support/challenge it –  and hence how to teach them to use their knowledge effectively in answering questions.

Being up to date with the latest publications may be good for the teacher’s self-esteem but it won’t, by itself, get students the top grade. It’s them being able to use effectively what they know that counts most. Yes, get as up to date as you can but do it in balance with the other aspects of teaching.

7. I had to sit and wait for them to get to know me

And of course I tried to be friendly too quickly! Just because the students are older you can’t rush the creation of a good relationship with them. As with all students in all years you have to wait for them to get used to you. Just be efficient, organized, create confidence that you know what you’re doing, show you’re willing to go the extra mile for individuals. In short, be a good teacher.  Then when they’re ready and they trust you as a teacher they’ll relax and everything will be so much more enjoyable.

So, after all that …

This letter hasn’t tried to be encyclopaedic about teaching A level . And I’ve just touched on some of the main points that remain with me. The final one is simply that I loved teaching A level. I even loved teaching 19th century British political history – Peterloo, Castlereagh, the reform bills, Chartism, Peel etc etc etc – wonderful individuals, dramatic events, all creating the world we live in. I’d love to write a book on the period for A level but it’s now fallen out of fashion – young teachers don’t know what they’re missing!

I wasn’t as good at teaching A level as I’ve made myself sound. There were many occasions when I was dull, humdrum and just boring – but I got better. Honest! But one thing I did do was let myself enthuse about the history. Not just about the topics I taught but all kinds of history. As the great Alan Plater wrote in The Beiderbecke Connection ‘If we don’t share our passions with our children, how will they ever learn to be passionate?’

Letters to a New History Teacher …

… is a series of blogs (mostly) by Esther Arnott as she experiences “NQT2″ – a return to teaching after a year being a new mum. Her return has given her similar feelings to those she had as an NQT, but this time around she has a bit of experience to share with herself and you, so these blogs are offered in the hope they support those of you setting out on your own new history teaching journeys – whether as NQTs or trainees on PGCE courses or other schemes. The blog will run through the year as ideas – and reality – strike Esther (and as motherhood allows!). She’d love to hear from you if you have particular questions, issues or features you’d like addressed.


About Ian

This week’s guest writer, Ian Dawson, has been a teacher, teacher-trainer, Director of the Schools History Project and has spent years trying to write the perfect textbook. He hasn’t succeeded.

His website was begun in 2004 to support those new to teaching history but now provides a range of activities and discussions for teachers of all levels of experience. The photograph accompanying this letter does not show Ian during his PGCE at the Roman University of Eboracum.


How hard can Hastings be?

If, like me, you’re in the throes of your NQT (well, mine is my second time around, having had a year off as a new mum, so returning feels like my NQT again), you might be finding that those kids just don’t seem to get it! I’ve been battling (no pun intended) with the Norman Conquest. Something that I thought would be so accessible thanks to many great ideas in the history world about how to teach this topic, not to mention the blood and gore factor within what is a great story (check out the brilliant Battlefield Britain episode with Dan and Peter Snow if you haven’t already). But I’m facing some difficulties.

Firstly, the children are so fascinated by the story that trying to get them to DO something with that story (like consider the causation question on why William won), is like pulling teeth. My students just want to know more, rather than think about it per se. This leads to me to my second issue: now I’m in the midst of it, I’m not actually sure this should be taught as a causation enquiry. It feels rather woolly, debating why William won – by which I mean that it seems to be ungrounding the children because there appear to be so many possible valid arguments. This is unnerving for these young 11 year olds. They are adrift in a sea of historical possibility – and that makes it all seem too conceptual, too mind bending, too big. They are dealing with their own big sea of uncertainty (new secondary school) and I feel they don’t need another. So now I’m wondering whether I should have approached this as an interpretation enquiry (have you seen the SHP Year 7 book which has an enquiry on who told the truth about 1066?)

This might have allowed me to indulge the children in their desire to know more, and I could have gently steered them toward the idea of ‘whose knowledge, whose story, are we knowing here? We could have got into a fascinating consideration of fact and opinion, and perhaps even on to opinion versus interpretation.

So already in my NQT 2, I’m thinking about how I will do this the second time around. Thinking to the future and how to do it makes me excited at the possibility. But I’ve one slight (large?) problem: I’ve got a class of 31 here and now, immersed in the story but lost in the concept. What am I going to do? How will I rescue them? My medium term plan hasn’t gone to plan.

I’ve decided that I need to pause – and show the children how to pause and reflect. Reflection is a big word in those NQT profiles of ours. But why not for our students too? Every lesson needn’t be a romp through time at a pace to rival William’s charging horses. So I’m going to ask the students these questions: in relation to our big question (why did William win the battle) -

  1. What are we certain about?
  2. What are we reasonably confident about?
  3. What are we unsure about?

I’m going to give them all post it notes and get them to write one item per note and to stick them into their exercise books on different pages. They can work in pairs because I want them to talk about their responses as I think that the talking will help them to reflect. My hope for what this will achieve is as follows. In answer to the first question I think I will find lots of historical facts (e.g. William had knights on horseback, archers and foot soldiers, Harold had a shield wall). In answer to the second question I think I will find points relating to the events of the battle (e.g. Some soldiers thought Harold was dead and so morale dipped). In answer to the third question I suspect I will find questions about whether it is possible to know the ‘real’ reason William won, and questions about if one reason is more important than another.

So if I know the answers I am going to get, why am I doing this exercise? My belief is that the children need to see for themselves their certainties and uncertainties. If they can identify what we need to focus on (rather than me saying “you’re just not getting it!”), I am hoping it gives them a sense of ownership. My subsequent question is going to be ‘what shall we do about the things we are unsure about?’ At this point I fully expect them to be look blank and say ‘ask for your help Miss’ but that’s great and exactly what I need – by realising together that we are a bit adrift and that the question feels too big and scary, we can begin to use our certainties to shore up our uncertainties. For example: imagine this exchange…

Teacher: if one of your certain post it notes is that Harold had a shield wall, why did William win eventually?

Student: The shield wall must have given way.

Teacher: Ok so what does that tell us about why William won?

Student: Because Harold and his men were weaker?

Teacher: What made them weaker do you think?

Student: They had already fought a battle in the north. And didn’t some of them think they had won and so they ran down the hill?

Teacher: There are two things there. Are they both about weaknesses?

Student: Sort of. Running down the hill is a bit about poor discipline or organisation. And fighting another battle is about following orders so that’s Harold’s leadership. Actually maybe running down the hill is leadership too.

So this conversation is totally made up, but I’m doing it to anticipate (and show) what I hope this reflective lesson will achieve. By relating each certainty post it note to the enquiry question I aim to help the children to get talking about why William won. By intervening with my own questions I am hoping to help the children to relate their certainties to factors or causes of William’s success. And there we have the beginnings of getting back on track. Using what they feel certain about to tether to the things they don’t (causation). The joy of post it notes is that we can restick them into a new formation – certainties notes will, I hope, become groups of causes with certainties in each. And as for those reasonably confident notes – the magic there is that they will most likely become points of debate (e.g. what does morale dipping tell us about why William won?) This will be important because it will mean that rather than the children’s answers being simplistic factor A + factor B lead to outcome X, they might begin to understand that factor A + factor B were essential up to a point, but that at various stages in the battle, different factors played a role.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck (no broken shield walls).


Letters to a New History Teacher …

… is a series of blogs by Esther Arnott as she experiences “NQT2″ – a return to teaching after a year being a new mum. Her return has given her similar feelings to those she had as an NQT, but this time around she has a bit of experience to share with herself and you, so these blogs are offered in the hope they support those of you setting out on your own new history teaching journeys – whether as NQTs or trainees on PGCE courses or other schemes. The blog will run through the year as ideas – and reality – strike Esther (and as motherhood allows!). She’d love to hear from you if you have particular questions, issues or features you’d like addressed.


About Esther

Esther qualified to teach in 2005 and took up a post at Lampton School in west London. She became head of department in 2008 – and this was swiftly followed by an Ofsted subject visit where she and her team achieved Outstanding in all categories. She works with a wide number of beginner teacher groups – including Roehampton University and Teach First – and she set up the London History Network to help share good practice. She became an SHP Fellow in 2009. When her school became one of the first Teaching Schools she applied to be a Specialist Leader of Education for history and has since worked with London schools to support heads of department and other middle leaders to achieve excellence. In 2012 she was promoted to leadership with responsibility for Literacy – and of course still teaching history! In 2013 she had baby Samuel, taking a year out …to now return as NQT 2!!

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