Monday, 27 March 2017

"The Big Picture": First Thoughts on the Junior Cycle History Draft Specification

The draft specification for Junior Cycle History has been released by the NCCA. It will take time for History teachers to get a complete sense of what changes it will bring, and the long and sometimes complicated language of these documents can sometimes get in the way. For now I've put down in my own words my understanding of the new course and my thoughts on what it will mean and how it compares to the now decades old Junior Cert course.

The Rationale of Junior Cycle History
The status of History in Junior Cycle has been a frequent subject of conversation over the last few years, with recurring rumours and reports that History was to be downgraded as a subject. Whatever the future holds, the authors of the draft specifications made a very good case for the study of History, defining it not simply as the study of the past but the exploration of the human experience over time and how that experience has shaped the world we live in today.

The big new keyword in the draft document is "the big picture", by which the authors mean the students' understanding of major patterns of change over time in a global context, coming to understand how and why history is characterised by 'eras' or 'ages'.

A stated aim of the new course is to deepen the students' understanding of the human condition through the development of their historical empathy. It's easy to judge people in history by our modern day standards (something one of my lecturers once dismissed as "presentism") but people throughout history and the decisions they made can only really be understood in the context of the time and place they lived, and it is by those values that students should try to understand them.

In order to help students achieve these aims, Junior Cycle History looks set to place a big emphasis on an area which got the short shrift in the old curriculum - key research skills and critical thinking.

The Course and Content
There are three main strands in Junior Cycle History:
  • Strand One: The Nature of History
  • Strand Two: Ireland
  • Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
Teachers of Leaving Cert History will see right away that the course has been made to align with its senior cycle counterpart, though it's not yet clear if they will be studied as two distinctly separate strands as they are in Leaving Cert, or mixed as they have been in the old Junior Cert course.

Strand One is interesting, however. Not intended to be a separate strand studied before the other two, it is instead meant to be studied in tandem with them, as the skills students should develop through it should inform their learning in Strands Two and Three.

For years, First Years have learned about primary and secondary sources and the problems one can encounter when studying them. However, that treatment is brief and its relation to the rest of the course depends on the attentiveness of the textbook and the teacher. It is in this strand that historical empathy is featured, as is the importance of examining controversial or contested issues from more than one perspective - while maintaining a grounding in facts and evidence.

As before, students will learn about bias and objectivity as well as assessing the importance and usefulness of sources, something that isn't properly done until Fifth Year under the current system. Students will also learn about the provisional nature of historical judgements and how they can sometimes be re-evaluated when new evidence comes along - to give a minor example, it was generally believed that the Titanic sank in one piece in 1912, despite some witness statements. It wasn't until the wreck was discovered in 1985 that we abandoned that idea.

Chronological understanding is also emphasised as part of helping students develop "the big picture".

Strands Two and Three are each divided along three elements:
  • Key moments of change
  • People, culture and ideas
  • Thinking historically
Pages 23-26 of the draft specification outline some of the learning outcomes expected of students, using the three elements as categories, similar to how the Leaving Cert course arranges things in terms of Politics and Administration, Economy and Society and Culture and Religion. I won't copy and paste the outcomes here, but I will jot down my own speculations about the content of the course from reading through them.

Strand Two: Ireland 
  • Irish artistic and cultural achievements (possibly similar to Ancient Ireland in the old course)
  • The importance of religion to historical development in Ireland (Early Christian Ireland, the Reformation)
  • Demographic changes such as settlement (Ancient Ireland, the Normans), migration (the Famine), and plantation (that one speaks for itself).
  • Rebellion in pre-twentieth century Ireland (1798 Rebellion, and others?)
  • The Famine and the role of the diaspora in other parts of the world (this links in with the little-studied Leaving Cert topic about the diaspora)
  • Rise of nationalism and unionism in early 20th century Ireland (no change from the current course, except it specifically mentions tracing the emergence of unionism, so perhaps a more in-depth exploration of unionism will feature, allowing a study of the Irish independence movement from different perspectives). 
  • Debating the idea that the 1960s was an important decade on the island of Ireland (Seán Lemass, Social Change, Northern Ireland)
  • The changing role of women in 20th century Ireland (as in the old course)
In an example of an old feature being used to promote something new, there is also an emphasis on using archaeology to understand Irish history using local examples where appropriate (see Classroom Assessments below).

Learning outcomes also include studies of individual Irish people who achieved distinction in various fields of human endeavour, such as culture. This seems similar to the current People in History format. Students must also examine how a movement or organisation contributed to historically significant change in Ireland and contribute to a class archive on family or local history by contributing to a repository of interviews, artefacts, family trees etc.

Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
  • Investigation of the lives of people in a civilisation of their choosing (similar to Ancient Rome/Greece/etc. in the current course, but hopefully with more real variety this time!)
  • The experiences of people living in medieval/feudal times (as before, but with more detail?)
  • The Renaissance (as before) 
  • Migration, conquest and colonisation (The Age of Exploration)
  • The historical importance of religion and its contribution to historical events (Reformation)
  • The causes, course and consequence of a revolution in pre-20th century Europe (as before)
  • The rise and course of fascism and communism (the old course focused on fascism with small cameos from Josef Stalin)
  • Technological developments (the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, with perhaps more modern developments given a mention too?)
  • How political tensions can lead to war (World War I, World War II, the Cold War)
New features explore certain aspects of modern history in more detail. Students will explore the causes, course and consequences of genocide in the history of Europe or the wider world (e.g. the Holocaust). They will reflect on the role of an organisation such as the UN or the EU in relation to human rights, peace and co-operation, and they will also debate the importance of the 1960s in a European and global context.

Students will also illustrate changing patterns observed in the study of a theme relating to life and society across different time periods. The examples given include crime and punishment, food and drink, and fashion and appearance among others.

These new features seem quite interesting and engaging. Creating a class archive allows History to be a properly collaborative class. Reflecting on the roles of supranational organisations and genocide can help develop the students' research skills and hone them for the Leaving Cert Research Study Report. The examination of themes over periods of time allow students to study history through the lens of their interests (sport, music, fashion etc.). Along with the local history study promoted in Strand Two, the new course comes across as far more immersive and engaging than the old one.

Classroom Based Assessment (CBAs)
I won't go on for much longer, but the last important aspect to note for now is the Classroom Based Assessment. The assessment is split into two parts:

A Young Life in Time (Europe and the Wider World)
Towards the end of Second Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on the life of a young person who lived in an historical era in Europe or the wider world. All that is known about this assessment for now is that students must explore the young person's life and experiences through research, and report on their findings. The report can take a number of formats.

The Past in my Place (Ireland)
In the second term of Third Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on an aspect relating to the history of their local area. Local libraries, archives and interviews will likely form the bulk of the research for this assessment. Like A Young Life in Time, the students will report their findings to the class through one of a variety of formats.

Both of these assessments are to be subject to a SLAR review meeting.

Conclusions... for now
This is, of course, just a draft. However, if I'm being honest it's a lot better than I was expecting. Given the ongoing difficulties surrounding the provision of CBAs and the roll-out of Junior Cycle English, I was wary about what shape Junior Cycle History would take. More than anything else I feared that the subject would be watered down, as some reports and rumours hinted it might be. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Between now and May 5th, teachers and other interested parties can take part in the consultation on the draft specification, which can be found here.

This is a course with great potential, but so was CSPE when it was first envisioned, and that subject's twenty years of life have not turned out particularly well. In order for this new History course to be a success, the commitment to deepening the students' understanding of research and history has to be kept. The commitment to fostering critical thinking has to be kept, with the skills involved being developed at the same time that the students are learning new content. There are a lot of questions over this new course being Common Level (as will all other subjects except for English, Irish and Maths), but that's an argument for another day. The rollout of Junior Cycle English has been problematic, to say the least. We can only hope that lessons learned from that experience will make History's transition an easier one.

Early on in the document, the authors say that "hearing and telling the stories of people who lived in the past helps students to understand more about how people live today, and can help students to learn from the past in thinking about how to address the problems of today." Given that our world is full of problems which have their roots in the past, this sentence is probably one of the most important in the entire document. Whatever shape our History course takes, it has to be a course from which students will genuinely learn and develop. It has to help them understand the world in which they live, and how it came to be the way it is. Hopefully, this new course will help us to do just that.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Primary Sources: Life in Cork During World War II

While rooting around today in search of something, I came across questionnaires I had put together as part of my own Leaving Cert History project (before the current curriculum and RSR). Though I ended up doing my project on Felix Dzerzhinsky (of Soviet secret police fame), my original idea was much more local, as I wanted to write about what life was like for people living in Cork during the Emergency years.

It didn't work out, but as part of my research I had given questionnaires to my grandmother and her brother. They lived on Green Street in Cork City at the time, and both were quite young (6 and 13 respectively in 1939) but their memories do paint a revealing picture of a community which felt very many of the impacts of war even though we were officially a neutral country. I've decided to reproduce them here, since they won't serve any purpose just sitting on a shelf. They might be good for document-based questions, as well as context when teaching about the Emergency in Junior and Leaving Cert.

The questionnaire was filled out in March 2003.

Do you remember when you first heard the war had broken out?

David: 
"The war started in September 1939. I was on a bus coming in to the city from Douglas on a Sunday morning and the conductor was telling the people that England had declared war on Germany. I was 13, and it didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. The other passengers really didn't know what to make of the news either, not realising what the next six years was going to bring."

Nancy:
"I would have been about 5 to 6 years old at that time. I can't remember how I heard the war had broken out but I had three brothers and my first cousin were in the Royal Air Force. One of my brothers was in the Middle East (Palestine) as far as I can remember, and my first cousin who was 18 years old was killed and is buried in Palestine."

What was your main source of communication (e.g. radio, newspaper) regarding events in the war? How often did you find out about new events?

David:
"News of the war was scarce at the time. Newspapers were our main suppliers of news but they did not give the full news as parts of the paper were blacked out in case it gave any information to the Germans."

Nancy:
"Newspapers and radio would have been our source of information, and I suppose when the boys wrote home they may have said something too. I can remember being told that all letters were checked but I don't know if that was true or not."

Was there a sense of community? (e.g. did people in the neighbourhood often speak about the war?)

David: 
"There was a lot of hardship in Ireland. Work was scarce so lots of men went to England to work and join the forces and work in the factories. Most families in Ireland had someone away in England during the war. There was a lot of women and girls went as nurses. A lot settled down and got married and raised their families in England. In the Forties they introduced rationing. Half an ounce of tea, half a pound of sugar... everybody got a book with coupons in it and it was so many coupons for each item."

Nancy:
"Yes, our neighbours would have spoken about the war with my parents since my brothers and others in our neighbourhood were involved and I can remember going to school at St. Maries of the Isle and we would offer prayers for the safe return of our brothers."

What was the atmosphere at that time at home, in the street, and in general?

David:
"Things were fairly quiet around Cork at the time. Money was scarce and people just made the best of what they had, which was tough on the poor who had to make do with a cup of substitute coffee with a boiled sweet floating in it, dark brown bread with lumps of boiled potato mixed into them. Those with money were able to buy on the black market so they didn't feel the pinch as much."

Nancy:
"At home, pretty frightening in case any of my brothers or neighbours would have been killed. When my first cousin was killed we as a family with my mother went to my aunty's house and all the neighbours came to the home. There was a lot of tears shed, and when Sean's belongings were sent home, the house was full of people again, and presents from him were shown to the people. It was a very sad time for all concerned."

Do you remember anything else about the war that you have not already written down?

David:
"Lots of things got very scarce, such as bananas, oranges and other fruits, all disappeared until after the war. The government bought a few ships and they done great work going to Newfoundland and bringing home supplies of white sugar, candles and things which we could not get at home, everything helped to keep us going. There was a lot of men and boys joined the Irish Army, they worked hard digging turf because you could not buy coal at the time, so they done great work."

Nancy:
"I can remember ration books, when we went to the shop for our messages there were stamps taken from the ration books for tea, sugar and butter. These foods were very scarce. There were nine children in our family so what we got did not last too long. Also neighbours were very close at that time, we would get our groceries mid week and would share with another neighbour and she in turn would pay it back at the end of the week when she got her groceries.
I can also remember gas was rationed, so we would use candles and night lights, which were also very scarce, and that was my job looking for candles which took a lot of time after school going from shop to shop.
I can remember going out to play with my friends one day and a plane passed over and I just ran home again, I thought they would have bombs on board. I was so frightened.
I remember air raid shelters were built, one was built near the Garda barracks about 10 mins walk from our house, and also every member of each household was issued with gas masks."

Monday, 13 March 2017

Project/RSR Ideas: Bunreacht na hÉireann

Stuck for a project idea? Every time I come across something interesting I'm going to post it here to help people in need of something good to research.

Picture from historyhub.ie
If you've looked at Ireland Topic 3: The Pursuit of Sovereignty and the Impact of Partition, then you will have learned about Éamon de Valera's efforts to dismantle the Anglo-Irish Treaty during the 1930s, culminating in his government replacing the old Irish Free State constitution with the new Bunreacht na hÉireann, which is still in place as our constitution today. One of the most interesting things about our constitution is that it can be changed through holding a referendum. The last time this happened was in 2015, when the people of Ireland voted to amend the constitution to ensure that same-sex couples have the same right to marriage as opposite sex couples. Last Sunday, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that we would have a new referendum this year, this time to decide whether Irish people living abroad should have the right to vote in presidential elections.

The drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann was supervised by de Valera himself. The document was a clean slate - the old Free State constitution had been changed so much by de Valera that a new version was needed anyway, but he also wished to give the institutions of Irish democracy a more Gaelic Irish feel - so the President of the Executive Council became the Taoiseach, for example.

Throughout the drafting process, de Valera consulted with Fr. John Charles McQuaid (the future Archbishop of Dublin), ensuring a Catholic influence on the document. However, de Valera stopped short of making the Catholic Church the official state religion.

Bunreacht na hÉireann was put to a plebiscite (a special kind of referendum) and was approved by the people of Ireland in June 1937. It was enacted six months later and has been in place since.

If you are interested in writing your project on the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann, UCC historians Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy have a weighty book on the subject entitled The Making of the Irish Constitution. However, books concerning de Valera, McQuaid and Irish society and history in general in the early 20th century will also be of great use.

Power

A few years ago I read a comment left online by a teacher pleased with himself for his response to unsatisfactory work by a student. He tore the page out of their copybook, thereby displaying his dominance in the classroom and showing the student what happens when you submit work below expectations. It might be tempting to imagine this person as a member of the unfairly stereotyped older generation of educators who qualified at a time when classroom dynamics were far more strict, but no, it was a young man in his twenties.

Power Play
I'm not maligning this man. I don't know him and he may well have changed since then. But why in the first place did he feel the need to do that? Well, let's look at the dynamics. Anyone who has spent as much as five minutes teaching in a classroom knows that there is always some kind of power play going on. I've experienced it myself - students seeking to derail the lesson and to undermine the authority of the teacher. It's so commonplace it's a cliché in depictions of classrooms on screen.

"Oh, kids have been doing that one since my day."
But wait, what is the authority of the teacher? Our role is to educate the young people before us and help them to prepare for whatever big exams are coming up. Of course teachers deserve respect from their students, but so does everyone who does their job, and we (usually) afford them that respect.

But how would you feel if you asked a shop assistant where something was only to be told to find it yourself? How would you respond to a bank clerk refusing to hear your case for a loan because you simply don't look like you deserve one? What would you say if you stopped someone in the street to ask for directions and they told you to stop talking to them? We don't tolerate rudeness from people, and we don't tolerate it from students, but as teachers, do we tolerate it in ourselves?

Yes, teachers deserve respect from students but in every interaction we have in life we expect that the respect we show will be returned in kind. Why should young people expect any different? If we demand respect from our students without really giving anything in return, why should we get it?

Diminishing Returns
It is not simply our job to stand at the front of a classroom and recite facts, dates, names, figures, theorems, interpretations and quotations so that the people in front of us can recite out recitations on a piece of paper every June. It is our job to guide, to nurture, to foster, to help and to be available to do all of that. If a teacher's main concern is whether or not their students are respecting them, then what is their aim? What is achieved by tearing a student's work out of their copy, even if it is below standard? Would you have reacted well if you were that student?

Image from Creative Art Therapist
 The fact is, we do have a lot of power afforded to us automatically by our positions as teachers. But we are wrong if we think it is the power to stand there and be obeyed. Your real power comes through your interactions, no matter how minor. You have power through your reactions and responses, through your decisions and priorities. Sure, you have the power to teach John a lesson by ripping that work up. And it might feel good for a time, because you've shown him that you're not accepting that work and he has to do better. But ultimately, what does it achieve? John goes on to resent you, students find you unapproachable and you come across as a bit of a jackass. It's an astonishing waste of your true power as a teacher.

Creative or Destructive?
One of the saddest moments in my time as a teacher came after a parent teacher pupil meeting night, years ago. I kept to the usual formula - open with something nice, voice concerns in the middle, and end on a positive note once more so that the meeting didn't end under a cloud. As it happened, one of my students had an older sister who was friends with my own sister. The day after the meeting my sister relayed what she had said: "Your brother was the only teacher who had anything nice to say about my brother." Again, I'm not maligning my then-colleagues - when you have dozens, even hundreds of students to see you can become tired and not want to beat around the bush, but even so, it's still a huge waste of power. I'm always wary of telling this story because it only ends up making me sound arrogant, but it hasn't left me and it really does serve to illustrate what our real power is.

You have the power to help guide the young people in your care to understand the world around them better and to want to learn more about it. You have the power to show them that learning is an experience we all undertake together - not by absorbing all of your information from one stationary source at the front of the room, but by collaborating and discussing. Allowing students to direct their own learning might not always be possible due to the limitations of our curriculum, but there's nearly always some scope in which to do so. You have the power to show to that one student who acts out, disrupts the class and falls behind that they are just as important as everyone else and that you are willing to help them get to where they need to be. You have the power to show them that you're they're to help them, not order them. You have the power to show you care and to make a lasting impact. The power to make a positive difference to the life of even just one young person.

With that much power at your disposal, why would you not use it?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The History of Pancake Tuesday


In the same way that Christmas can be all about toys and Easter can be all about chocolate eggs, Shrove Tuesday is another Christian tradition that has ended up becoming known for something other than its original purpose - delicious pancakes.

Shrove Tuesday is the day before the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar, and has been documented as far back as the year 1000 AD, when the English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham wrote of people going to their confessor to receive "shrivance" (forgiveness) for their sins in the week before Lent. Even then it was common for people to give something up for Lent, and it's believed that people used up their stores of foods like butter, eggs and fat in the days before it. It isn't until the 16th century that we have definite records of people using those ingredients to make pancakes on on Shrove Tuesday. In some areas, the tradition of eating fatty foods gave Shrove Tuesday a new name - "Fat Tuesday", or "Mardi Gras" in French.

Other traditions sprang up over time. In Britain, pancake races are common - people in fancy dress race down a street while flipping pancakes in pans. This tradition is believed to date from 1445, when a woman from the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire heard the church shriving bell calling people to confession and ran to the church in her apron, still flipping the pancake she had been cooking.

In Latin America, Mardi Gras became a festival of colour, costumes and parades, and has pretty much taken on a life of its own. The idea behind it is still the same though - a day of festivities right before Lent begins.

Irish traditions are a bit less flashy - it was seen as a time for families to get together and tell stories. Some local traditions included having the eldest unmarried daughter flip the pancakes to determine whether or not she would have good luck this year (dropping the pancake was bad news) and enjoying a large amount of meat alongside the pancakes. In some cases, a small piece of meat was pinned to the inside of the chimney and left there until Easter Sunday to bring good fortune to the household.

So, as you tuck in to your pancakes today, consider how much history there is behind them. And if you hear the shriving bell, put your pan down before you run outside.