SHP25: early reflection

My brother’s lamentable absence from his convenient London flat tonight provides me with a rare opportunity to reflect on today’s excellent conference. It was really quality stuff, all of it, and maybe even more helpful than the summer conference – less to absorb and coming at a time of year when enthusiasm is flagging in the face of mocks, controlled assessment and data scrutinising, coupled with more natural energy drains like the darker days and grey weather. There are many things I can take back that will have an impact on my practice, but I think Alison Kitson’s session on the 18th century is going to be most useful because it will change some of my lessons this week.

When we reconsidered our key stage three programme of study in July, we decided to adjust year 8. We’d always been a unit light here and all filled the gap with something different, but the decision to move the Civil War unit to year 7 made the situation rather more pressing. We had also identified a gap in student knowledge when they arrived in year 9: when teaching the causes of WW1 they struggled to comprehend the impact of the crumbling European empires, or, indeed, the role of empires at all.

We decided to adjust our study of the British Empire. We split the unit in two, to look at both the rise and decline. The rise comes first, with the working enquiry question, “What impact did the British Empire have on Britain?” This then segues neatly into the Industrial Revolution, allows for a world study encompassing the America revolution and civil war, and can then be rounded off with a collapse of empire study at the end.

Having taught our usual year 8 opening chronological study on the history of Britain through art, I have been working on the rise of Empire for four weeks, so roughly 6 lessons. It has proved difficult to resource. There’s not much out there on the impact on Britain of its colonies. I gave up after a frustrating 20 minutes of Googling, after having been met with site after site detailing the impact of the Empire on insert-colony-here. I’m sure there’re actual books out there about it – so I will be better prepared for next year. In the meantime I trawled old text books for material not focused on interpretations, and chalked up quite a success after a lesson on British taxes on Indian cloth was met with a, “OH so that’s why we ended up with more cloth factories here!” comment from Fraser, my resident year 8 Industrial Revolution buff.

But, inspiration has petered out a bit. I was toying with the idea of doing forced child migration and Barnardo, then looking at children left in Britain during this time, inspired by an episode of British History in Numbers on Radio 4 (podcasts still available – highly recommended if you’re a bit of a stats geek like me). I was left with a nagging feeling that I was missing something, though, especially since, for the first time ever, I am teaching top sets in year 8 this year^. I wanted to give them a better understanding of the state of flux.

Alison’s presentation today, then, couldn’t have come at a better time. Clearly the biggest impact of the Empire was in terms of wealth, which I have tried, and largely failed, to express through my examples in lessons thus far. Looking at the growing wealth gap in Britain and the creation of the Middling Sort, alongside the changes in agriculture and the squeeze on the working class (I can bring in Ian Dawson’s Corn Laws activity here #SHPMashUp) provides me with the perfect link for the two units. There’s only so far one can go with the impact of Barbadian sugar, Indian tea and cotton and African gold, but looking at the bigger picture* is where the real story lies. As I mentioned in my post, too, I can have the tea thread running all the way through, from the growth of tea plantations in India to the tea drinking classes in 18th century England to the cup of Earl Grey in the Great Reform Act lesson.

So, the devil is not in the detail in this case! This week’s lessons will focus on 18th century changes and the tastes of the population, in both tea and other Empire goods such as that mahogany tea table mentioned in the first reading we had, and the deteriorating living standards among the poor, leading to the growing agitation for a voice, among the middle and lower classes. This then leads into the political changes.

I love it when a plan comes together.

^ we’ve not set in history before, but are timetabled against English this year and are using their sets. Across key stage three I have three top, one middle and four bottom sets. It’s been very interesting, and probably worthy of a blog post in itself.

* I quite often find myself unable to see the wood for the trees in this way.

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