The Power of Teacher Talk – Part 2

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Liam Hall, Head of History and member of the senior leadership team at Summerhill School, Kingswinford, in the West Midlands, writes the second of a two-part series about the power of teacher talk. You can read the first part here.

The power of teacher talk seems to be somewhat under-rated. But I am a greedy teacher; I want students to learn, I want my lessons to be based around rigorous enquiry questions as Michael Riley outlined in 2000 but I also want to promote a love for my subject.

I want students to buzz with excitement when they leave lessons – this won’t happen all the time, but I believe that we can do it often enough if we focus on honing the ‘intangibles’ of teaching – namely, hard work, building strong relationships with our classes and teaching our subject with passion, enthusiasm and character.

This publication’s very own Richard McFahn has suggested in his piece What is all the fuss about? Rosenshine’s principles for instruction that the consideration of “what you want students to learn and to then sequence this learning to make the whole process as effective as possible” should be at the forefront of any pedagogical process.

Take a recent lesson I taught from the Edexcel Weimar and Nazi Germany GCSE specification for Year 11. The course itself, follows a rather unique pattern in that the more abstract concepts come at the beginning of the course.

Most students, by Year 11, know something about Hitler, the Nazis and their policies – but very few know anything about the Weimar Republic, Freikorps, Spartacists etc.

I began planning a lesson on Gustav Stresemann which is notoriously full of abstract content and some heavy material. I have always followed the rule that the LESS EXCITING the History is – the MORE EXCITED you must get about it.

This lesson was entitled: Was Stresemann the German Superman? – perhaps I over-egged this with the Superman fanfare blaring through the speakers as Year 11 entered the room (eyes rolling and all) but it is all part of the theatre of this lesson!

I then proceeded to give students an image with a short fact file on Stresemann to stick in their books – these are precious early moments in a lesson where we mustn’t waste time recording copious notes.

I knew the key to this, as many History teachers will testify, was to emphasise the human element of Stresemann. How many historians have mused that if he had lived past 1929, then perhaps the Nazis may not have risen to power so suddenly?

We discuss his early right wing position during the First World War and his gradual shift to the DVP and coalition with the SPD – and by comparing this to Churchill’s movement from the Liberal Party in the early 1900s, we are attempting to draw parallels to aid student understanding.

We then continue to emphasise Stresemann the man, when I read a short description from Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich “one of the most unlovely-looking men…his little eyes set close together…the inevitable roll of flesh behind the neck” this heavily unflattering image helps illuminate the preposterousness of the lesson enquiry – how could a man such as this possible be a ‘Superman’?!

If this part of the lesson is successful, then we have sparked a bit of curiosity in our students; we can then re-visit the situation Germany was in in 1923 and hypothesise what he would (and could) have to do to ‘rescue’ Germany.

Modern scholarship also helps illuminate Stresemann’s darker side: Jonathan Wright’s Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman discusses the lesser-known Treaty of Berlin (not in textbooks!) which began to re-arm Germany and align them with the Soviet Union.

Introducing this more cynical element of Stresemann’s character AFTER outlining his political and economic achievements further thickens the level of intrigue woven into the lesson.

By the time the students have begun a task where they complete an opinion line with evidence for and against Stresemann being Germany’s rescuer – the hard work has been done. Students are invested in the lesson and are aware of the opaque nature of the enquiry.

Storytelling is another primary weapon in the History teacher’s arsenal.

Andy Tharby recently dedicated a whole chapter to the art of storytelling; reinforcing his claims with evidence from psychologists who claim that stories have a special place in the human brain – in short we are more likely to remember them.

These stories of course, can take numerous forms. One of my favourite stories is a re-enacted version of the infamous Robert Liston amputation that has recently been re-told by in Lindsey Fitzharris’ excellent The Butchering Art. Ian Dawson’s Thinkinghistory

Doing this well does not necessarily mean talking for long periods of time – the story is usually designed to bring an event into perspective.

The Head of Geography at my current school echoes similar sentiments “kids don’t understand what 20,000 lives lost means,” he says, “so I just show them one photograph, of one girl stuck in a landslide…we discuss her feelings, what might have happened…the kids care”.

History, like Geography has a particular affinity for this. At my current school, students study an enquiry on terrorism entitled ‘Has Terrorism always been the same?’.

After some initial lessons exploring student’s present understanding of the term, and outlining the view of various social scientists – we examine case studies of terrorism.

Students are always incredibly keen to study 9/11 – the event is in living memory for their parents and subsequently, its recency still resonates.

And yet, they cannot really comprehend it – 2,000 deaths in the twin towers alone is difficult to comprehend. I begin this lesson with a political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty consoling one another as they observe the Twin Towers aflame.

This evocative image is a good way to discuss pupil’s assumed knowledge of the event and to outline the devastation and sorrow that surrounded the event.

Next, in order to get them thinking about the significance and uniqueness of this event I tell multiple stories: I tell my own story, that of a Y9 student sent home from school watching in awe as it happened LIVE on the news (I usually drag up a new clip and describe my own thoughts as a 14-year-old on what I was seeing).

I remind them that ‘terrorism’, to me at that time, was associated with men in Balaclavas prowling the streets of Northern Ireland – we’d seen nothing like this before.

I also use a couple of anecdotes from Garrett Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky – an oral History of 9/11.

I tell students of the Americans aboard the ferry to Manhattan Island who witnessed thousands of papers fluttering in the sky, who, had absolutely no comprehension that America was under attack.

Of the numerous people who missed lifts, flights that day and of the man who stopped to have his spectacles cleaned on the way to work and of journalist and anchor Katie Couric who phoned her parents and told them to hide in the basement as she believed “the War of Worlds was coming”.

These particular examples are all brief but they help shine a light on the 2,600 who died and the 300+ students who died that day.

This is used as a way into a discussion into the consequences of 9/11 and views on what ‘terrorism’ is today.

It also makes the next task easier, where I ask students to use Counsell’s 5 R’s to judge the significance of the events against criteria such as ‘resonated’ and ‘remarkable’.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

As a final thought, one of the key roles of any effective teacher is being able to make material relatable to students.

This can be a difficult balancing act: on one hand; it is important that abstract concepts are contextualised into the concrete but, conversely, we do not want to over simplify or trivialise complex issues just to suit the experiences of the teenage mind.

In a recent lesson with Year 8 on living conditions during the Industrial Revolution we were attempting to discuss the squalid conditions in back to back houses.

I sensed that students were not really grasping the challenges that whole families living in rooms less than 35 square metres would face so I deployed a few techniques to make it more real.

Firstly, I listed all the everyday routines that would have to be done in, front of one another, without any privacy: getting dressed, washing, using the chamber pot, cooking meals and, of course, sleeping.

I tried to ask them to think about how nice it can be to simply get home and relax in your own bedroom – we take the very concept of individual rooms for granted. In fact, most countries do not share this luxury!

I supplement this with a description of slum housing from Edwin Chadwick’s report in 1842 and then I use a metre ruler (usually borrowed from the Maths Department) to measure out six metres across the room in an attempt to actually measure out the entire living space for a family of 10.

I then asked the students to start to visualise the room in a different way – where would the beds be? Where would the stove be? How would you keep warm? Why might living on the ground floor be even worse? What might happen if one of us gets ill?

This is particularly important for those of us who teach students from challenging backgrounds – if the concepts are too obscure or abstract, then quite simply, they will lose interest and not engage with the lesson.

You may have reached the finale of this piece and be thinking to yourself “this is nothing new, I knew this before”.

In essence, this is the point; I’m fairly sure that most of us knew that revisiting content in a regular and timely matter was important long before it was labelled retrieval practice.

I’m also fairly sure that most of us knew not to introduce too many concepts into a lesson before someone decided to pontificate on cognitive load!

The process of learning must begin with expertise (the teacher). It is the craft of the effective teacher to find different ways to relay knowledge in an accessible and engaging way.

This does not mean we have to dress up and be silly (though what’s the harm in that occasionally?!) it merely means that we need to engage our students’ curiosity, tell them illuminating stories and try to relate our subject matter to the students in a way that makes sense.

This is what the best teachers have done in the past, still do today and will continue to do for years to come.

Students are a lot like Abraham Lincoln really: “…easily satisfied by the very best”.

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