Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Some thoughts on bringing to life the Unification of Italy and of Germany in the Classroom

There was a tweet last night asking for advice on primary or secondary sources that could help bring to life the topics of the Unification of Italy and the Unification of Germany. Naturally, being a money-grubbing sort of fellow, I fired off links to my two Kindle pieces on the subject, and here they are:

However, I’m not sure they will bring a class-room to life in the way the tweeter intended. They were written originally to provide revision for able AS or Higher (Scotland) pupils who wanted to gee up their ideas and knowledge after they had mastered the text-book basics. Some kind friends tell me that they are also good as a rapid survey (they are short) for the interested general reader and as a first introduction for first-year university types. But they are at the tougher end of the spectrum for school-pupils though not, I hope, dull.

I taught these topics more or less every year of my career and experience did provide a few “enlivening” things that are worth sharing.

There was an excellent collection of primary sources on the period before 1848 when nationalism was getting a grip called “Metternich’s Europe” by Mack Walker. My copy, alas, fell to bits after 37 years and was binned when I retired. It is out of print, but here is the link to it on Amazon:

My most used sources from this book were Heinrich von Gagern’s letter to his father explaining why he were German cloaks instead of French fashions, Metternich’s letter to Tsar Alexander I explaining why nationalism was so dangerous, and Cavour’s article in “Il Risorgimento” explaining that “the economic rebirth of a nation can never be separated from her political rebirth” (or vice versa). For Italy there is an excellent selection in Derek Beales “The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy”. Late in my career I discovered a collection of sources produced by the German Historical Institute that is just outstanding:

For secondary sources one can look no further than “Europe reshaped” by JAS Grenville. Except that there is so much more good writing it seems a pity not to mention it. For Germany I recommend Fritz Stern: “Gold and Iron”, Golo Mann “The History of Germany since 1789” and David Blackbourn “Germany: The Long Nineteenth Century”. For Italy, anything by Denis Mack Smith. Much shorter and easier, and ideal for interested pupils, is “Europe: Vienna to Versailles” by LCB Seaman. None of these books is “worthy but dull.”

The most lively feature of the two stories is the intellectual and historical fascination, especially when placed in a long context, and I would introduce this early on in the course. For Germany the elephant in the room is, of course, Hitler. How did the most advanced new state in the world go so horribly wrong, and to what extent was it to do with the way Bismarck stitched together the German Empire. (I try to avoid the term “Unification of Germany” because that was the Bismarckian spin. He cut off Austria and Vienna. Bearing in mind that until 1918 there was a Saxon ambassador – well salaried – at the Prussian court, I see Bismarck’s Empire as a device to give tax-payers money to the Junkers.) but after 1989 there was another, jollier elephant in the room – the re-unification after the Cold War. I used to show video clips of (a) Germany wrecked in 1945 and (b) Germany rejoicing in 1989 and keep relating 19th century Nationalism to these.

Or the very long diplomatic context – going back to the ninth century – there is another Kindle piece by me about the Congress of Vienna:

As far as Italy is concerned the point is the great gulf between the official propaganda version of heroic nationalism sweeping the peninsular and the inevitable triumph of liberty, welcomed by all right-thinking people, and what actually happened. I would tell pupils early on about the Lega Nord, the modern Italian political party that wants to create Cavour’s vision of a modern, go-ahead state without the (as they see it) problems of the south. The propaganda version is well illustrated by the paintings of victor Emanuel in the Palazzo Publico in Siena.

Of course Italy has elephants in her room too.

The obvious physical thing to brighten lessons on this topic is maps. Show them that it is not only geographers who do colouring in. They will certainly be surprised to see how far east Bismarck’s Germany stretched.

I also used to brighten my lessons with music. For Italy there is the happy chance that Opera was one medium that could evade censorship, and so was used to spread nationalist messages. I was privileged to hear Verdi’s Chorus of Hebrew Slaves sung by Lithuanian Opera a few months after the Russians had left, and it moved me to tears. At Verdi’s funeral in Milan the vast crowd began spontaneously to sing it. In Austrian-controlled Venice opera goers would shout “Viva Verdi” meaning “Vittorio Emmanuele Re D’Italia” and there was not a lot the police could do. If Verdi is too cerebral for your class, hit them with the William Tell Overture – an opera in which the bad guys are Austrians oppressing the Swiss.

For Germany I twice managed to organise peculiarly jolly lessons. With the Head of German (who happened to be a musician) and the Headmaster (who happened to be a Germanist) and the Director of Music (ditto) I gathered round the piano with my pupils and we sang German student nationalist and drinking songs. If that is not possible for you to arrange, watch the moment in “Casablanca” where the German singing is drowned out by the Marseillaise. That’s a good example of the way German nationalism turned sour. “Die Wacht am Rein” started as a defensive song in the French War scare of 1840, and only became identified with aggression at a later date.

Not to mention Wagner.

What wonderful topics these are! How lucky you are if you are still being paid to talk about them.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A few thoughts on marking and work-loads

There is a bit of a buzz about marking and teachers’ work-loads going on at the moment. So here are a few thoughts of mine. I taught History for the whole of my career, with frequent forays into English, Modern Studies and Politics. I hope some of my anecdotal meanderings will help some hard-pressed NQT, or even cause some more senior practitioners to reconsider what they do - before, no doubt, deciding that what they do is best.

Work loads are very great, and I see no way round that. Fortunately I thought I had the best job in Scotland (sometimes) and was able to concentrate a very large proportion of my work on lesson preparation, which was always a stimulating challenge. A feature of my subjects, by the way, was that they were constantly changing (Politics most of all, of course) so that there was no question of merely using the old lessons on and on. Lesson preparation was always needed. Mind you with age and experience one could find and adapt old materials pretty rapidly; it was no longer the same effort in my fifties as it had been in my twenties. This was why I was able to direct a school play or musical fairly frequently. When I was younger I could mark or prepare into the small hours. As I got older and this became impossible I did school work early evening and both days of the weekend. But by then my children had grown up and so that was possible.

I never argued that the work-load justified the holidays. My line to friends who sneered enviously at my summer holidays was: “Well, I chose my profession with care. Didn’t you?” A good part of the summer was always spent doing serious reading, which is undoubtedly essential for teachers who aspire to give good value to the ablest pupils, though what counted as work and what counted as a pleasurable hobby is hard to define. If you don’t enjoy reading serious history books, don’t become a History teacher.

The only marking that I did not enjoy, and resented doing, was internal assessment towards final grades. The reason for this was because there seemed to be no educational value; it was too late. There could be no beneficial feed-back to pupils since this was their final mark for that component of the course. It also annoyed me that the exam boards brazenly passed over a large chunk of their marking to us, and did not pay us a bean. How much better the Scottish Qualifications Authority method, where the History coursework at Higher and Advanced Higher is externally marked.

[Pedant watch. I use History with a capital H for the school timetabled/examined subject and history with a small h for the study of the past. Sometimes the distinctions are blurred.]

Marking for exam-candidate pupils should always be related to the standards required in the exam. I suppose all teachers make a close study of the published marking criteria. Familiarise your pupils with these early on and make sure they take them into account as they write. Perhaps I was lucky that both SQA History and OCR History had well designed criteria. Some of the English, Modern Studies and Politics criteria struck me as less good: there might be vagueness, arbitrariness, box-ticking or rules that penalised the best for the sake of standardisation. If your exam board’s criteria are really poor, seek to change boards. Now that I am a tiny cog in the SQA machine I can see that examiners are responsive to pressure from teachers.

What I enjoyed about senior marking was setting up the dialogue with pupils that developed over the year, trying always to get them to think about what they wrote and how they wrote it. I did not usually put grades or marks on their work until relatively late in the course, though I might say things like “This would surely get a B mark from all but the meanest marker” or “This would probably be in the A/B area – safe A if the conclusion added a bit of value to what went before.” Otherwise comments were personal from me to the individual always, as I say, with an effort to get more thought, better methodology and better prose.

With pre-examination years (and I was lucky enough to teach P7 as well as S1 and S2) I made it clear from the start that one of our main aims was to develop writing skills (and thinking skills and reading skills; but they were rarely marked), and that they way to improve a skill was to practice. So they did a lot of writing. In fact my junior English classes would usually hand in some piece of writing, sometimes very brief, after every lesson (we also had quite a strong home-work regime: that’s for another blog-post). This did create a huge volume of stuff to get through, and I did, over a long career, try to work out ways of marking it effectively without the process detracting from other aspects of my work.

The first aim was to encourage them to go on and write more, preferably with purposeful optimism, next time. In extremis (I hope not too many former pupils are reading this) I might merely skim a routine piece of work in order to put a tick at the bottom and some such comment as “Well done to tackle this task so interestingly. Next time do try to stay more focused on the set title”. I was careful not to do this too often to the same class, but I found that getting work returned “by return of post” was so valuable that it was worth marking sketchily in order to achieve this.

When I made the time to mark junior work “properly” my most important principle was to include some praise and some suggestions for further improvement. In about 2006 we had visiting expert on a CPD In Service Day who encouraged us to mark with “Two stars and a wish”. I was able to glance smugly at the Deputy Head, because he knew this had been my strict departmental policy for over twenty years. (It was one of only two strict departmental policies I had. The other was that members of the History department were forbidden to teach boring lessons.) We had no marks, grades or orders. Many of our junior pupils produced work of outstanding quantity and quality for no other reward than a favourable comment, and pride in something well done.

Also, all our junior work was done in jotters, so that the dialogue with the pupil really could build up over the year. I could look back, and so could they. I might say: “If you look back five pages you will see I urged you to check the spellings of “parliament” and “government”. Why have you not done this?” also the nature of the comments would be tailored to the personality of the pupil. I remember one frail but muddled child whose page headed ”The Monk’s Day” was for some reason completely blank. I put “Not a very interesting day”. On the other hand later in the year, as one got to know the chancers, a comment might be: “Three lines in 20 mins is not acceptable. I know you can do more than this….. or else.”

I did make it a personal rule that I never assumed a child was being lazy until there was irrefutable evidence. I think this is really important. An able child who gets away with being lazy for a few weeks has suffered no serious educational damage. A child who has tried hard, but produced little, may be badly set back by harsh comments.

As for those important “nuts and bolts” of English, the trick is to get pupils to keep practising doing them better without causing those who find them hard (and it is rarely for want of trying) to think and write less, so as to make fewer mistakes. This is a matter for constant judgement in individual cases, and compromises.

Everything I have written here makes it sound as though all my marking was wonderful. It wasn’t. I had bad days like everyone else. Also my recent memories are of those relaxed days when I had been able to give up taking a games practice (Oh those hours spent umpiring the 3rd XI on a Saturday!) and my children had left home for University. It was possible to take a stack of jotters to a cafĂ© round the corner from the school and mark and doze in a comfy chair with a mug of double-shot latte and a chocolate slice. My more distant memories are of marking till 2 in the morning while rocking a cradle and after coming in tired from “coaching” thirty eleven year-olds how to pass a rugby ball. Happy days!