Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.


Comic Life and changing life in Germany 1933-1939: an update.

Today was the day students used the Regional Training Centre MacBooks and Comic Life to create the display/revision guides for changing life in Nazi Germany. Overall, I was pleased with the end product and the historical thought that went into the process of creating the pages. However, there were a few issues:

  • Lack of time meant that I could not show the students all the features they might need. When I do something like this again, I’ll make sure I give enough time to go through the program properly.
  • I did have to cajole them to think historically more than I wanted too. I think they were really excited by the activity and the technology and this detracted from the thinking process somewhat. As the lesson went on, many went into their books and notes to make sure they were using the correct information and they were making sure that the images they were using were appropriate for the subject matter. I firmly believe that when we use Comic Life again, concentration will be at the level I usually get from them as the ‘newness’ of the activity will wear off.

There were minor issues and they will be addressed. However, I thought the first attempt was pretty stunning and conveys the concept of change fantastically. What do you think?

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Cabinets and the Weimar Republic: Understanding complex narratives in Year 10 Modern World History

A cabinet. Not full of politicians.
A cabinet. Politicians not included.

Whenever I teach Nazi Germany as a topic at GCSE, I dread going over the political changes in 1932 and 1933. The simple reason being that the students find it very confusing and I find it frustrating having tried a few ways (invariably involving the staple timeline activity) to make it ‘click’ for them. The time was coming up to go over this topic with a new group and I really wanted the students to get to grips with it. After staring at the textbook and trying to think of exciting activities within the time I had (always a problem), I remembered a presentation given by Oliver Knight at Cambridge Uni a few months ago on how to create a classroom environment where English language learners could access History as a subject. Oliver used one simple but effective technique. He had produced pictures matching the events of the narrative and gave them to the students. As they listened to the story, they would move the pictures into the correct sequence. At the end of the story, they had to retell the sequence of events using only the pictures as prompts. Would this technique allow my students to access the complexity of the political deals made during the last days of the Weimar Republic?

Using the prompts from the text book, I got a number of images to represent the main actors (and a picture of an actual cabinet to represent the Weimar political cabinet which they all loved amongst the various Weimar politicians). I cut them into small portraits and gave a set of around 10 images to each group. After we went through the information on the pages and I emphasised key points, I got the students to close their text books, sequence the pictures together and to retell the events using the pictures as prompts. Our Teaching Assistant (who is a wonderful woman and not because she is married to my Head of Department!) and I went around to check understanding. I was a little surprised by the result. The majority of the students could remember the sequence and tell me the story of what happened whilst a few got the sequence right but the story slightly muddled. The class helped to correct the mistake and for an activity that used pictures, listening skills and was completed in about 15 minutes, I was impressed with the result. They enjoyed the challenge of trying to come to grips with this complex political narrative.

I then wheeled out the ‘faithful’ task of the timeline to make sure they had the events covered so they could answer a cause and consequence exam question. Groans emanated from the class but they were purposeful in constructing their lines o’time.

Maybe I have cracked my Weimar problem. I guess I will find out from their answers to the examination question and when we look at the topic again in a few weeks, but I am hopeful.

I will, of course, put it all down to the use of the cabinet.

Cabinet image by Tom Raftery @ Flickr

Front image by Sarah1rene @ Flickr

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Wikis, literacy and knowledge production.

Hans J Massaquoi with a Nazi Swastika on his jumper
Hans J Massaquoi with a Nazi Swastika on his jumper

I have successfully managed to put off writing a blog for a good few years. Too many things to do, self-indulgent etc. However, a recent conversation with a fellow teacher (Dai Barnes) made me change my mind. I mentioned some of the things I was planning to do in my lessons over the next few weeks over twitter. Dai, being the supportive soul that he is, said I should log the process so other people could learn from it. So this is what I have decided to do!

I always wish I could get my students to read more History. I may have cracked it with my A2 class (as they have been set a book to review) but generally it does not work with my students lower down the school. We do have a History Book Club and many students join in but I would ideally want the students to get really excited about what they read. A possible solution to this problem came from a conversation with one of my IB students and Doug Belshaw. My IB student told me about Hans J Massaquoi, the son of Liberian father and German mother who lived in Hamburg during the Third Reich and was not sent to a concentration camp. I was surprised. Knowing what the Nazis felt about the children descended from the African French forces in the Ruhr area in the 1920s, how could I not be? When I found the book on Amazon, I was in for another surprise. Amongst the white faces on the front cover was a lone dark face with a Nazi symbol on his jumper. I immediately thought the picture would be a great starter for my lesson on Nazi racial ideas but as I started to read this Swastika wearing boy’s life story, I thought it could be used for something more.  I then did what most people do when they want to find more information – I googled him. There was an entry on Wikipedia but it was  a basic entry with little detail about his extraordinary life. I then thought it would be exciting story to tell my students but a conversation with my friend, co-worker and fellow conspirator Doug Belshaw changed my mind. What if I got the students to fill in the details? They would be reading for a purpose. Result. They would also be writing with a purpose and making a contribution to knowledge rather than just making sure they got full marks on a ‘developed statements’ question. They would be ‘doing’ History.

Doug’s suggestion created more questions, especially in terms of making it pedagogically viable. If there is one thing I have learned when using any tool to get my students to think, it is that I should think about how they will use it to get my desired goal. A key question was how I could manage the process and check that everyone contributed in some way? Moodle came to mind. We are currently running a trial at the school and I have been aching to try out the Wiki tool. This seemed like an excellent opportunity and although it seemed best to use Moodle to create groups to work on the wiki in my class, at the History Department meeting today it was agreed that each class would compete against each other with the winning class providing the entry for Wikipedia. I’m really excited to see what happens. More to the point, my class are amazed. I simply sold it to them that they could be helping people across the world to write their homework tasks on Hans J Massaquoi for years to come. They seemed happy about that. Wikipedia, of course, is the fountain of all knowledge. 🙂

Front image: The Wall of Knowledge by Vanhookc @ Flickr

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