Sense of period

I am currently reading the “Time traveller’s guide to Elizabethan England” and am struck by its brilliance at creating a sense of period. Who knew that Elizabeth swore, that beards were de riguer and the Cornish language had all but died by this time?

This has led me to reflect on how I teach sense of period in my own lessons and how rubbish I am at this. I can teach a decent history lesson but if I asked my students about a sense of what people in the past looked like, what were their values were I am pretty sure I would get very little response. And yet this is such an important skill. It aids chronology, it can be used as a hook and it can be used as a base to build knowledge upon.

Therefore with this in mind I am on a mission to increase the sense of period in my lessons. All of my KS3 schemes of work will now open with either a dedicated lesson or dedicated activity to establish some sort of sense of period before we move on to the analysis and other history malarkey. But the question rises of how to do this effectively?

I am currently revising two schemes of work, one on 19th century Britain and the second on WW2 and for both of these I am planning sense of periods activities. For the first I have created a lesson looking at “Who were the Victorians?”. The lesson opens with a speed dating style source analysis where the students have 7 minutes to look at 14 different images from around the room, from Brunel to street urchins to Queen Vic herself. I will then use this to discuss our initial impressions of Victorian Britain. Then from the breadth to the depth the rest of the lesson will focus on the painting Derby Day by William Powell Frith (an idea stolen from Elizabeth Carr’s recent article in Teaching History 146) where students have to pick out individuals in the crowd and make inferences about their jobs and their values. I hope by the end of this hour my students will have a notion about diversity and class divide in Victorian Britain and a better sense of period before we move on to the bigger issues of Empire, impact of industrialisation and public health.

For the Second World War scheme of work this is equally important. Our generation has grown up with WW2 films and our grandparents stories of this time, but our students are the first generation not to have this experience. Therefore I intend to open this scheme of work with a barrage of audio-visual sources to get the kids to understand this time in history and importantly how it differs from the First World War which we will have just studied. So far my list of things includes: Glen Miller playing in the background, images from D-Day, movie clips from Saving Private Ryan, Atonement and Great Escape, Bristol stories of the Blitz. Then tweaking an idea from Ian Dawson’s article on this concept I am going to give the students a picture of a 1940s man or woman and the students will answer the following:

  • What would this person have seen?
  • What would this person have smelt?
  • What attitudes and value did this person have?

This is clearly not going to be my last post on this important topic and as ever I would gratefully receive any ideas you have or have used in your class to teach this fundamental concept.


For the Second World War scheme of work I decided to try something a bit different. I scoured the net for photos and turned them into a slideshow with a Glenn Miller soundtrack. Students will watch the video then answer the purposely vague “What was WW2 like?” at the start of the scheme of work. The video is embedded below:

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One Response to Sense of period

  1. Dave Stacey says:

    This is something I became very conscious of at the end of last year. I shifted lessons and units around to make sure we always talked about life in a particular period before looking at some of the more depth issues. It’s helped, but I still feel like it’s very piecemeal.

    I love the picture sources idea. It reminded me of a Rob Phillips article from years ago about what I think he called the ‘Total History Experience’ – the aim was to get this sense of period from a lesson based only on picture sources. Will need to look it out again.

    This half term I’m going to be asking myself some hard questions about how successful I’ve been this year, and this is definitely one area I still need to work on. Will be building this idea into my planning for next year.

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