History of Christmas Lessons

bannedThis is a Snowman, Elf, Grinch free zone. Put them back in the cupboard or in your bag. They are to watch in the holidays with your family.

This is your one opportunity to teach a bit of history about a fascinating topic – Christmas. Christmas has a rich and weird history and as history teachers we should embrace this.

Below is a link to four of my history lessons on Christmas. One is a Puritanical Christmas for those of you who are teaching Cromwell or the Civil War. Another looks at an agricultural 18th century Christmas and requires a full staging of a Mummer’s Play. The third is a recreation of a Victorian Christmas party, with crackers, cards and decorations galore. The last is an austerity Christmas during the Blitz. Enjoy!

Kenradical Christmas Lessons

Bah humbug!

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A very Victorian Christmas

Sally Thorne has pointed out that some of my links to posts I did for Hodder are not working. Importantly a link to a post about teaching a Victorian Christmas lesson. As this might be useful to a few of you I’m going to paste it all below:


It’s December and Christmas is around the corner and term is fast coming to an end. Like other teachers I like doing something fun at the end of term but don’t see the point in showing the Snowman to a bunch of kids who will have seen it a million times before (although it is undeniably genius). So this year, like previous ones I am going to teach the a Christmas history lesson where the kids will actually learn something as well as having fun thus achieving two goals in one hour.


The history of Christmas as a tradition is fascinating. Essentially a midwinter feast which looked little like our modern day extravaganza  until the Victorians changed everything from trees to crackers to cards. Therefore this is where my inspiration began a couple of years ago and I’ve been tweaking my ideas ever since.


All my lessons are framed around an enquiry question so this lesson should be no different, so working on the Victorian theme, I use “What do Victorian Christmas traditions teach us about values and society in the 19th century?” It’s Christmas so it needs to be fun, therefore despite my fear the lesson has a bit of role play around the theme of a Victorian dinner party. Here’s my lesson plan, I’ve not included resources as I don’t have copyright over the images but they are easy to find:


Starter: Immersion

Set up the room so all the tables are squished into one big table across the room. On the IWB put a slide of Victorian Christmas party and the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is playing. As the kids enter read a bit of Dickens’ Christmas Carol and don’t explain what is happening. The kids will freak out a little which is fun.



Task 1: Teacher Introduction

After this ask the kids where are we. One bright spark should say Victorian Britain (hopefully) and use this as a way to introduce the fact that Victorians created our Christmas traditions. Explain that today we have 30 minutes to set up a Victorian Christmas party.


Task 2: Setting up the party

Split the class into four groups and give them one of the following jobs.

  • Crackers – Using coloured paper this group will need to make about 10 crackers with jokes and hats inside. It doesn’t matter that there are no bangs!

  • Carols / Entertainment – This group need to use the internet to find two carols to perform (choose kids who like performing!) and some Dickens to read.

  • Tree Decorations – Using coloured paper this group need to make tree decorations that can either be put on a tree (if you have one) OR just draw a tree on the board and get them to stick the decorations on.

  • Christmas Cards – Google search and print off lots of Victorian Christmas images and get this group to try and make one card for each student.


Task 3: The party

I normally buy some mince pies and after the 30 minutes get the students to sit down for the party (after clearing up). As a group you can now share Christmas cards, pull a cracker and listen to some entertainment, whilst eating a mince pie. This need only take 10 minutes as its all that’s needed and can be a little chaotic.


Plenary: Discussion

Explain that we weren’t doing this just for a laugh. We are trying to learn something. Introduce the enquiry question and let the discussion begin. In previous years I had kids saying things like “the Victorians must have had lots of money to be able to do this”, which is nice as it can lead to further questions of why? and what might this lead to?


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The power of the obscure – engaging A-level students with the bizarre and wonderful

I’ve heard Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley talk about the power of the particular twice this year. They’ve argued that effective historical enquiries often start with a very particular story or event or individual. Something small that is easily tangible for the student, something that illustrates the wider history and makes it very real.

In this they are, as ever, totally correct. But I’d like to offer an addition to the power of the particular – the power of the unusual or obscure. 

At A-level I teach the Soviet Union, 1941 to 1991 which can, at times, be dry (I’ve never found a Five Year Plan interesting) so I have been trying to build in some particular stories to hook them and engage them. For example I introduced WW2 through the story of a single soldier’s account of Stalingrad. This in itself worked ok.

But the really good A-level learning this year has come from the obscure. Particular stories are great, but those stories which are really odd and alien to modern day teenagers are the ones that have generated the most discussion and as a result, the greatest outcomes.

Here’s two of the best:


The Nachthexen

The Nachthexen (a German nickname, in English meaning Night Witches) were the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs.

This was used to discuss Soviet attitudes towards women, the idea of mass patriotism and Total War and the fact that the Soviets had pretty much total unity in their population.

Belka and Strelka

Belka and Strelka

After Sputnik the Soviets sent numerous animals to space. Although Laika was the first dog in space, she met a grissly end. Whereas Belka and Strelka boldly went where no man had gone before…and returned. Here they are being shown off as they became Soviet heroes, appeared on stamps, went on tour and were extremely cute.

This led to a discussion about Cold War politics, Soviet economic priorities and a question of superiority over the US.


The power of these unusual stories has been impressive. The weirder things are the things that the kids remember and putting in these unusual stories has meant that the students have a hook for the rest of the less interesting material. For example, Belka and Strelka really are the epitome of Khrushchev’s economy – showy but ultimately not that impressive. Secondly, in themselves they are great pieces of sense of period, revealing lots about the society they come from and illustrating the past and making it come alive. Thirdly, they’ve made lessons fun again!

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Teaching GCSE History effectively

Below are all the resources for a session I delivered to the University of Bristol History PGCE course on Friday 18th October:

GCSE Presentation

Slide 4 task – GCSE Specs

Slide 5 task – GCSE – matching KS3 to GCSE

Slide 6 task – NEW GCSE Spec

Slide 12 task – Textbook

Slide 14 task – Balloon Debate

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Using real historians to create engagement

I am a stronger believer in using quotes and arguments from real historians to make students realise that history is a living breathing, dynamic subject as all too often they think history is the dry learning of facts and dates.

Teaching Oliver Cromwell this week I wanted to avoid the over-used ‘hero or villain’ lesson so decided to use Ronald Hutton’s quote about Cromwell as the lesson hook or enquiry:

Cromwell was about 50% saint andWe began by unpicking Ronald’s argument and discussing what exactly he meant. Then we did a card sort of facts about Cromwell, looking at good and bad aspects of his leadership. After I brought back the Hutton quote and said that we were going to engage in a bit of historical debate and that I wanted them to write about whether they agreed with him or not. They loved this as they thought they were really part of the historical debate.

This became a whole lot more engaging though when I said that I knew Ronald (he used to be one of my lecturers at Bristol). The students were bizarrely impressed and thinking on my feet I told them that if they worked hard I would send the best to him immediately after the lesson. Instantly the kids saw this as a challenge and worked really hard to produce some really great conclusions, two of which are below (I love the first one who changes the quote!):



I kept to my word and after the lesson I emailed them to Ronald, who has now responded! I am genuinely excited to show my Year 8s this next lesson!

Hutton Email

Clearly what was a passing thought this morning that I would use Hutton’s quote to help my lesson has paid off.

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A History Manifesto – Stuff the levels!

I’d like to say this was my idea but it isn’t. It’s my friend Andy’s idea. But it’s a good one so I thought I would share.

Sat in a pub one dark and dingy night last year Andy and I were sadly discussing the traits of a good historian. The conversation began with one of our geekily favourite questions – “stuff the levels what do you want our kids to know and do?” (ok we used a different word than stuff but you get the idea). After an ale or two we had a long list of content, skills and random things that we passionately believed should be present in our teaching and their learning. In essence we’d made a manifesto for our classrooms. Finally Andy posed a different question “Have you ever told your students this?” and I was stumped as if I’m being honest I don’t think I have.

Why hadn’t I done this? Time constraints? Pressure to cover content? Who knows. Either way that question and it’s obvious answer plagued me. How could my students achieve what I wanted unless I explicitly told them?

At the TeachMeet I organised in May Andy presented his idea and suggested that every teacher should have a manifesto that they explicitly share with their students. His manifesto can be seen on the Bristol Schools History Forum website. There and then I decided I would start the new academic year with my own manifesto.

And that’s what I’ve done this week with all my classes from KS3 to KS5. I told my students what I wanted them to be. My manifesto is below:

KS3 Manifesto


If you can’t work it out I’d like the students to have the following:

  • Passion for history – Pepe
  • See the minute detail – microscope
  • See the bigger picture
  • Weigh up evidence to reach a conclusion
  • See there are different interpretations and views
  • Curiosity – the cats
  • A predominant knowledge of British history but an understanding of how this fits into a wider global history

What the impact of this is I will have to wait and see but I certainly believe it was worth doing. It showed my students why I am passionate about my subject and gave them clear goals to achieve.

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Timeline overviews

Two problems:

1. I’m bored of answering the question “What is the date of…?”

2. I want my students to have a greater sense of how the history we teach fits together chronologically

A solution (hopefully):

Provide students with an overview timeline that is stuck into the front of their exercise books so that they can take responsibility for dates and see on one page how our different units fit together.

Here’s my Year 8 one…

Year 8 History Overview


And a Year 9 one…

Year 9 History Overview


And one for my GCSE class…

Unit 1 Ancient Medicine


Here’s the PPT files if you’d like them to tweak and use yourself:



Unit 1 Ancient Medicine

Year 8 History Overview

Year 9 History Overview

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