Try Tim Wright’s creative approach to the analysis of written sources with your students, and see their understanding blossom…
Why Teach This?
How do you get pupils to read sources carefully? Analysing written sources of evidence effectively is a key historical skill but it does require pupils to engage with the detail and nuance of a source. This activity encourages them to use their artistic skills and historical imagination to focus more intently on written sources. Pupils will be familiar with the idea of civil war from the news but it can be hard to equate those images with the more distant English Civil War, with its jaunty tales of dashing Cavaliers clashing with dour Roundheads. Yet it was, of course, a traumatic time for the British Isles and this activity tries to bring the realities of the Civil War to life. It was a war of skirmishes, sackings and sieges as much as the famous set-piece battles and by looking at a range of sources in one lesson, pupils can begin to develop this ‘big picture’ understanding of the Civil War. Pictures and film clips are invaluable in bringing history to life but we would be doing our pupils a disservice if we did not try to encourage them to see how written sources can be even more revealing, shocking and dramatic. I have used this activity with A level students studying the OCR source enquiry unit on the English Civil War and Interregnum but also with Year 8 students as part of a unit looking at warfare across history; the sources can be adapted to make them appropriately challenging to different students and there is plenty of scope to be flexible with the focus of the lesson and the questions you ask of them.
When I’m using this lesson to teach about the impact of the English Civil War, I start by putting the William F. Yeames’ picture ‘And when did you last see your father?’ up onto the screen and asking students to come up with a caption or title. This can be used to introduce the idea of how the impact of war extends beyond the battlefield – as well as setting them up for drawing their own picture by reflecting on the power of images. The picture also offers scope for teasing out prior knowledge of the Civil War.
The exact number of sources used will depend on the size, age and abilities of the class but somewhere between five and eight should be manageable while offering enough variety to give a broad picture of the war. I’ve used ‘The English Revolution (Advanced History Sourcebooks)’ by Barry Coward and Chris Durston (John Murray, 1997) to get a selection of sources, adapting them when necessary. I ensure there are descriptions of battles, sackings, sieges (an extract from the pamphlet on the 1648 siege of Colchester, Colchester’s Tears, is particularly vivid and might allow some reflection on whether the conflict grew more brutal as it dragged on) and also a couple of descriptions of the looting and attacking of homes and houses. To add a British context, a source describing an event in Scotland or Ireland could be used too. Each source is then stuck onto the bottom of a piece of sugar paper and given to a group of students – about four seems to work well – who are then told to ‘draw the source’. They are told that they must only draw things that are mentioned in the source, though they might use their historical knowledge and imagination to make some inferences about, say, what soldiers or houses might look like at the time. Dictionaries are provided to help with any tricky words and they are also told to give their picture a title. The teacher’s role at this point is to circulate and ask questions to ensure that they are reading the source closely. Once each group has made a reasonable attempt at drawing the source, they pass their picture on to another group. They are then told to annotate the source by linking phrases or words in the source to things they can see in the picture. They might also note down any questions they have about anything in the picture, or may add something further to the drawing if they feel something has been missed. The final stage can be adapted depending on the focus of the lesson. If you’re looking at the nature of the conflict in the Civil War, you might get a third group to choose three words to sum up the source. These words can then be pooled and compared to make some general conclusions about the Civil War. On one occasion, for example, the predominant words that were chosen to sum up a source describing the battle of Marston Moor were ‘confusing’ and ‘smoky’ and this led to a discussion of the importance of smokeless gunpowder in later wars and, more widely, to the impact of technology in wars. Or if the focus is more on analysing sources as evidence, the third group looking at the source might circle/highlight/annotate anything in the source that might make them question how useful the source is for finding out about the nature of the conflict. The language and provenance of the parliamentary pamphlet of 1643 that describes the sacking of Birmingham, entitled ‘Prince Rupert’s burning love for England, discovered in Birmingham’s flames’, gives plenty of scope for discussion of the value of propaganda (and for an Elvis impression, if you are in the mood).
The completed pictures, full of annotations by now, can be displayed on the wall as if in an art gallery (giving some scope for cross-curricular discussion about which artist’s work they most remind you of!) This can then be a focus for a summary discussion, the nature of which would depend on the learning objective chosen.
As this task can focus on the impact of war, an empathy task might be suitable - a letter or a diary entry from one of the people who might have been in one of the sources used – though this will depend on whether you think students have sufficient prior knowledge to do this convincingly. Alternatively, if the focus is more on analysing sources, they might be given a fresh source and asked to write a written response to a question such as: ‘How useful is this source to a historian wishing to investigate the nature of the conflict in the Civil War? They can, for example, use their knowledge from the class activity to discuss the ‘typicality’ of the source they are given.
About the Author
Tim Wright is head of history at All Saints Catholic School, Dagenham (allsaintsschool.co.uk).
Take it Further
If you’re following a course of study on the Civil War, this activity leads well into discussions about issues such as the rise of neutralism towards the end of the war as well as prompting some thoughts about why it might be difficult to reach a settlement after the war. In a more general study of warfare, comparisons can be made with the nature of the conflict in other wars. Or the follow-up might be more skills-based; using the memory of the activity to help them select key phrases and quotes from a written source (without drawing it!) The general style of the activity can be used in different contexts too and on a smaller scale. As a starter activity in a lesson about whether James I was a good king, for example, I’ve got students to draw a picture of James I based on Anthony Weldon’s rather unflattering description and used this as a hook into exploring James’ rule.
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