Two academic subjects taught at all levels of education that share more than the odd similarity are History and English literature. Diaries written centuries ago are not seen purely as items of historical record, but also as literary works of significance in their own right. Celebrated playwrights and novelists such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer et al don’t just tell us fanciful tales of star crossed lovers, impoverished workhouse boys or stories of a cross-country pilgrimage. They also paint a vivid and lasting picture of what life was like in the times they were writing.
These works of fiction can help provide an element of colourful context to the more date and event driven content that faces students learning history; likewise an appreciation of the national and global events learned during history lessons can lend a touch more insight into the minds of the writers when studying their works from a literary perspective.
Poetry from the battlefield
The collision of English Literature and History is arguably at its most powerful, poignant and provocative during times of war, especially when the words themselves are penned not from the safety of afar, but from the frontlines.
Around this time every year a new year group of children will read and hear for the first time the works of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and other wartime poets. Their words are not only fine examples of iambic pentameter, but also first hand historical sources that describe the life and death of soldiers in the trenches during World War I.
Contextual learning is a powerful tool available to teachers, and more and more UK schools are now embarking on Battlefield Tours to give the students an opportunity to experience both History and English literature in a new light. A post last year from the tesConnect community talks of how visiting the military graveyards and war memorials of Northern Europe can give students an appreciation of how these events didn’t just occur on the pages of textbooks, but how they were endured by real people, often not a great deal older than themselves, who sadly never saw the end of the war.
In a strange irony, it is through this acknowledgment of death that the poems, events and turning points of history can come to life in the minds of students. Our educators are now in a position whereby they are able to ensure that those who never returned home 100 years ago are not just classroom statistics taught to show how many lives were lost during The Great War, but also illustrate how many lives were lived. It is for this reason that every year we wear the poppy, as a symbol of remembrance.
If you are a teacher wanting to breathe life into your history classes this November, then tesConnect has a fantastic collection of resources dedicated to Teaching The First World War.