Why I started Learning for Memory

The past year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. First I was training to be a history teacher, then I was not. Having invested considerable hope, expectation and time into my dream of becoming a teacher, it was a huge disappointment when that journey came to an end. I was initially hopeful of getting back on the horse fairly quickly, but a look at the available history teacher training in my area soon dispelled such hopes. Even if I managed to get on another course, it was likely to be more of the same and not the kind of environment where I wanted to grow as a teacher.

For a long time, I investigated different directions to take. While I pondered these issues, I filled my time with a pet project which had germinated as a result of my experience working in various inner London secondary schools. Before starting to train as a teacher, I had been a Learning Support Assistant working preponderantly in history lessons. I was struck by several things:

  • The shocking lack of knowledge of the students (except for a minority of boffins) and their poor understanding of the historical periods being studied.
  • How little was being learned in the fast paced lessons that revolved around activities such as card sorts, completing answer sheets or watching videos.
  • How much history was being distorted to make it relevant and engaging (I have a particular memory of a rap style song called ‘fleas on rats’ which got the whole class moving but not particularly learning).
  • How little reading and writing was being done in lessons.
  • How much poor behaviour was having an impact on the amount being learned in lessons.
  • How few students were able to write coherently, in grammatically correct sentences.

I became increasingly convinced that lessons should be stripped of gimmicks and kept to a more simple formula of reading, discussing, writing. Having seen the KS3 textbooks on offer, I thought there was a definite gap for the kind of book I wanted to write. A book that embraces narrative, tells the story in a captivating way with lots of authentic detail (using sources, not for practising source analysis but to help paint a fuller picture) but is also conscious of the questions that are asked by historians (those second order concepts). In particular, I wanted the narrative to address cause and consequence because to me, those are the most interesting types of questions in history. Why did something happen? What changed as a result of that event? Those kind of questions help us to answer, or attempt to answer, the greater question “How did we get here?”

I also wanted to write a book that could essentially provide fully-fledged lessons for busy teachers (many teaching outside their subject specialism) and especially new teachers like me who were being overwhelmed with workload. Finally, I also wanted the book to include writing exercises to help develop better writing skills. In this, I was much inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s book ‘The Writing Revolution‘. So I set about writing this book. My initial ideas were a bit garbled and I think I was probably a bit premature in contacting other people in the history community about it – it would have been nice to have had some responses but I guess at that early stage my ideas/writing had not evolved enough to truly do justice to the vision I had in my head.

Nevertheless, I plowed on. The more I delved in, the clearer the picture emerged of what kind of book I needed to write. I enjoyed the process tremendously. One of my greatest pleasures was reading works of historical scholarship and anotating them with various yellow post it notes for me to reference later. By now I had started working in another school as a TA/cover supervisor, having decided to switch to the primary sector. I wasn’t sure which direction I was heading in with my career but I wanted to keep my hand in the classroom. By day I would go do my bit, but my evenings belonged to me, and I continued with my writing. Writing on your own, without editorial help, can be a trifle lonesome, but it also gave me a tremendous feeling of ownership and freedom. This was my work entirely. I could shape it into whichever direction I wanted.

As time went on, I started to think about how I would publish my book. I looked at the various publishers recommended to me, but I could not see how my work would fit in with their portfolios. Moreover, it seemed a difficult proposition for me, an unqualified teacher, to put myself forward as a school text book author. I resolved to self-publish, and this gave me even more freedom to just write the book I wanted to write. I even stopped worrying about how it would be received. I was writing the book for me, for the teacher I had tried to be. And I am pleased with the final result. Of course, I keep identifying bits I would like to tweak, but overall, I’m very pleased. If I could be in a KS3 classroom again, in a school where behaviour was taken seriously, I think I could really get my teeth into doing the kind of teaching I’ve always wanted to do, using my book. However, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. It’s ironic that in a time of chronic teacher shortages, I see no feasible way for me into history teaching. But I hope what I’ve written can be of use to others.

Over time, the book has morphed into booklets. Some copies from my limited first print run are still available for purchase here, and I’m open to also selling digital downloads to interested parties, who might want to print the booklets in-house (I can be contacted via the website about this). I’ve also provided a whole host of add-on resources (knowledge organisers, multiple choice questions, teacher notes) as free downloads on my Learning for Memory website. I do believe these could be valuable resources for many teachers, particularly novices.

And now I’m turning my thoughts on to my next booklets. I initially thought I would go on to do one on the Wars of the Roses, followed by a set of booklets on Tudor England. However… I’m loath to leave the Middle Ages behind. My thoughts are turning towards doing a booklet focusing on everyday life in the Middle Ages (including looking at the lives of women) and I’m conscious that by jumping to the Wars of the Roses (as many school curricula do after finishing the late Middle Ages topics such as the Peasants’ Revolt), we miss out on those critical early steps of the English parliament, the Provisions of Oxford and so on. So I might do a booklet looking at the development of parliament in the Middle Ages. I’m thinking aloud, as I’m wont to do, but please do contact me with any suggestions you may have for what I should tackle next.

 

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