Monday 16 December 2019

Students make history by writing their own book

Inspectors have praised teaching methods at Castleknock College. Kim Bielenberg reports on the school's innovative approach.

Making history: third-year students Andrew Rogers, Adam Kaiser, Cian Clancy, Tommy Troy, Daniel Waldron, and Maalchy Prenderville, with teacher Tom McGauley in the Vincentian library at Castleknock College
Making history: third-year students Andrew Rogers, Adam Kaiser, Cian Clancy, Tommy Troy, Daniel Waldron, and Maalchy Prenderville, with teacher Tom McGauley in the Vincentian library at Castleknock College
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

While controversy continues to rage over the status of history, teachers in many schools have been busy giving the subject a new vitality.

The government's plans for the Junior Cycle would make it an optional subject in many more schools.

Teachers fear that it is being downgraded and that generations of students could grow up with little knowledge of key historical events.

The outlook may be uncertain, but in some schools the subject is thriving: students are involved in a range of projects linked with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and teachers are using innovative techniques to spark interest in the subject.

Tom McGawley, history teacher at Castleknock College in Dublin, also credits the revised syllabus introduced in 2006 for giving the subject a shot in the arm.

"Before then it was a dying animal," says Mr McGawley. "The new syllabus reinvigorated the subject and made it more interesting for students."

The Department of Education recently carried out an inspection of history at Castleknock, and its report is glowing in its praise.

According to the inspector's report, the quality of teaching at the fee-paying school ranged from "good to excellent".

So what are the qualities that make Castleknock College stand out?

Tom McGauley, one of a team of six history teachers, says: "When the Leaving Cert syllabus was revised we saw it as an opportunity to give the subject a boost.

"We try to get the students involved in a range of activities both inside and outside the classroom.

"We are fortunate in our location in the grounds of an Anglo-Norman castle and we make the best use of that."

Students at the school go on excursions, ranging from an annual visit to the walls of Derry to trips to Flanders.

The subject department in the school holds a History and Arts week in the spring with special tours, exhibitions and quizzes.

"Having the History and Arts Week is good PR for the subject, because that is the time of year when students are making their subject choices."

Interest in history is not confined to the subject teachers in the school.

In Transition Year, a Maths teacher Derek Mulvany is running a course where students are producing a book on the First and Second World Wars. Other teachers are also involved in the project.

As with similar initiatives across the country, there is a strong emphasis on local sources.

The book focuses on past pupils at the school who fought in the World Wars, and each student is writing about one of the soldiers.

Tom McGawley says: "We are very fortunate in that we have an annual publication, The Castleknock Chronicle, which goes back to 1888. It is a trove of historical information, including dispatches about soldiers at the Front."

The Inspector's report praises the school's use of collaborative learning methods. Students are encouraged to work on tasks in groups or pairs.

Typically, the students might work together on a poster illustrating the main points in a historical document. Students might interview each other about their work, and make a presentation. They also collaborate on research on the internet.

Tom McGawley said he had changed the layout of his classroom to make this type of learning easier.

"Now the students would be in clusters with six tables for four. When we're covering a topic, each group might be asked to look at it from a different perspective.

"If I find that a particular topic is not interesting the students, I try to change the format. I think it helps to get the students involved as much as possible. Chalk and talk is a thing of the past.

"We are building up a database of useful YouTube clips that can be used to illustrate events."

The enthusiasm for history at the school seems to be bearing fruit. The number of Leaving Cert pupils studying history has grown from 20 to 50 in recent years.

Other teachers of history across the country are also embracing innovation.

Fintan O'Mahony, a teacher at Scoil Mhuire in Co Tipperary, encourages his students to use social media.

Mr O'Mahony says: "Sometimes when students are researching a topic, I would ask them to gather information and post Tweets about it. The class has its own Twitter account.

"This kind of approach can be useful, particularly for poor readers. Some students can find text books too word heavy."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News