Saturday 10 November 2018

Teaching World War One, and thoughts on history non-fiction. Moira Butterfield

How can we educate children about the conflicts of the past? I saw a wonderful example last week when I visited Wells Cathedral, just to mosey around, and I came upon something amazing – a really great example of education. A stunningly laid-out poppy display (see pic below) led up cathedral stairs to a Chapter House. I noticed that the display made everyone who saw it stand stock still for a moment and stare speechlessly, but once in the Chapter House there was something else really outstanding to see. It was full of the work of children from local village schools around Somerset.  They had produced art and information displays based on their research on the impact of World War One in their own villages. The names on the memorials they passed by every day had been made real for them as they had researched and imagined what it would be like to be people from their village during the war. What a clever way to spark their imagination and get them really engaged in history. The work was of a very high standard, and the pupils’ strong response to the topic shone out. I didn’t take photos of their work, but if you happen to live in the area do go and see it.

The poppies leading up to the display in Wells Cathedral Chapter House 

Apropos of this, it’s National Non-Fiction Month in November and that’s a very good thing because the Federation of Children’s Book Groups is focusing on some of the great non-fiction that we are lucky enough to have out there. It’s in the limelight at last and that’s all good, but there’s one non-fiction book strand - British History – which appears to be on its way out. It’s dying due to lack of money from schools (they can't afford to buy the books) and the punitive economics of trying to produce books that don’t sell internationally (the small print runs have become miniscule). I once wrote a lot of educational history books specifically for the UK curriculum, but the fees involved are now just too low to pay for the time needed for research and writing, and there is so little investment that one cheap or free photo per spread is the only visual element allowed. The designer must do everything fast – meaning each spread is done to the same template. The results are not dynamic. 
It’s a shame because kids trying to find facts by surfing the internet won’t get the benefit of an author sifting history for examples that will spark their imagination. But that’s the way of the economic world, and perhaps self-publishing could be the direction to go for British non-fiction children’s authors who want to explore UK subjects such as the Celts, the arrival of the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, or the impact of history in their local area, for example. 

It’s important for children to know, is it not, that we were once connected by land to Europe - that we are a mixture of many peoples - that we have had refugees before - that the conflicts of the world do touch us….Well, you know all that full well, being authors, and thank goodness some of our number have written great historical novels. There is an international market for those, and they seem ever more vital. 

In the meantime, here’s hoping for a re-invention of kids’ non-fiction history books in the UK, using a model that’s financially viable as well as engaging, and hats off to those teachers who helped the Somerset village children to engage so well with World War One, and to Wells Cathedral for mounting the display so beautifully.

Moira Butterfield has written a number on children's non-fiction books. Her series FOUND!, for Franklin Watts, was her way of getting children to engage in curriculum history - by looking at real archaeological finds they could relate to. 
Twitter: #moiraworld
Instagram: #moirabutterfieldauthor 

Keep up-to-date with National Non-fiction Month by searching for the Twitter tag #NNFM 


Joan Lennon said...

Let me recommend Gill Arbuthnott's newly launched A Secret Diary of the First World War for the 7-10 age range - absolutely excellent!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thank you, Joan! I'll look that out.

Penny Dolan said...

Good to see Non-Fiction here, although I feel sad about the "international sales" effect on what could be viable topics.

(Moira, I think those folders of reproduced historical documents were called Jackdaws.)

Moira Butterfield said...

Jackdaws! Thank you Penny. I’m going to look for some now!

Stewart Ross said...

Excellent piece, Moira. Thank you. It raises a million questions, such as what do we do about the serious lack of teachers with history degrees in primary schools? Yes, it does matter because when history is not taught properly in school - ie a search for objective truth and not simply looking at the past to reinforce current thinking - it is replaced by myths, fed from tv and movie drama, that distort the past for reasons of entertainment or political gain. Shakespeare did it in his day and Spielberg et al do it today. What they do is not wrong, but it's dangerous when there is no counter-balance from historians. The first books burned by dictators when they seize power are history books...