Thursday, 6 April 2017

Junior Cycle History Classroom Based Assessments: Some Ideas

The new Junior Cycle History curriculum features two Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs), both of which are designed to facilitate the student in attaining "the big picture" and understanding history in context.

A Young Life in Time (Europe and the Wider World)
Towards the end of Second Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on the life of a young person who lived in an historical era in Europe or the wider world. All that is known about this assessment for now is that students must explore the young person's life and experiences through research, and report on their findings. The report can take a number of formats.

The Past in my Place (Ireland)
In the second term of Third Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on an aspect relating to the history of their local area. Local libraries, archives and interviews will likely form the bulk of the research for this assessment. Like A Young Life in Time, the students will report their findings to the class through one of a variety of formats.

Both of these assessments are to be subject to a SLAR review meeting.

On first impression, these CBAs seem promising. It's well past time that the History curriculum promoted the exploration of local history, and A Young Life in Time opens our lessons up to people from times and places that might otherwise have been ignored by the curriculum. Both CBAs will help students develop their research skills, and both can enhance the learning experience for our students. However, they present as many challenges as they do opportunities, and the limitations of each have been of concern to teachers.

Since the draft curriculum was released last week, teachers have been giving their views on all aspects of the proposed course, including the pros and cons of the CBAs. In particular the Cork HTAI has had lively discussions on both Twitter and Facebook.

How big is the picture?
One of the driving points of Junior Cycle History is that students should come to understand the people and events they learn about in a broad context, "the big picture" in other words. It seems odd, however, that the CBAs have so many limitations. One of the most prevalent concerns voiced by teachers about both CBAs is that after the first few years, originality will be replaced with repetitiveness as students begin turning in the same topics over and over.

For A Young Life in Time to remain original and varied, teachers will need to provide resources on a variety of eras so as to avoid an influx of young Romans modelled on the same lines as the existing People in History question. Likewise, teachers could easily find themselves dealing with the same local history topics year and year for The Past in my Place. There's also the concern that this CBA would end up being conducted primarily on revolutionary times.

If we strip the CBAs down to their bare bones, they are both presentation-based assessments. The content is up to the students within the framework provided, so why not just expand the framework? Leaving Cert History students must learn three case studies for the Document-Based Question in the exam. The case studies, which are proscribed, change every two years.It's not a grand change, for sure, and the case studies are never "new", but if we're in the business of reforming then why not think big?

A few days ago I made a somewhat idealistic suggestion for a solution to get around the limitations of the CBAs. I don't claim sole credit though, Kilkenny Presentation's Dan Campion and no doubt others who have thought the same thing.

Why limit the CBAs to just two topics? If they are assessed as presentations, we should be able to add more variety. The following is just an idea, itself with its own potential problems, but one that would go some way towards preventing some of those limitations. I have added ideas from other Cork HTAI teachers, with names attached.

The CBAs would be held at the same time (one in Second Year and one in Third), and would still be divided between the two strands (one would be linked to Ireland, the other to Europe and the Wider World). Instead of the CBAs being the same tasks every year, we could instead change them around every two years. Below I've made a list of alternative CBA ideas, some my own, some from other teachers, and some adapted from other elements of the curriculum.

There would be six options from the list below - three relating to Strand Two (Ireland, and three relating to Strand Three (Europe and the Wider World). Students would complete one of each. Given that school and class sizes can vary so much, I would leave it to the teacher's discretion whether to allow their students to choose individually, or to choose one each as a group.

Interview Project:
Format: Students would have to undertake research by interview. They could interview an elderly person about social change or an aspect of local history. Their findings can be backed up with further interviews conducted with local historians, archaeologists, community archives or museums.
Strands Involved: All three - a project such as this would help to develop students' research skills as described in Strand One. The content generated by these projects would probably relate more to Strand Two (Ireland) than Strand Three (Europe and the Wider World) but it would be possible to bring the latter in depending on what kind of experiences they research.

Art and Culture:
Format: Students would conduct research on a particular event or figure in the history of art and culture. The default era for this project would be the Renaissance, but we should have resources to promote other eras and artistic endeavours as well, not to mention other cultural events. The field is wide open on this one, which could lead to questions about what constitutes a relevant artistic or cultural event in history. In this case, the same criteria we use to judge Leaving Cert RSRs should apply. This project could also allow cross-curricular links with Music and Art, not to mention providing a link to Leaving Cert Art History for students who choose to study it.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Life for Women:
Format: This project could take a number of forms. It could take a similar approach to A Young Life in Time wherein students would investigate the experiences of women in a particular time and place. Students could also choose an individual historic woman who would not appear on the curriculum, for example Joan of Arc, the Empress Matilda or Amelia Earhart, and women who only ever get a mention, such as Queen Isabella. Obviously one of these ideas focuses more on powerful and influential women than on ordinary life in the context of a time and place, but for now I'm just throwing both ideas out there.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Format: Students could research the causes, course and consequence of a particular battle at any point in history. Like the two ideas above, this one is wide open. Ideally we would avoid the world wars and the Irish independence struggle, since they would be the default choices. For example, students could pursue a project on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and link their findings to their learning on the Romans.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Impact of a Movement:
Format: The draft curriculum contains a learning outcome requiring that students examine how a movement or organisation contributed to historically significant change in Ireland. The Labour movement, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement, the IRA (both in 1916 and 1969) and the Catholic Church all come to mind, but if this learning outcome were to be co-opted to a CBA it could be opened to include other parts of the world too. Needless to say, the possibilities are endless.
Strands Involved: The learning outcome relates only to Strand Two, but it could include Strand Three.

International Organisations:
Format: The draft curriculum also features a learning outcome in Strand 3 requiring that students will reflect on the role of an organisation such as the UN or the EU in relation to human rights, peace and co-operation. This could easily form the basis for a CBA. It would also link in with CSPE.
Strands Involved: This one would pretty much only concern Strand Three.

Format: Strand Three will also include content on technological developments. Most likely this topic will be similar to the existing "From Farm to Factory" section on the Argicultural, Transport and Industrial Revolutions. It is possible that developments from other eras could be brought in to this, but a CBA on this topic would allow students to research and make a presentation on technological developments and their impacts from the discovery of bronze to the development of ICT.
Strands Involved: Strand Three is the more likely strand for this one, but ancient Irish civilisations could bring Strand Two in.

Modern Genocide:
Format: Strand Three also requires students to explore the causes, course and consequence of a genocide in the history of Europe and the modern world. The Holocaust is the foremost example, and students should absolutely learn about it. This CBA might work more if mixed with the above idea on Conflict.
Strands Involved: Strand Three.

Famous Photo: (suggested on twitter by @KenneallyEmma)
Format: Students could research the history behind a famous picture or photograph. There's a lot of potential in this one - the 20th century is full of famous photographs of defining moments. Students might also look at how photos can be used - Stalin and his frequent editing of photographs could come in here.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Myths and Misconceptions:
Format: There are plenty of common misconceptions in history. Did Emperor Nero play the fiddle while Rome burned? Did Christopher Columbus discover America? We'd have to be careful with this one, and keep it to the same standards as the Leaving Cert RSR. Students could investigate the origin of the myth, the impact it had, and the truth behind it. If done well, this would make for an interesting presentation.
Strands Involved: All three would be involved in this one. Research skills would be especially important.

Post-Office Political Figures: (suggested on twitter by @MsBrowneHistory)
Format: The 2015 Higher Level Junior Cert paper threw some people a little when it asked students what post Mary Robinson held after her presidency. While some textbooks do mention it, Robinson's post-presidential career doesn't actually appear on the curriculum. She's had a very active career since, however, and she hasn't been the only one, and that's not to mention other former world leaders through time.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Format: This idea would be dependent on any centenaries or anniversaries taking place. For instance, if the new course was in place already, a CBA choice could be announced wherein students have to research an aspect of the Russian revolution. In 2019, students could research an aspect of the Troubles. In contrast to most of the other ideas above, this one would be proscribed rather than open.
Strands Involved: Either Strand Two or Three, depending on upcoming anniversaries.

Demographic Change:
Format: The Cork HTAI had a very active discussion on Twitter yesterday on the learning outcome in Strand Two which requires students to recognise the effect of demographic changes such as settlement, migration and plantation. At first thought, this covers the Normans, the Plantations and the Famine, but students could also conduct research on migration from West to East (in a link with Geography) or the history of minority groups in Ireland - the history of the Travelling Community is something which should definitely appear in this new course.
Strands Involved: Strand Two.
Most Influential Person/Event: (suggested on twitter by @angelicboyne)
Format: Students would select a particular person or event which they believe has been the most influential (whether in the context of a time or place or possibly a broader context) and through their presentation they would have to justify their choice.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Modern Events: 
Format: We don't yet know when the date parameters for the new History course will be. The existing Junior Cert course wraps things up around 1990-1. In the nearly 30 years since then, there have been a huge number of historic events. Of course, there's a good reason we don't cover current events in History class, but if a date parameter of, say, 1990 - 2010 was set for this CBA, students could choose an event or a prominent figure from that time. They would then explain its historical significance, its relation to historic events in the curriculum (if applicable) and its causes, course and consequences (if applicable). This CBA has the potential to link in with other subjects, and would help to promote the understanding that History isn't just things that happened to black and white people a long time ago - it's constantly with us, and what we see in the news today will one day be studied by future students.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other. 
What we need
For any of these CBA ideas to work, we would need clear instructions, clear parameters, and clear assessment guidelines. It is great that there is scope for teachers to be creative and to bring new and interesting facts and topics to the classroom, but at a very basic level we all need a structure from which to operate, and for Junior Cycle History to be the success we all want it to be, that structure has to be free of vague elements which may cause confusion.

Like I said, all of the above are just ideas - they each have their own pros and cons. The more ideas we have, the better. With teachers working together to help shape this new course, the end result will hopefully be something we can all undertake with optimism and excitement.

If you have any ideas for CBA possibilities which don't appear above, please share them in the comment section below!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Junior Cycle History: Challenges and Opportunities

It's been a few days now and we've had a chance to start digesting the draft specification for Junior Cycle History. I posted my initial thoughts about it on Monday evening, and after looking at it some more and discussing it with other teachers both at work has thrown light both the good and bad sides of the new course. My own personal view on it is that it ha a lot of potential, and if it's implemented well the subject can take on a new life. However, at this early stage, it's better to be cautious and so I've identified more challenges than opportunities. What do you think?


Downgrading History?
The new History course will be Common Level, as well every other subject except for English, Irish and Maths. The prospect of so many subjects being examined at Common Level has drawn concern from teachers since it was first announced. I try not to be cynical, but it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cost-cutting measure. Differentiation is something all teachers have to work with, and every teacher has learned different approaches and strategies for differentiating classes since their training. While I can understand a desire to do away with the supposed segregation of students into different levels, the fact remains that no subject is for everyone, and not every student will have the same aptitude for each subject. Seeing as the "big three" subjects are being kept at Higher and Ordinary Level, there is obviously a recognition within the powers that be that differentiation is necessary, so why is it being thrown out for History and other subjects?

This has been the most prevalent criticism I have heard of the new course, with nearly everyone I've spoken to voicing concern over it. However, if teachers want to challenge it then that challenge will have to be cross-curricular. If something will have a negative impact on one subject, that impact can travel to others - like cross-curricular dominoes.

One of the criticisms of the Common Level move is that is a symptom of History being downgraded as a subject. History teachers have been reacting for years now to the possibility of History ending up with a lesser status in schools. A few years ago I wrote a piece advocating the importance of studying History, and I stand by everything I said then. The authors of the specification write very eloquently about the relevance of history in our lives, and why it's vital that students understand their place in it. If this is the NCCA's view, then it needs to be reflected in their actions.

Photo from
The English Experience
My English-teaching colleagues have, like so many of their colleagues across the country, been occasionally baffled and bewildered by the new Junior Cycle English course and the manner in which it's been rolled out. Confusion over the Classroom Based Assessments and what exactly merits a "merit" has been an unnecessary burden on teachers who have been trying their best to facilitate the new course specification while also ensuring that their students are able to achieve their best. It's understandable that History teachers might express some apprehension about how Junior Cycle History will be implemented and how our two Classroom Based Assessments will play out. Until we know more details about the structure of the course, all we can do for the time being is hope that the DES and the NCCA have learned from the "first day" setbacks that have befallen English.

A Young Person in Local History
One of these Classroom Based Assessments requires students to research some aspect of their local history. This is a fantastic idea and long overdue, and if it's done well it can do a lot to enhance young people's knowledge of their local heritage. However, the danger with something like this is that, by 2030 say, teachers will end up dispassionately correcting the same kinds of project over and over. For instance, a student in Killorglin might do a project on the town's former railway, which would be quite interesting. The next year, another student does the same thing. The next year, another student chooses the same topic again. After all, even in the most historic towns, there are only so many things one can write about.

It would be unfortunate if the potential of this particular assessment ended up going to waste. There's not really a lot the NCCA can do about it, but teachers can take some measures to try to keep things interesting without drawing too much work on themselves. If schools linked in with local history and heritage groups, libraries and museums, plenty of opportunities for variety can hopefully be found. It would be worthwhile to make these links anyway in order to explore the local history ourselves. Not only might be find interesting topics for our students to work on, we might also find links to topics within the course - you might work in a plantation town, or have a portal dolmen nearby.

History does tend to turn up pretty much everywhere. (Photo: Flickr)

The other CBA, A Young Person in History, could potentially fall victim to the same problems. If this assessment is to be successful, then teachers must be supported with the right resources to help students understand the vast amount of possibilities for that choice, or else we end up with the same few over and over again.
The Mechanics
Strand One of the new course is all about developing students' research skills, both analytical critical, with the aim of helping them to see the broader context of events and people in history. Once again, this is a very welcome element which should have been introduced long ago, but it will only be successful if the details of this Strand properly support it. The last thing we need is something similar to our current "Work of the Historian" section in First Year, which teaches students the meaning of bias and propaganda, but doesn't really go into any more detail than that. We need a course that really does emphasise these key skills, and which allows for various exercises to help develop these at the same time that we make our way through the course's content with the students. The benefits of this are obvious for the study of History, and it also helps students develop important literary skills.

Of course, this is still just a draft. A lot of specifics are as yet unknown, and will be shaped by the consultation process following the draft's publication. The Junior Cycle English Pre-Examination was held in schools across the country with no sample marking scheme to be found, leaving teachers unsure of how to correct the exams. We're resourceful, but we can't come up with marking schemes and standards individually. If the CBAs are to be successful, we will need specific guidelines for their operation and their assessment.


Women in History
The outgoing Junior Cert course focuses very heavily on men and male figures throughout history. This isn't the Department of Education's fault, of course. So much of history has been dominated by men. However, throughout various sections of the course, women still end up getting short shrift - only a handful of textbooks make any real mention of, say, what life was like for women in the Middle Ages. Sample People in History answers for hypothetical people (as in, people from named civilisations rather than actual individuals like a named explorer) tend to be written from a male point of view. There is only one section of curriculum dedicated solely to women, and that's a subsection of broader topic.

Prominent women in the last century of Irish history.

The learning outcomes in the draft specification specifically mentions "the changing role of women in 20th century Ireland", which is certainly important, but that is the subsection mentioned above. We'll have to wait for a more detailed specification to make a full judgement on how much the lives and experiences of women will feature on this course, but luckily it does allow us opportunities to bring these experiences in by ourselves. The local history assessment is wide open in that regard, as is the Young Person in History, for which students have to research and make a presentation on the life and experiences of a young person in a historical setting of their choice. Needless to say, there's no reason girls can't be the focus of this assessment. Like I've said above, it's very important that students are shown the huge variety of choices they could make for this assessment - using the assessment to explore the lives and experiences of women in history is one avenue through which this could be done.

Archives and Interviews
What history teacher wouldn't want their own archive of historical sources? Encouraging students to go out and interview people who can tell them more about the past is something we should all be doing, and it's good to see that this element is featured in the specification. It might take a while but just consider what we can all do with a collection of interviews and other sources gathered by students over time - they can inform future lessons, shape future projects, and enhance the students' experience of learning not just the history of their local area, but of the whole world. The study of history can begin right in the home with a family tree. From there, students can learn more about how people lived in the area. From there, they can explore why circumstances in a certain time were as they were, and from there the broader context. Inevitably some sources and interview material will correspond with the course content. If all goes well, the archives will become one of the most valuable resources we'll have.

Causes and Consequences
The existing Second Year syllabus heavily focuses on the causes and consequences of various moments in History. In this new course, students will be required to learn the causes and consequences of a genocide in modern history (the Holocaust being the given example). While learning the causes and consequences of events which took place centuries ago can be remote, perhap this element of the course might give students a better understanding of how certain events can come about and how they can affect future events. Given that we are living in a time of considerable change, this is a very important lesson for them to learn. 

We Can Have Our Say
The consultation survey for teachers and other parties to give their views on the specification is here. Whatever your concerns about Junior Cycle History, please do fill out that survey and voice them all. If, like me, you have a lot of hopes about it that you don't want to see dashed by poor implementation and supports, write them down too. Hopefully, when the revised specification is released, it will allay a lot of our concerns and will help us to understand in more detail the elements of the course and how it will be assessed. If everything falls into place, then we're set to have an interesting and engaging time doing what we do best.

Monday, 27 March 2017

"The Big Picture": First Thoughts on the Junior Cycle History Draft Specification

The draft specification for Junior Cycle History has been released by the NCCA. It will take time for History teachers to get a complete sense of what changes it will bring, and the long and sometimes complicated language of these documents can sometimes get in the way. For now I've put down in my own words my understanding of the new course and my thoughts on what it will mean and how it compares to the now decades old Junior Cert course.

The Rationale of Junior Cycle History
The status of History in Junior Cycle has been a frequent subject of conversation over the last few years, with recurring rumours and reports that History was to be downgraded as a subject. Whatever the future holds, the authors of the draft specifications made a very good case for the study of History, defining it not simply as the study of the past but the exploration of the human experience over time and how that experience has shaped the world we live in today.

The big new keyword in the draft document is "the big picture", by which the authors mean the students' understanding of major patterns of change over time in a global context, coming to understand how and why history is characterised by 'eras' or 'ages'.

A stated aim of the new course is to deepen the students' understanding of the human condition through the development of their historical empathy. It's easy to judge people in history by our modern day standards (something one of my lecturers once dismissed as "presentism") but people throughout history and the decisions they made can only really be understood in the context of the time and place they lived, and it is by those values that students should try to understand them.

In order to help students achieve these aims, Junior Cycle History looks set to place a big emphasis on an area which got the short shrift in the old curriculum - key research skills and critical thinking.

The Course and Content
There are three main strands in Junior Cycle History:
  • Strand One: The Nature of History
  • Strand Two: Ireland
  • Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
Teachers of Leaving Cert History will see right away that the course has been made to align with its senior cycle counterpart, though it's not yet clear if they will be studied as two distinctly separate strands as they are in Leaving Cert, or mixed as they have been in the old Junior Cert course.

Strand One is interesting, however. Not intended to be a separate strand studied before the other two, it is instead meant to be studied in tandem with them, as the skills students should develop through it should inform their learning in Strands Two and Three.

For years, First Years have learned about primary and secondary sources and the problems one can encounter when studying them. However, that treatment is brief and its relation to the rest of the course depends on the attentiveness of the textbook and the teacher. It is in this strand that historical empathy is featured, as is the importance of examining controversial or contested issues from more than one perspective - while maintaining a grounding in facts and evidence.

As before, students will learn about bias and objectivity as well as assessing the importance and usefulness of sources, something that isn't properly done until Fifth Year under the current system. Students will also learn about the provisional nature of historical judgements and how they can sometimes be re-evaluated when new evidence comes along - to give a minor example, it was generally believed that the Titanic sank in one piece in 1912, despite some witness statements. It wasn't until the wreck was discovered in 1985 that we abandoned that idea.

Chronological understanding is also emphasised as part of helping students develop "the big picture".

Strands Two and Three are each divided along three elements:
  • Key moments of change
  • People, culture and ideas
  • Thinking historically
Pages 23-26 of the draft specification outline some of the learning outcomes expected of students, using the three elements as categories, similar to how the Leaving Cert course arranges things in terms of Politics and Administration, Economy and Society and Culture and Religion. I won't copy and paste the outcomes here, but I will jot down my own speculations about the content of the course from reading through them.

Strand Two: Ireland 
  • Irish artistic and cultural achievements (possibly similar to Ancient Ireland in the old course)
  • The importance of religion to historical development in Ireland (Early Christian Ireland, the Reformation)
  • Demographic changes such as settlement (Ancient Ireland, the Normans), migration (the Famine), and plantation (that one speaks for itself).
  • Rebellion in pre-twentieth century Ireland (1798 Rebellion, and others?)
  • The Famine and the role of the diaspora in other parts of the world (this links in with the little-studied Leaving Cert topic about the diaspora)
  • Rise of nationalism and unionism in early 20th century Ireland (no change from the current course, except it specifically mentions tracing the emergence of unionism, so perhaps a more in-depth exploration of unionism will feature, allowing a study of the Irish independence movement from different perspectives). 
  • Debating the idea that the 1960s was an important decade on the island of Ireland (Seán Lemass, Social Change, Northern Ireland)
  • The changing role of women in 20th century Ireland (as in the old course)
In an example of an old feature being used to promote something new, there is also an emphasis on using archaeology to understand Irish history using local examples where appropriate (see Classroom Assessments below).

Learning outcomes also include studies of individual Irish people who achieved distinction in various fields of human endeavour, such as culture. This seems similar to the current People in History format. Students must also examine how a movement or organisation contributed to historically significant change in Ireland and contribute to a class archive on family or local history by contributing to a repository of interviews, artefacts, family trees etc.

Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
  • Investigation of the lives of people in a civilisation of their choosing (similar to Ancient Rome/Greece/etc. in the current course, but hopefully with more real variety this time!)
  • The experiences of people living in medieval/feudal times (as before, but with more detail?)
  • The Renaissance (as before) 
  • Migration, conquest and colonisation (The Age of Exploration)
  • The historical importance of religion and its contribution to historical events (Reformation)
  • The causes, course and consequence of a revolution in pre-20th century Europe (as before)
  • The rise and course of fascism and communism (the old course focused on fascism with small cameos from Josef Stalin)
  • Technological developments (the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, with perhaps more modern developments given a mention too?)
  • How political tensions can lead to war (World War I, World War II, the Cold War)
New features explore certain aspects of modern history in more detail. Students will explore the causes, course and consequences of genocide in the history of Europe or the wider world (e.g. the Holocaust). They will reflect on the role of an organisation such as the UN or the EU in relation to human rights, peace and co-operation, and they will also debate the importance of the 1960s in a European and global context.

Students will also illustrate changing patterns observed in the study of a theme relating to life and society across different time periods. The examples given include crime and punishment, food and drink, and fashion and appearance among others.

These new features seem quite interesting and engaging. Creating a class archive allows History to be a properly collaborative class. Reflecting on the roles of supranational organisations and genocide can help develop the students' research skills and hone them for the Leaving Cert Research Study Report. The examination of themes over periods of time allow students to study history through the lens of their interests (sport, music, fashion etc.). Along with the local history study promoted in Strand Two, the new course comes across as far more immersive and engaging than the old one.

Classroom Based Assessment (CBAs)
I won't go on for much longer, but the last important aspect to note for now is the Classroom Based Assessment. The assessment is split into two parts:

A Young Life in Time (Europe and the Wider World)
Towards the end of Second Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on the life of a young person who lived in an historical era in Europe or the wider world. All that is known about this assessment for now is that students must explore the young person's life and experiences through research, and report on their findings. The report can take a number of formats.

The Past in my Place (Ireland)
In the second term of Third Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on an aspect relating to the history of their local area. Local libraries, archives and interviews will likely form the bulk of the research for this assessment. Like A Young Life in Time, the students will report their findings to the class through one of a variety of formats.

Both of these assessments are to be subject to a SLAR review meeting.

Conclusions... for now
This is, of course, just a draft. However, if I'm being honest it's a lot better than I was expecting. Given the ongoing difficulties surrounding the provision of CBAs and the roll-out of Junior Cycle English, I was wary about what shape Junior Cycle History would take. More than anything else I feared that the subject would be watered down, as some reports and rumours hinted it might be. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Between now and May 5th, teachers and other interested parties can take part in the consultation on the draft specification, which can be found here.

This is a course with great potential, but so was CSPE when it was first envisioned, and that subject's twenty years of life have not turned out particularly well. In order for this new History course to be a success, the commitment to deepening the students' understanding of research and history has to be kept. The commitment to fostering critical thinking has to be kept, with the skills involved being developed at the same time that the students are learning new content. There are a lot of questions over this new course being Common Level (as will all other subjects except for English, Irish and Maths), but that's an argument for another day. The rollout of Junior Cycle English has been problematic, to say the least. We can only hope that lessons learned from that experience will make History's transition an easier one.

Early on in the document, the authors say that "hearing and telling the stories of people who lived in the past helps students to understand more about how people live today, and can help students to learn from the past in thinking about how to address the problems of today." Given that our world is full of problems which have their roots in the past, this sentence is probably one of the most important in the entire document. Whatever shape our History course takes, it has to be a course from which students will genuinely learn and develop. It has to help them understand the world in which they live, and how it came to be the way it is. Hopefully, this new course will help us to do just that.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Primary Sources: Life in Cork During World War II

While rooting around today in search of something, I came across questionnaires I had put together as part of my own Leaving Cert History project (before the current curriculum and RSR). Though I ended up doing my project on Felix Dzerzhinsky (of Soviet secret police fame), my original idea was much more local, as I wanted to write about what life was like for people living in Cork during the Emergency years.

It didn't work out, but as part of my research I had given questionnaires to my grandmother and her brother. They lived on Green Street in Cork City at the time, and both were quite young (6 and 13 respectively in 1939) but their memories do paint a revealing picture of a community which felt very many of the impacts of war even though we were officially a neutral country. I've decided to reproduce them here, since they won't serve any purpose just sitting on a shelf. They might be good for document-based questions, as well as context when teaching about the Emergency in Junior and Leaving Cert.

The questionnaire was filled out in March 2003.

Do you remember when you first heard the war had broken out?

"The war started in September 1939. I was on a bus coming in to the city from Douglas on a Sunday morning and the conductor was telling the people that England had declared war on Germany. I was 13, and it didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. The other passengers really didn't know what to make of the news either, not realising what the next six years was going to bring."

"I would have been about 5 to 6 years old at that time. I can't remember how I heard the war had broken out but I had three brothers and my first cousin were in the Royal Air Force. One of my brothers was in the Middle East (Palestine) as far as I can remember, and my first cousin who was 18 years old was killed and is buried in Palestine."

What was your main source of communication (e.g. radio, newspaper) regarding events in the war? How often did you find out about new events?

"News of the war was scarce at the time. Newspapers were our main suppliers of news but they did not give the full news as parts of the paper were blacked out in case it gave any information to the Germans."

"Newspapers and radio would have been our source of information, and I suppose when the boys wrote home they may have said something too. I can remember being told that all letters were checked but I don't know if that was true or not."

Was there a sense of community? (e.g. did people in the neighbourhood often speak about the war?)

"There was a lot of hardship in Ireland. Work was scarce so lots of men went to England to work and join the forces and work in the factories. Most families in Ireland had someone away in England during the war. There was a lot of women and girls went as nurses. A lot settled down and got married and raised their families in England. In the Forties they introduced rationing. Half an ounce of tea, half a pound of sugar... everybody got a book with coupons in it and it was so many coupons for each item."

"Yes, our neighbours would have spoken about the war with my parents since my brothers and others in our neighbourhood were involved and I can remember going to school at St. Maries of the Isle and we would offer prayers for the safe return of our brothers."

What was the atmosphere at that time at home, in the street, and in general?

"Things were fairly quiet around Cork at the time. Money was scarce and people just made the best of what they had, which was tough on the poor who had to make do with a cup of substitute coffee with a boiled sweet floating in it, dark brown bread with lumps of boiled potato mixed into them. Those with money were able to buy on the black market so they didn't feel the pinch as much."

"At home, pretty frightening in case any of my brothers or neighbours would have been killed. When my first cousin was killed we as a family with my mother went to my aunty's house and all the neighbours came to the home. There was a lot of tears shed, and when Sean's belongings were sent home, the house was full of people again, and presents from him were shown to the people. It was a very sad time for all concerned."

Do you remember anything else about the war that you have not already written down?

"Lots of things got very scarce, such as bananas, oranges and other fruits, all disappeared until after the war. The government bought a few ships and they done great work going to Newfoundland and bringing home supplies of white sugar, candles and things which we could not get at home, everything helped to keep us going. There was a lot of men and boys joined the Irish Army, they worked hard digging turf because you could not buy coal at the time, so they done great work."

"I can remember ration books, when we went to the shop for our messages there were stamps taken from the ration books for tea, sugar and butter. These foods were very scarce. There were nine children in our family so what we got did not last too long. Also neighbours were very close at that time, we would get our groceries mid week and would share with another neighbour and she in turn would pay it back at the end of the week when she got her groceries.
I can also remember gas was rationed, so we would use candles and night lights, which were also very scarce, and that was my job looking for candles which took a lot of time after school going from shop to shop.
I can remember going out to play with my friends one day and a plane passed over and I just ran home again, I thought they would have bombs on board. I was so frightened.
I remember air raid shelters were built, one was built near the Garda barracks about 10 mins walk from our house, and also every member of each household was issued with gas masks."

Monday, 13 March 2017

Project/RSR Ideas: Bunreacht na hÉireann

Stuck for a project idea? Every time I come across something interesting I'm going to post it here to help people in need of something good to research.

Picture from
If you've looked at Ireland Topic 3: The Pursuit of Sovereignty and the Impact of Partition, then you will have learned about Éamon de Valera's efforts to dismantle the Anglo-Irish Treaty during the 1930s, culminating in his government replacing the old Irish Free State constitution with the new Bunreacht na hÉireann, which is still in place as our constitution today. One of the most interesting things about our constitution is that it can be changed through holding a referendum. The last time this happened was in 2015, when the people of Ireland voted to amend the constitution to ensure that same-sex couples have the same right to marriage as opposite sex couples. Last Sunday, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that we would have a new referendum this year, this time to decide whether Irish people living abroad should have the right to vote in presidential elections.

The drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann was supervised by de Valera himself. The document was a clean slate - the old Free State constitution had been changed so much by de Valera that a new version was needed anyway, but he also wished to give the institutions of Irish democracy a more Gaelic Irish feel - so the President of the Executive Council became the Taoiseach, for example.

Throughout the drafting process, de Valera consulted with Fr. John Charles McQuaid (the future Archbishop of Dublin), ensuring a Catholic influence on the document. However, de Valera stopped short of making the Catholic Church the official state religion.

Bunreacht na hÉireann was put to a plebiscite (a special kind of referendum) and was approved by the people of Ireland in June 1937. It was enacted six months later and has been in place since.

If you are interested in writing your project on the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann, UCC historians Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy have a weighty book on the subject entitled The Making of the Irish Constitution. However, books concerning de Valera, McQuaid and Irish society and history in general in the early 20th century will also be of great use.