‘Mr Keet on Location’ – creating documentaries as a History Teacher

“What do you do in the holidays?” Thanks to Jacob Keet, History Teacher at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex, for sharing his film clips – getting big stories and concepts across to students in an engaging way. He picks up the important theme of engaging students with history around them and helping them to be curious about how the past connects to the present. 

Battle, Hastings.  May, 2017.  My patient wife, seven-months pregnant, stands in the summer heat. She is adjusting the lens on my new (well, second-hand) DSLR camera.  It’s vitally important that she gets both me and the wooden effigy of the Norman knight in shot.

‘One more take, then I’m going’ she says.

‘Ok,’ I say, pleadingly, ‘I promise this time I won’t forget the words.’

There is a sigh.  The camera rolls.

‘The reason why William of Normandy had gathered such a large invasion fleet was…’

‘Forgotten?’  My wife looks on, exasperated.

‘Lost my flow.  One more time and I’ll get it right, I promise!’  I reply, not mentioning that Harold Godwinson may have made some rash promises in his lifetime too.

This was the first episode of my Youtube series, ‘Mr Keet on Location’, filmed at Battle and completed, fortunately, without an international conflict taking place. As a history teacher of six years, I have always enjoyed visits to historical sites: the exploration, the sense of place, the enjoyment of standing in the shadow of momentous events of the past. When I can’t go myself, the ubiquitous Snow family, Lucy Worsley and Robert Bartlett, to name a few excellent historians, have created inspiring documentaries that make History all the more exciting to study and teach. However, the demands of term-time, exam preparation and extra-curricular activities increasingly place constraints on our ability to get outside of the classroom. Existing documentaries are sometimes very lengthy or less relevant to certain aspects of my teaching than I would like. So, the last two years have seen me camera-in-hand, determined to make my own mini-documentaries about historical locations and, occasionally, current events, to bring the excitement of the History trip into the classroom.

The impact of this on my students has been two-fold. My initial intention had been to use the videos in class to supplement my teaching. For example, I filmed a tour of Castle Acre in Norfolk to help me teach the Norman use of the Motte and Bailey castle. The neighbouring Castle Acre Priory features in another episode, used to illustrate the consequences of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I used these videos in conjunction with written sources and maps that I had put together on these places, allowing my students to explore the site both through film and in the historical evidence relevant to our enquiry. More recently, filming at St Andrews in Scotland, I created a longer video on the Scottish Reformation. I haven’t shown this in class, but use it as something to point students to who want to find out more about the context surrounding the Reformation in Tudor England (their current topic). Another video, Who killed William Rufus? begins an enquiry, laying out three key suspects that the students can investigate (and challenge) before reaching their own conclusion. These films have all been fun to make, allowing me to learn more about each topic while pursuing a hobby that I enjoy.

More significantly for me, however, has been the reaction of students seeing their History teacher actually visiting historical places. Students have begun to return from holiday full of tales of their own visits to museums, castles, living history events and other locations. Of course, some did this already, but my YouTube series has created a focus for discussion before and after class. Students seem much more enthusiastic about sharing their stories, even offering suggestions for videos that show their own thinking about historical problems and their own points of interest in History.

Making videos also conveys my passion for History to students and shows it as a living, vibrant subject that stretches far beyond a few hours a week in school. Appearing excited about the mystery surrounding William Rufus’ death (see Episode 7) or investigating the power of protest at the recent Extinction: Rebellion protests in London (Episode 8) has led some students to ask me about these topics in lessons. These are my favourite moments as teacher, those instances when a child’s mind comes alive with questions about the past or seeks to better understanding the present.

The use of video to stimulate historical enquiry is something that we should all be thinking about as History teachers. How often, after all, do we, or those we teach, consume what is shown on a screen? Making a mini-documentary about a topic that you love is a great way to engage students and to get them to begin to think more deeply about an area of History (not to mention to develop your own subject knowledge in making it!). Dan Moorhouse has provided 12 excellent suggestions for the use of multimedia in the classroom from classic storytelling to the promotion of local history.  Sally Burnham has also stressed that film-making for students is an excellent way to foster the development of verbal explanation and self-reflection. With a camera, research and some enthusiasm you can create a History trip of your own and bring it right into your classroom. Just make sure that you tell your spouse/significant other/camera crew your real agenda for that planned weekend away at the Medieval Abbey.

My latest video on the death of William Rufus can be found here.

Do get in touch if you have a great idea for inspiring students that builds on the past of great history teaching you can find recorded in the pages of Teaching History

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