Redressing the balance: trying to make Post-16 history a bit more representative

Thanks to Richard Kennett (@kenradical) for this post. Richard has taken up the challenge of Susanna Boyd in Teaching History 175 and been inspired by Claire Hollis (@CitoyenneClaire) to teach better history at A Level.

Last year I read two articles that really made me reflect on my teaching. The first was Susanna Boyd’s superb Teaching History article  ‘How should women’s history be included at Key Stage 3?’ Boyd argues we should be aiming for an integrated approach to history and provides a cracking example of a Normans scheme of work. The second was a blog by Claire Hollis entitled ‘Seeing the whole board’ where Hollis argues that teaching a more diverse curriculum is not tokenistic but an attempt to teach a more representational spectrum of society at that time and thus better history.

As is normal, both made me reflect on the inadequacies of my own teaching (there are many of these). As a senior leader I have fewer classes than I used to and as a result I often agonise over every lesson. At Post-16 I teach the tsarist and Communist Russia element and, doing my annual tidy up of lessons in the summer, I was embarrassed by the lack of women in my curriculum. In the tsarist Russia bit before 1917 women barely surfaced. In the communist bit they were there but only in the explicit lessons on society as one of the sub-groups. This is partly my own negligence, but the textbook and specification are equally to blame. The specification does not mention women apart from in those society bits. The textbook has only a handful of women included and many of these are just the wives of the significant characters, such as Lenin.

But this isn’t good enough. Firstly, and I think most importantly, it neglects 50(+)% of the population and that isn’t right. Secondly, in the case of Russia, it excludes some absolutely bad ass historical figures who would enrich the course. So this year I am attempting to redress the balance. It is both morally right and, as Holliss has argued, if I teach a more representative past I will teach a better history. Stuff the lack of women in the specification. I know that if I teach a more representative version of the Soviet past my kids will do better in the exam as they will understand its complexities.

To tackle this issue I am attempting to follow three rules:

  1. Women in every lesson

I am starting with a rule that women should appear in every lesson. This is not easy, as I mentioned earlier, the textbooks have neglected them (sidenote – I am not blaming the authors of these books as they wrote them in a rush due to the publication deadlines). To tackle this I have taken the step that if they are neglected then I need to rewrite bits of the textbook. For example, in the lesson on Stalin’s political authority there is no mention of the reduction of the power of women. This is a really interesting addition. The closing of the Leninist Zhenotdel organisation shows how Stalin was twisting and corrupting the Leninist foundations he was building upon. So I rewrote the whole section on political authority (there were lots of other reasons I hated this section in the textbook too) and included the bit below.

Screenshot (299)

I appreciate this is time-consuming (it is) but these are now resources I will be able to use in lessons every year with no further work. And again, it makes it better history.

2. Highlighting key female figures

In my post-16 lessons I like to use the stories of key individuals to illustrate the wider story we have been studying or to show alternatives to the main focus of our lesson. My second rule is to make more of these figures female. For example, this week I was teaching collectivisation. We had learnt about the horror of the implementation with the twenty-five thousanders and the Holodomor and the lesson had rightly focused on the fact that it had been horrific. At this point I introduced this slide:

Screenshot (301)

Pasha Angelina (thanks to Alex Fairlamb (@LambHeartTea) for suggesting I include this) makes the story better and more interesting. She shows an alternative to the main narrative of the lesson. She jars. Students loved hearing this. And most importantly, this is an example that will make them better historians.

I am going to continue to include more examples like this. This is far easier than the textbook rewrite above. It took minutes to include this but the impact was great.

3. More female historians

I use a lot of historiography in my lessons. Most lessons my students are either introduced to a thesis of a historian or set a piece of wider reading. For the Russia course this inevitably leads us back to Figes or Kenez whose writing I really like. However, I don’t want any student I teach to think that history is only written by men. As a result, I am also trying to redress this balance and consciously bringing in more female historians. I won’t do it if I am introducing them purely for this reason but if they also write brilliantly then win-win. Again with Russia this is partly a gift. Sheila Fitzpartick is the queen of Russian history and I love the writing of Anne Appelbaum on the Ukraine.

Moving forward

This is an ongoing project. It is taking time and effort. But I strongly think that it will be worth it. You could argue it is tokenistic. I wouldn’t. I agree with Claire Holliss, it is making better history.

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