Thanks to Andrew Sweet, Head of Humanities at Millfield School, for this blogpost in which he shares practical ideas for Year 6 to Year 7 transition and reminds us that we can set high expectations.
Planning for September! Where do we begin? The variables are considerable and quite daunting right now. The possibilities of teaching remotely or in a socially distanced classroom are hard to work around. How can we plan what’s best for our students? Lots of difficult issues are no doubt being discussed in history department meetings in every school. We are planning surrounded by uncertainty, but in writing this blogpost I decided to focus upon what can be done now, with certainty and that brought me back to transition. It is certain that Year 6 are transitioning into Year 7 and, this year in particular, it might be possible to pick up with classroom teachers from Year 6 and/or to ask pupils to bring work they have done in Year 6 to class and/or to take time to re-plan the crucial first few lessons that set the tone.
As Andrew Wrenn concluded, the transition between primary and secondary history curriculums have not always ‘talked to one another’ as well as they could. I remember spending an afternoon in our catchment primary school one July and, luckily for me, they were being taught history. Sat at the back of the Year 6 class 5 years’ ago, it was a privilege to observe the lesson after SATs. The most remarkable aspect of the lesson was the quality of their verbal responses. They were confidently discussing, and, as Christine Counsell previously called it, wrestling with historical concepts beyond what I had ever expected. Every year we got raw data that told us what Y6 had done, but we never saw it for real, as evidence of what they could do in their actual history books – wow!
The biggest immediate impact of that afternoon, apart from that light bulb moment about how good Year 6 were, was meeting my future students three months before they arrived in my classroom. They now knew me by name (saving getting to know you time already) and I made a point of learning their names. This was subject transition in action. I was able to then plan for September from a point of certainty. As a department I fed back to colleagues so that we knew what the new Year 7 could achieve and we worked on how we could bridge between the two curriculums.
Best of all, that afternoon of observing Year 6 and meeting primary colleagues has changed my practice unrecognisably. I became much more demanding of Year 7. In the last two years, Year 7 have completed 8 enquiries adapted from Richard Kennett’s excellent 5 lesson enquiry Key Stage 3 model. They have sat 12 Ten Minute Knowledge Quizzes, completed 4 connected Meanwhile Elsewheres, a Castles project from a site visit to Chepstow, end of year assessments and incorporated some of Natalie Kesterton’s inspired ‘Plugging the Gaps’ to boot. They do more History than Year 7 did in the past and they really love the challenge and rigour.
Here are a few ways that I have worked on to set the right tone for Year 6 to Year 7 transition, making sure we keep expectations of what students can achieve very high.
Print off their best Year 6 history
In their first (transitional) history lesson of Year 7, my classes are always introduced to historians. Sir Simon Schama being knighted by the Queen for services to History is a great source to link into. We use his ‘What makes good History?’ from page 1 of his ‘A History of Britain’. In the first lesson, we also give every student a printed copy of their best work in Year 6 for them to stick into their new Year 7 book. This sets a benchmark for them and allows me to refer to what they can do. It is, to use David Goodwin’s phrase, “a minimum guarantee” of what they are capable of. Their handwriting, their presentation, the expectations we go through, they are all there on the page. It allows for a continuity of work and a pride that already they have, and will continue to have, ‘best work’ in their book. It’s one of the best pieces of printing I do all year.
The Transitional History Y6 to Y7 History Lesson
At the start of each year, my Year 7 class are given a ‘Hold the Front Page!’ This is an overview of their year with the enquiry questions, number of lessons, homeworks and a quote from a historian. This year it’s Kate Williams on why the Tudors matter. They begin their very first lesson trying to find a “momentous” date each connected to every topic they can see will be part of their future learning. They also have Time Piece Challenge, involving a pile of textbooks and Horrible Histories (all with post its in with clues) newspaper cuttings, students worked examples, even the chance to go into the corridor to look at our giant ceiling to floor timeline that we are very fortunate to have in the department. They then place themselves alongside the timeline in the right order, but it is the process of engaging with the overview of the year that is by far the most useful aspect of the lesson.
After our Year 6 Transitional lesson, we gave them an extension to find some amazing examples of timelines, or other portrayals using chronology. By far my favourite is the Animated Bayeux Tapestry from Potion Pictures which was shown to me by a student who discovered it when doing her homework in 2014. Genius – I have used it every year since. Students enjoy finding the precise dates to fit the animation of 1066, the names of the three 1066 kings, the place Harold fought and (maybe) lost his eyesight(!)
Archiving Year 7 Worked Examples
At the end of each year, I ask a few of my students to ‘donate’ their book to the department. I am sure other teachers do this, but I date the books and use them in class. I show new students worked examples from previous students. This helps students to see what can be acheived and to try to improve upon what has gone before. This work also helps when you haven’t got any other display work to go up in September. I even have examples from years back, that I still reference under the visualiser before setting homework because they are so good. One of my students even asked for her Year 7 book which she had donated in Year 7 at the end of Year 8 so she could have it back to take to her next school to show what she could do. That surprised me. It is good that students are thinking about their work and what they can do building across years.
History as debating the past
In their first lesson I teach my Year 7 students that history is an ever evolving subject. In Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, recently reviewed in an OBHD blogpost, he argues that “the problem is that our view of history diminishes the reality of the past. We concentrate on the historic event as something that has happened and in so doing we ignore it as a moment which, at the time, is happening” To take this a step further, our students tend to think that history is fixed. A quick way to change their minds is to find a relevant history article in the news that week. A discovery works best. In the past few years we have used new finds at Pompeii, the Terricotta Warriors and even the opening of the Russian archives, to show that with every new discovery, our understanding of history changes. Said simply, that is why historians write new books. They find more, think in new ways and devote their lives to new histories and that’s pretty exciting isn’t it. Just this very week The Times ran a super piece on Stonehenge which has set up the hook for next year’s first lesson.
Meet the historian
Meet the historian is my way to introduce scholarship from the word go and has been heavily influenced by Tim Jenner’s presentation at SHP in 2019. In his article, the history classroom lending library in TH 172, he points out that “sustained, careful work from the beginning of Year 7 is the only way to build a culture of all students engaging with high quality texts.” We have made a ‘Scholarship Corner’ of historians’ books and we first use them in our transitional history lessons. For example, Schama’s History of Britain is taken out on our first enquiry on what makes good history. Dan Jones comes out on the Crusades and Marc Morris on the Norman Conquest and we will be adding the latter’s much anticipated (by me) Anglo Saxon book this year. The books are full of post its left by previous students. Getting used to working with historians helps them be keen to take up other opportunities. Last year, a few of my Year 7s were able to go to the Chalke Valley History Festival to meet historians like James Holland and Peter Frankopan. This was a real highlight for me to see my students asking questions and taking part in workshops by historians that they had already heard of and read about. (Ed: OBHD free historians for your classroom post!)
Bridging the divide
If you can find your pupils Year 6 curriculums, referring to what they did last year with their teachers can be very powerful. Asking questions on topics you know they have already studied in great depth, sometimes more than we have at Key Stage 3 (the Tudors is often one) can help them retain knowledge and make conceptual links. We need to tap into their prior knowledge rather than think of Year 7 as the start of their history learning. We also need to find ways to help them connect their knowledge. One way is to use something like the Netflix documentary, History 101 to help with this. It offers the chance to find a short, relatable history topic that links something students have studied in primary school with a topic they are going to study. We have, in the past, also used the history of our school, a local castle, a history of shopping and this year we are drawing on our School’s House names for inspiration. Our particular School House names will enable us to help students to more contextual understanding of the Norman Conquest. We’re going to work with Heads of Houses to make the work happen and get them to judge final projects.
Using a sporting analogy, to get all our students across the line in their first year of history with us, we need to grab their curiosity quickly, get them asking questions, expect them to work hard and build up their ability to talk and write like historians. Time is of the essence in key stage 3 and, by making the most of the crucial transition period, over the past 5 years we have been able to extend the curriculum with much more content, more retrieval practice and more scholarship. The students are set up to work from a starting point of confidence. They know what is coming up as a result of our ‘Hold the Front Page’. They have their best work to show what they are capable of and they have the worked examples to hand to help them start their homework. These, and the other strategies for transitioning to Year 7 history, enable them to learn secure in the knowledge they will be reading, writing and meeting history head on and that they are up to the challenge.