Better history by working together!

Thanks to Martyn Bajowski and Hugh Richards for this blogpost. In it they share the process they went through to create resources … and share them!

This story starts with Martyn

Recently I posted the story of Sophia Duleep Singh on Twitter which I produced as a team effort with Hugh Richards. Hugh and I both thought it would be worthwhile going through the process of how that story and resource came to fruition so that other history teachers can feel enabled to produce more of them for their classrooms.

The Beginning

Both Hugh and I have been inspired to try our hand at story writing after seeing Christine Counsell’s session at the HA virtual conference this year, as well as the gorgeous writing of others, such as this utterly beautiful series from the ever-modest genius that is Paula Lobo (@lobworth). I saw some of Hugh’s stories designed to fit into a single lesson and focussed around an individual- in his case St Hilda, the legendary abbess of Whitby and Walter Espec, a 12th century knight and local government lynchpin with a monastery-building habit.

Finding the person

I have been looking again at how I teach the 19th and 20th centuries, trying to find a way to demonstrate that the 1900s are not the start of something new but in fact have deep ties to the previous century. What I needed was a person that bridged that gap and tied those threads together. Some people you may know about but history is vast and it is perfectly fine for you not to know about every single person to ever walk the earth.

A good place to start is always the history community and that is where our story starts – with the HA Secondary Survey.

Extract from the HA Survey 2021

Here, I saw the name Sophia Duleep Singh, who appealed because I didn’t know anything about her but someone else thought she was significant.  My initial search was obviously Wikipedia, and on the surface she seemed perfect for my Year 8 course. We use the theme of protest to explore the position of women in industrial England, WWI and its impact on these positions before delving back into the Empire. Sophia’s story touched on all those themes and helped move them from being separate units to parts of a fuller, more connected world.

The middle: researching and digging deeper

Following that brief overview of her life the next stage was to ask for help.  Often I would ask fellow teachers and historians about this person and then buy and read a book about them.  However due to time constraints, all I could do was read articles on the first page of a Google search which gave the story enough body but still allowed me to choose and select what information to put into the story.  More importantly it gave me information that I then choose to omit, but have ready to work into the teaching around the story.

Writing the narrative

The next step once was to just commit to writing out the narrative of their life and often the best starting point for this is chronologically. This really helped me get a handle on the story I was trying to tell. Here is the typo-filled, loosely planned, rough first draft, which I sent to Hugh to see if we could shape it up into something that performed the curricular functions I hoped it could.

This story finishes with Hugh:

Martyn sent me this rough draft of the story to have a look at,  and to see if I could share some of what I had learned from experimenting with writing my own stories. Between us, we made several substantial improvements, trying to brush up the storytelling and do more of what Mike Hill has helpfully named ‘world-building.’ In essence, we were trying to find ways to help it land in the classroom. We have tried to isolate and detail the changes we made here:

Development 1: Make sure there is a strong narrative opening if possible. Try to build the curiosity of the readers and draw them in.
Draft Version:   On the 8th August 1876, in Belgravia London, Sophia Duleep Singh was born into the world with a cosmopolitan inheritance.  Her mother, Bamba Muller, was from German and Abyssinia descent and her father was the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.  This made Sophia a princess but a princess of what exactly?  Her father had been removed from power by the British East India Company and was now part of the British aristocracy.  Indeed so accepted were her family that Sophia had a very important godmother – Queen Victoria.  Improvement:   This story begins outside Hampton Court, the majestic Tudor and Georgian palace next to the River Thames. Standing outside it, in 1910, we find a Princess who lives there with her family. She is standing next to a big sign calling for nothing less than a ‘Revolution.’ She is selling a newspaper which encourages the women of the country to turn to violent protest and try to change the world they live in, overturn the limitations imposed on them. Her name was Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. How did the daughter of Duleep Singh, the last Mararaja of the Sikh Empire end up here, helping lead the courageous and hard-fought campaign of the British Suffragette movement? Why was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, who lived in a royal palace, calling for revolution?  
Development 2: Build the character at the centre of the story, and thus reveal more about the period they lived in. In this example, we finish inside Sophia’s mind to help the students focus on the learning we want them to gain from the story.
Draft version:   She received a place of honour in the Suffragette movement and spent her time championing the causes of equality and justice at a time when people in Britain were debating what sort of, in any, type of Empire it wanted moving forward.    Improvement:   Sophia Duleep Singh lived at a time when big questions were being asked about the future of the empire, about the nature of human rights and freedoms. As she stood outside Hampton Court, asking passers by to purchase a newspaper, she would have wondered how much change could be achieved, how many dreams realised, for all the places and peoples she was connected to. She probably wouldn’t have dreamed that, by her death in 1948, she would have read in other newspapers how the whole of India had gained full independence from the British Empire.    
Development 3: Do more to build the world around the main character. This can, and should, happen both in the text and in the images used to support it.
Development 4: Introduce more drama/peril/uncertainty But don’t stretch the history too far!
Draft version:   Her world view changed following the death of her father.  Whilst she was grieving for her father the British government lessened their watch on her which allowed her to escape back to India to watch the Delhi Durbar  Improvement:   It was not all carefree however. As Indian royalty, they were constantly monitored by the British Government, who didn’t want them to return to India and possibly lead resistance or rebellion against the Empire. In 1886, when Sophia was ten, her father attempted to return to India with his family against the wishes of the British government; they were turned back in Aden by arrest warrants.  

So here it is, the finished product. Hopefully this blog has helped to demonstrate the ways in which, between us, we have been working on storytelling. Please do share examples you are working on with us, it would be really exciting to get further inspiration for building this aspect of our pedagogical armoury.

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