I taught a Year 4 class yesterday with lots of teachers watching.
It’s like Triple-Ofsted. I’d talked the talk with these teachers and Hywel Roberts and now it was time to walk the walk. I was fairly terrified, it’s safe to say. Year 4 were looking at a topic called “Beyond” which was going to incorporate work on the Romans. I sat down on Sunday with a cup of tea and thought about what to do. My teaching has low resourcing. I don’t need much more than a couple of images, masking tape and post it notes. But it’s high in thinking.
‘Beyond’ made me think of a wall – ‘beyond the wall’ – Hadrian’s Wall – and about travel, pushing past your boundaries, facing new challenges. And a twitter conversation between Aaron Banks and Mary Beard had piqued my interest in the wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities that had made up the Roman army. So I settled on a perspective – the point of view of a Syrian, Theoteknos (I wanted a name that would allow us to discuss a little about the history of occupation in Syria/Assyria and the Greek name was the name of a documented Assyrian/Roman soldier). I chose Syria because I wanted the ‘then’ time to resonate with the ‘now’ time and to link those two times together under the umbrella of the movement and migration of people.
And so I began by stealing an opening idea from Tim Taylor – an action that gets focused attention from the children. After a short Q&A, gathering some of their prior knowledge, I told them I was going to sit in the chair and mime an action. That they should look at the mime carefully because afterwards I would be asking one of them to copy it. I told them that the person sitting in the chair was a Roman auxiliary soldier, sitting alone in the barracks in a garrison on Hadrian’s Wall. And I began a short mime involving a small carving action, the blowing off of dust and a sad smile as I placed the object on the table.
As a child copied that action, I narrated:-
“He picked up the stone that he had carried in his pocket for so many miles – a yellow stone that reminded him of his homeland. He looked at the creature he had carved into the stone – the long legs were fully formed. The comical face seemed almost to smile at him. He picked up his tools and made a small alteration to the hump on the animal’s back. He blew off the dust, smiled sadly and placed the object on the table. Despite his woollen blanket, he shivered. Oh how he missed home…”
The children listened carefully.
“What creature do you think he was carving?”
“Might that give us a clue as to where he comes from?”
It’s time to look at a map that shows the Roman Empire during this period. We also look at an image of a Roman auxiliary soldier. The children don’t comment on the fact that he is black, but they tell me about the shape of his shield and how useful it was for creating a turtle formation in battle. They tell me about his armour, his sandals. They point out that he has only two small bags with him.
“If you had to take everything you needed in that small space, what would you pack? I wonder what he has in his bags?”
We look at some images of reconstructions of the kind of barrack room he would sleep in and of Hadrian’s Wall. We talk a little of the people who live beyond the wall and introduce the word ‘Pict’. And we think about the kinds of jobs that would be done by these auxiliary soldiers, who were paid a third of the wages that a legionary would get.
Then the children create occupational mimes (images of the jobs they think would be done). As one might expect there were a few arrows and spears about to be thrown at ‘the enemy beyond the wall’. But there are also domestic tasks – cooking, cleaning, carving and so on. I thought-track the children and come to one who is making a small action with his hands.
“I have been captured by the Romans and I have to make things for them now.”
“Oh! Are you telling me that you are a slave? How did you come to be here?”
“I was just taking a walk – an innocent civilian – and they grabbed me and brought me here!”
“Where were you? Were you at the north of the wall? What were you doing there?”
“I was just travelling around trying to find some natural resources and a home and they just came along and took me.”
What is a teacher to do with moments such as these? I have no idea if his story is factually/historically plausible. And it’s not what I had expected or planned for. But it is golden. He is in a zone of investment. His imagination is fully engaged and he is articulating his situation beautifully. Some of his roman soldier classmates are looking a bit sheepish. But not one.
“He’s our enemy. They come here to the wall to attack us. They are our enemies and we have to defend ourselves!”
Our slave reluctantly accepts that the Romans have a right to defend themselves, but protests his innocence and tells me that he is planning to escape. And my mind splits in two.
In my plan, I have a homesick soldier. He wants to go home. I now have a slave desperate to escape too. I think on my feet and tell him that I’m going to come back to that idea.
Having invested in the life and routines of barrack life, we return to our soldier. I ask the children to prepare some questions to ask him and I go and sit on the ‘role’ chair and wait. Teacher in role is one of the most powerful pedagogical tools in our kit. It allows us to give information while engaging the children in narrative – a mode of thinking that powerfully engages memory. But we don’t act. We speak as ourselves but with the words of the character. It’s not about donning costumes and accents. It’s about vocabulary, information and empathy.
Responding to their questions, I try to steer them towards important information and away from areas I don’t want to focus on in this lesson. No, I haven’t seen much battle. But I have travelled many miles. No, I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of dying before I see my children. I miss the big blue sky, I miss the pomegranate that grows on the trees in my garden. I miss my family. Yes, my father taught me how to carve – he was very skilled – he sells his carvings at a market at home in Syria. No, I didn’t really want to be a soldier – we weren’t really given much choice. No, I don’t like it here – it’s very cold. And yes, I very, very much want to go home.
The children listen and question intently. Then I ask them to complete a ‘role on the wall’ and list at least six facts they remember about the soldier. I see the class teacher move to work with one child. The others rush off to do the task independently. Afterwards, we talk about the child she worked with.
“He has additional needs – problems with his short term memory. He usually forgets what he’s been told almost immediately, but I couldn’t believe it. He was recounting it back to me. He easily remembered his six facts.”
Narrative and Emotion. Powerful engagers of memory.
Anchoring of knowledge done (ready to act as a scaffold for future diary writing), we move on.
I ask the children to think about what the soldier wants and if there’s anything he can do about it. And they make some suggestions. Our innocent, natural resource gathering civilian pops back up:-
“He could ask a slave for help in escaping!” (sub text – “Hey! Remember me!”)
“He could indeed, would you like to come to the front and take on the role of the slave once again. I’ll question you as Theoteknos – is that alright with you?”
He can’t move quickly enough. We run a scene quickly. Fiction is overtaking fact at this point, but I’m relaxed. The key knowledge of the session that I was keen for the children to gather, has been imparted. They’re going to get a lot more on the Romans over the coming weeks We’re into issues around life and death, humanity, loneliness, homesickness and risk now. We’re banking in preparation for writing.
I approach the boy. He is crouching on the floor as if he is cleaning it.
“I believe you have the key to the granary.”
“I do. I stole it from a guard.”
“I know you stole it. I saw you. And I chose not to tell the guard or he would have killed you and you would not be here now. So I wonder if you would now help me?”
And we strike a deal. The slave will help to hide me under a pile of grain on a cart being taken to town. He will come with me and help me to navigate my way out of the area. We turn to the rest of the class – is this a good plan? They seem to think it is. How will we breathe under the grain? They suggest a tube to breathe through. And I ask them to really think and talk with each other. What could go wrong? What are the pros and cons of this escape plan?
After a little thinking time, the group gather their ideas together and we form two lines to create a conscience alley. Line A issue positive thoughts about the plan. Line B issue warnings. As a child chosen to be Theoteknos walks through the line, he receives their advice.
“Imagine seeing your children again…”
“You could choke on the grain and your coughing would give you away!”
“Think of the warm sunshine on your face”
“They will kill you if they capture you!”
In spite of the warnings, the child decides to go for the escape plan. The whole of Line A cheer. We won.
“Are you happy that he went with your advice?”
“And if he is caught and he dies?”
“We will feel very guilty.”
But whatever happened to Theoteknos may never be known. The lesson is nearing its close. I ask them before we go if they’d like to write a diary entry for Theoteknos’ last night in the barracks before he tries to escape. They all say yes. Except for one. He walks over to his teacher and quietly says:-
“But if I write a diary entry, the other soldiers might find it and my plan will be discovered.”
We go to lunch.