First World War Centenary: how can we teach it in primary schools?

First World War Centenary

As you’ve no doubt noticed, this year is the centenary of the end of the First World War and 100 years since the Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918.

At West End in Schools discussions of what we should do to mark the occasion have been bubbling for over a year. We knew we wanted to create something that was original and exciting, but we also had to make it sensitive and age-appropriate for primary school children.

Our answer: Poetry and Poppies: Stories from World War One, an interactive workshop that combines poetry, drama, and history for the whole school, all in one day.

We’re so proud of this workshop, and already the response from children taking part has been extremely positive. But creating something suitable for children ages 4 – 11 wasn’t without its challenges. With plenty of schools already getting involved, I spoke to Abi, the creator of the workshop and our Creative Director, to find out exactly how the workshop came about and what its challenges were.

First of all, why teach World War One? And why teach it in primary schools?

The First World War is a huge world event that shaped not just our society but also Europe. It shaped the rest of the world, and it has a huge political effect now.

Sometimes children lack confidence in history, and this creates a block when they get to secondary school. But if we introduce the history early enough and give them a simplified version of it, this gives them underlying knowledge so that when children get to secondary school they think ‘oh yeah I know that’. It’s information that they retain and it can aid their confidence later on.

It also teaches young children to engage with world and current affairs, and hopefully it helps them to realise that the news isn’t just for big people to engage with. In the long-term hopefully we can learn from the history, and if we continue to talk about it, it will help us to not make those mistakes again.

What are some important things to focus on when teaching World War One?

One of the things that I really focused on was that there was no winner in this situation. I tried not to focus on us as just the Brits, but also as the Allies. Often it’s easy to only think about how many lives were lost on our side, but I tried to be clear that the Germans also lost lives. It’s not all about ‘our side’.

Hopefully something that we can learn from is how excited everyone was about going to war. Because that’s still going on today. Even in TV, even in kids TV, they’re excited to go to battle. But when we actually break it down a lot of the people weren’t fully aware of why they were involved. It’s really difficult because learning about the topic naturally makes you really political, but I cannot get over the absolute destruction of the First World War. It’s unbelievable that it happened, and it’s history, but it’s not something that can’t happen again. It is important to talk about and to show the brutality of it.

What were your challenges when approaching the topic for the youngest children?

The biggest challenge was to talk about World War One without giving them nightmares. And in many ways it was about finding the human stories in it. For example the Christmas Day truce is an example of how in a terrible period of absolute horror, there is human spirit. Using the words of poets also shows the human side to it. There are individuals who still maintained their humanity despite the fact that they were thrown into this battle.

What do we get from looking at the poetry that came out of the war, not just facts and dates?

As I was researching I found something really interesting, which is that there’s a letter that Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother after he got stuck in a trench. He later made that episode into a poem, and the difference that it creates by putting it into a different form creates a different atmosphere. We can see it, hear it, feel it. It puts us there in a visceral way rather than giving an explanation of what happened. It creates a rhythm, and that creates a huge impact on how we understand the context.

But it’s also important to not just listen to people who were poets, but other people as well. In the workshop I’ve also taken some quotes of why people signed up, and it will always be a fascinating subject for me, how people were convinced to do this. We can look at so many moments in history - in modern history as well - and think ‘my god, how did this happen?’, but it shows the thinking of that person at that moment.

What kinds of ideas are involved in Poetry and Poppies?

For the workshop I’ve divided the events into scenes and looked at lots of different things such as the start of the war, the Christmas Day truce, what people thought the war was vs what it actually was, the impact that it had on home, and how the war ended and why we still remember. I guess what we’ve done is to look at it chronologically but also thematically.

There’s a lot of focus in one section of the workshop on how the war was reported, and how to keep morale up and to keep people volunteering when a lot of the time they were not told the truth about what was happening. You can look at the news reports from the time, including the first day of the Battle of the Somme which is the worst day of military history. But if you see the news reports they do not tell that story, they tell the story of victory and success and it’s really shocking. It’s so relevant today, when you look at something like fake news.

By looking at the home front we’ve also touched on how it affected the lives of women, and the fact that women were suddenly doing jobs, making ammunition, working in factories, and it was the first time most of them got to do this. I’ve tried to use a lot of female poets, to show that the war went beyond the soldiers on the battlefield. Poets like Jessie Pope - who got criticised at the time by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon - help to show that it did change the lives of women. You could even argue that the one good thing it did was change the lives of women in a really positive way.

Thank you Abi!

Looking for more ideas on how to teach the First World War? Download our teacher resource pack which features activities and questions about World War One for Reception and KS1, alongside the popular musical hall song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’.

Click here for more information about Poetry and Poppies, or fill out our online form if you’d like to book the workshop for your school.

- Rachel