Back in October a class of Year 6 children in London were taking part in a workshop about the First World War. Their session focused on the Battle of the Somme. As they explored the experience of the soldiers and the news reports from the time, something didn’t seem right.
The explosive descriptions of the battle clashed with the reports that declared ‘Everything has gone well!’ It was confusing until they began discussing it in the context of today. Why would the news say something that wasn’t true? That just makes it fake news doesn’t it? ‘Oh’...
For Abi, the creator of the workshop and West End in Schools’ Creative Director, delivering this workshop to this class of children was one of the most satisfying moments she’s come across when teaching.
The workshop was Poetry and Poppies, a new drama workshop about World War One. Its aim is to investigate the war using poetry, performance and first-hand accounts from the time, working with children from Reception all the way to Year 6 (a challenge which we spoke to Abi about in a previous blog). As Remembrance Day approaches we’ve been delivering it in schools all over the country.
This particular session on the Battle of the Somme is the section used with the oldest children, and it has proved especially meaningful to the children taking part.
Abi explains how the idea for the session came about: “In my research one of the things that I was overwhelmed by was how people were persuaded to go and fight when retrospectively we know the devastation that was going on. And I came across an article that was from the Times, and it was saying how well everything was going. Retrospectively we know that this was known as being one of the worst days in military history ever - on all sides, not just the side that was losing. And the fact that the newspapers were writing the complete opposite was just shocking.”
The contrast between the events of the Battle of The Somme and the way that newspapers reported it is is all too clear in hindsight. You have only to read this BBC article to see how different the jubilant headlines were from the reality on the battlefield.
As for how to get this across to the Year 5 and 6 children? For this workshop, it comes down to the often-used storytelling technique: show, don’t tell. And in the drama-based Poetry and Poppies workshops, we’re asking children to show each other.
In Abi’s words, “this section is about the Battle of the Somme but I’m using some of the poems that are usually used when studying GCSE history, but obviously without the really extreme parts. I’m using a few very different, very descriptive sections, for example one that describes the fury of battle and the explosions - ‘explosions ceaseless are’. And through the noise and the sound it creates a kind of tableaux of a battalion in that situation, and we think about what it might have felt to be in that situation. And then the children freeze, and we play some music, and we have a reporter marching on and describing what was going on using part of an original report from the Times a couple of days later. So the children can visually see what was really happening and how it’s described.”
The poem that Abi is quoting is ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ by Isaac Rosenburg, written in 1917. One of the most highly regarded poems to come out of the First World War, it takes the reader on a tour of the battlefield after the fighting has ended. During the workshop the children quote only a small section of the poem, but it’s enough to create a vivid image of the war. Other poems the children explore in the session include ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘Epitaphs of the War’ by Rudyard Kipling.
The reaction from the children who’ve taken part in Poetry and Poppies has shown how effective this approach can be.
As Abi explains, “on about the fifth or 6th day that I delivered, I did that session with one group and it just opened this amazing conversation where the children were quite overwhelmed by it, which is understandable because you’re dealing with a very heavy subject. But I think the thing that they really grabbed hold of is the idea that what you’re being told by newspapers is not necessarily the truth.
“And as we all know at the moment, that is a big topic. It’s in the news all the time that the news is fake, and I think this is a really good example of showing children that this has been going on forever. You don’t have to not believe everything you read, but you certainly have to question the things you read and read them from all angles.”
‘What you’re being told by newspapers is not necessarily the truth’. An understatement perhaps? In the case of World War One the truth did come out in time, from the letters sent home, to the facts that were eventually reported, to the clearer picture that can - arguably - only appear with hindsight.
Poetry and Poppies was created to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War and is available for primary schools throughout England and Wales.