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History now!

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By Robert WattsProgramme Convener for the MA Art, Craft and Design Education at Roehampton University

History doesn’t just mean things that happened in the distant past. It can also be about capturing the here and now

Child Education January -  history now

As teachers we’re used to using books, videos and the internet to bring the past to life. But have you ever considered challenging your class to create their own historical resources? This might seem to be a peculiar task to set children, but it’s a great way of reminding them that history is happening here and now. Children often perceive that history is concerned with important events that shape the lives of millions. Few will recognise that sometimes it is the evidence of familiar activities that can really bring the subject to life.

This project is all about recording and celebrating the everyday moments of school life that are often overlooked and easily forgotten. Through drawing and painting their own personal plaques, children will create a unique record of their experiences in school. And who knows, one day they might be looked back upon as valuable evidence of school life in the 2000s!

Getting started

Begin by asking the children to suggest some of the ways that we are able to find out about life in schools 100 years ago. Photographs of Victorian and Edwardian classrooms are widely available through the internet, and children love comparing their own classroom with those featured in the images. Prompt the children to consider what the images don’t tell us: what conversations went on between those children? What were they excited about or anxious about? What did they have for lunch?

Explain to the class that you are going to ask them to reflect on one detail of their own life in school. This will then be preserved in the form of a plaque that can be displayed in the classroom or around the school. Images of existing plaques are easy to locate and share – many record the lives of the famous, but a little searching will reveal some interesting records of events and places.

Making the plaque

You will need: A3 sheets of paper, some cut into circles; oil pastels; watercolour blocks; brushes and water.

  • Challenge the children to each think of something that has recently happened to them in school; you could even restrict them to a specific day. Those who simply describe ‘playing in the playground’ should be encouraged to think of a precise detail that makes their memory more specific. Model the process yourself.
  • Ask the children to write their memory in one or two sentences before redrafting onto a larger sheet of paper using an oil pastel. Some children will prefer to draft in pencil first and trace over with the pastel – encourage them to press quite hard to make their text clear.
  • Tell the children to write about themselves in the third person, in order to give the plaques a more formal feel (it also adds to their humour).
  • Some children will want to include illustrations on their plaques, and these can be added at this stage.
  • Demonstrate how to mix different tones of the same colour paint by varying the amount of water. Then show the children how to apply the watercolour over the text; the oil pastel will resist the paint, leaving the text visible.
  • Each plaque should be mounted on cardboard and displayed in the location described in its text. Remember that if the plaque is to be displayed outside, it will need to be laminated.
  • Finally, photograph the plaques in their locations and make a PowerPoint presentation of the complete set.


  • Some children will need their text to be scribed for them. Encourage them to be ambitious in their vocabulary rather than restrict themselves to using words they know how to spell.
  • Other children will be able to use the scenario they have chosen as the starting point for an extended piece of writing. Suggest to them that they could create a comic strip that elaborates upon the scene.

ICT links

  • Invite a few children to continue experimenting with different tones of paint on plain paper. Photograph or scan these paintings onto the computer and use the text tool of an art software package to add an ‘inscription’ over the top. If possible, use one of the darker tones featured within the painting for the text – this will make it look as though it has been engraved into stone.
  • Children could also make brief audio recordings describing the events they have chosen to record. These can then be added as a soundtrack to the PowerPoint presentation of images of the plaques.

Curriculum links

  • History 3: identify different ways in which the past is represented.
  • Art and design 2b: try out tools and techniques and apply these to materials and processes, including drawing.
  • Art and design 2c: represent ideas and feelings, and design and make artefacts.
  • ICT 3a: share ideas by presenting information in a variety of forms.

Thinking questions

  • Can ordinary people’s lives be as interesting as those of famous people?
  • Which object would you choose to represent your time here in school, and why?
  • What do you have in your home that provides you with happy memories of your own past?