Just wanted to say a huge than you to people who attended my talk on life after levels today. I am posting the PowerPoint and links to other useful resources on this blog post. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss further.
I'm afraid today's blog, a bit like yesterday's is a bit of a rant. More to the point, it is a response to yet another partially researched claim, namely that Grammar Schools (Schools for Everyone TM?) are more effective than their comprehensive counterparts. Indeed, the Telegraph ran an article a few days ago stating that this was a ringing endorsement for May's flagship education policy. Here I wanted to unpick some of the claims being made about Grammar Schools, and ask that we take a moment to be cautious before endorsing a systemic change based on limited evidence. I am fairly sure I have my calculations right here, however please let me know if you think I have made a mistake.
The Progress 8 Issue
The claim that Grammar Schools outperform state Comprehensives does have some basis in evidence. This can be seen in the latest GCSE statistics published by the DfE. The Telegraph explains that...
here's been a lot going around on Twitter recently about reducing the marking load of teachers. Much of this is to be applauded. I have seen some really nice ideas for dealing with feedback more effectively from Ben Newmark, Toby French, Tom Bennett, even the Michaela bods. However, I have a major worry: school marking policies won't actually change!
In the current educational climate, school approaches, and especially those relating to marking and feedback, are driven by a few key factors:
So here's the rub. If schools want to achieve the first aim, the following drivers are often counter productive.
* I am not going to discuss the reductive nature of the first educational goal, though that in itself plays a major part here too. Nor will I be dealing with the impact of a narrowly target driven system which means that some schools are in the habit of changing their policies more frequently than I change my socks. Indeed, some schools I have worked in have been so malleable in their policy approaches to teaching that they have become almost invertebrate. In the course of five years in one school we shifted from a focus on Kagan groups and peer marking, to flipped classroom, to next-step marking, to triple marking, to digital marking, to purple pens of progress, without ever stopping to think about the impact of any of these approaches.
** I could write a whole blog on the rise of the purple pen as a gateway pass to Deputy Head status, but I think I might leave that for another day
Bad Advice and Poor Models
As people have been pointing out all week - good feedback does not mean detailed written marking on every child's work. Yet, if we look at some of the "Outstanding" schools and "Teaching Schools" which have been set up as beacons of excellence, we see such policies being advocated. This "Outstanding" Teaching School for instance says:
This school has not been formally inspected since 2007 so it seems somewhat remiss of the DfE to allow it to advise other schools to follow such policies. (see http://www.harrogategrammar.co.uk/content/uploads/2015/04/Learning-21.01.15.pdf and http://www.harrogategrammar.co.uk/content/uploads/2014/02/Policy_AssessmentRecordingReporting23.01.13.pdf)
Another "Outstanding" school has a marking policy which demands extended written feedback in a rainbow of colours: http://www.rossettschool.co.uk/parents/policies/marking/ (last inspected in 2010)
These two examples are far from the only ones, nor are they the worst cases. Countless others come out of the wordwork in conversations with teachers up and down the country - sadly not all put their marking policies online. The big worry is that these "Outstanding" schools (many of whom have not be inspected in nearly a decade) shape the approaches taken by "Good", "RI" and "Inadequate" schools in significant ways as they strive to model the "excellent practice" of their "betters".
The Ofsted Factor
But the problem doesn't stop there. In every school I have been to, there has always been someone with the job to read Ofsted inspection reports and pull out and apply key approaches deemed necessary to attain the elusive "Outstanding" grade. Yesterday I suggested that Ofsted, through their reports, has been key in encouraging schools to implement poor marking practices. When I mentioned this, I was promptly slapped down by Ofsted's Sean Harford.
There has been something naggingly familiar about the grammar school debate which has been raging on Twitter recently. True I have heard many of the arguments before in educational discussions, but this was something more. It only struck me when I began editing a chapter of my upcoming book on C19th America.
I have copied a page of the book for you below. In many ways I feel it encapsulates exactly the same lines of argument that we see currently, simply replace "slavery" for "educational inequality" and "slaves" for "low SES children" and you are away. I think this reveals not only the lines of debate, but also, with hindsight, some of the main faults in each.
Worryingly I look ahead to how this debate was resolved and the long term failure of such a solution...
"Do not ye deem, that I came to send peace into earth, I came not to send peace, but sword. For I came to part a man against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the son's wife against the husband's mother" [Matthew 10: 34-35]
NOTE: I have updated this blog in light of some of the comments below. Items in bold are updates.
I have found myself pondering more and more on these verses from Matthew over recent months. To all intents and purposes, I feel like the world around me has become one of stark binaries. Friend or foe? Believer or unbeliever? Leave or remain? Corbynite or a Blairite? Pro-grammar or pro-comprehensive? Neo-trad or progressive? Child-centred or discipline focused? The list goes on and the arguments are endless and largely fruitless. It turns out that I am not the only one to have noticed this. As I was writing this blog, Ed Podesta posted an excellent piece on the same issue. I fear this will be much less eloquent, however I would like to add my own thoughts as one of the people who finds these sharp divisions both troubling and counter-productive.
This blog was prompted by two recent events. In the first instance, I posted a letter sent to a friend’s Finnish parents. The letter demanded they leave these shores and stop “polluting the air”. Within seconds, my timeline was filled with tweets acclaiming or decrying such actions. Those on the left of the debate were soon demanding various forms of corporal punishment for the offender and implying that all Leave voters shared such sentiments. Meanwhile, those on the right called me a liar and demanded I prove the verity of the letter, or dismissed it as irrelevant. I took the post down.
Just a short blog to thank all of you who attended my session at TFSI yesterday. As promised I am uploading the session resources here for you to download. Please do have a browse around the rest of the site whilst you are here. There are lots of links to blogs on progress, progression, second-order concepts and substantive knowledge in the blog bar on the right.
Blog posts which may be of particular interest:
So with very little fanfare, the grade descriptors for the new GCSE grades 9-1 were released on Friday. Those schools who have opted to use these as a progression model, assessment system and general replacement for both NC Levels and GCSE grades must be delighted that they can finally start implementing their systems.
In this blog I want to take a look at how these grade descriptors can be utilised from Years 7-11 to provide a clear and coherent flight path for pupils in history.
Using the grade descriptors to create a flight path
Many schools for instance have opted for the following basic flight path:
As such, the grade descriptors will help to define what this path might look like for pupils in lessons. They could be used as part of the reporting process, discussed with parents and form targets for written feedback….
“Don’t worry too much about your subject knowledge,” I was advised by one senior member of staff during my training year “just make sure you are two pages ahead in the textbook.” Even at the time I remember thinking this was very odd advice (although a great relief when I looked at the catalogue of historical content I was meant to master by June). As it turned out, this was some of the worst advice I would ever be given as a trainee teacher. Every time I felt a bit overwhelmed by planning for a lesson, my subject knowledge development would be the first thing to go on the back burner. Why bother spending time learning the ins and outs of the French Revolution when I could spend my time better creating a novel card sort or envoy activity? Not enough time to do even the most rudimentary research? Set them off on a Google-based FOFO activity – problem solved!
Needless to say, many of these lessons ended up being incredibly dry, poorly conceived, and of little use to anyone. It took a long time and a lot of courage (largely as a result of being the only history teacher in a small school) to realise that the lessons where I had excellent subject knowledge were always the best ones. Even so, I had been set back a long way (as my ex-colleagues noticed when I tried to teach the French Revolution at the start of my THIRD year of teaching – I was even mistaken for an NQT because of this.)
I have long been a fan of Tom Bennett’s no nonsense approach to behaviour management. I have recommended Bennett’s blog many times to trainees and NQTs nervous about expectations in the classroom (as you will see from these pages). As such, there are many things I like about the ITT behaviour report (one of the long-awaited responses to the Carter review) which was published on Wednesday:
So far, so vanilla. Yet I also feel there are a number of fundamental issues with the approaches suggested by Bennett and his team. The following points are very much a response to the report and to Tom's blog "Let's fix this together" published today.
Just wanted to say a huge than you to people who attended my (rather history focused) talk on life after levels at ResearchEd today. I am posting the powerpoint and links to other useful resources on this blog post. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss further.
I have also uploaded my notes from two other sessions, in case you missed them:
Just a short post to say thanks to everyone who came and contributed to my HA session on the Making of America today. It was great to talk to so many enthusiastic historians.
You will be able to find relevant blog posts for C19th America by clicking on "GCSE/A Level Topics" above and following the LINK to "America 1789-1900". The blog posts are indexed and contain some interesting bits I have found whilst reading around the topic.
I will also be uploading a range of teaching resources which you can find by clicking on the "NEW UNIT" resources on the right hand side of the page. These will be updated as I add new things. I have also added a CPD folder in which I will put today's PowerPoint. My old American West A Level resources are also available here for download.
If you do trial any of the materials; make useful modifications; or want to share your own resources, please do get in touch via the contact form and I will make them available on the blog and in the file store.
Finally, here are some links to recommended books. Many of these are available as audiobooks so you could even get a copy with a free Audible trial and listen to them on your commute:
After a bit of a pause, Fri-deas is back. This time, everything has a bit of a Cold War theme. Thanks to Sarah for sending these through. If you like these ideas, or indeed try them in class, do let us know how you get on! Equally, if you have a Fri-dea to share, do send it on through.
Fri-dea 1: Revising knowledge and chronology through "match reports"
During CBT days last week I set my Year 9 classes the task of summing up the events of the Cold War that we have looked at so far in a sports/ football match commentary. The aim was that they could revise and consolidate everything they have looked at over the last few weeks, and also decide at each point which superpower could be said to have "scored a point/goal".
I also thought it would be useful for them to consider chronology, because we've jumped around a bit in the last few lessons. I've taken their books in to mark today and what they have come up with has by far exceeded my expectations. They were able to use their knowledge really cleverly to make some brilliant, and creative reports. Here is an example in which the student is describing the Berlin Airlift:
"The Americans go flying over the top of the reds, a defiant goal for the blues!"
Maybe, more importantly than being really impressed at what they've produced, reading their reports is certainly making marking much more entertaining for me!
Fri-dea 2: A game of chicken with this egg-cellent approach to understanding MAD
My Year 9s have recently been studying mutually assured destruction (MAD) in the context of the Cold War. We were about to move on and look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, when I marked their homework ("overall did MAD make the world safer?") they had ALL argued that it did! This made me wonder if they had failed to grasp the implications of MAD , particularly that the USA and USSR both had highly destructive weapons [nice focus on the substantive concept here - Mr F].
To help demonstrate the implications and dangers of the MAD situation and the fact that there are no guarantees in nuclear war, I tried to make the concept a bit more accessible. I invited a "brave volunteer" to join me at the front and play the part of the USSR to my USA. I then produced a box of eggs and held an egg over the student's head, and armed them with an egg also to hold over mine. The class loved it, and were very much encouraging their class-mate to egg me. We then had a discussion (eggs still suspended) about what the guarantees were (or weren't) in this situation, and how safe everyone ought to feel. I also acted out being very nervous, egg-agerating (groan) [Omlettin' this slide] being in a dilemma over whether I should get in there first and drop my egg.
Thankfully I avoided an egging, but the activity had meant that when we went on to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, the class seemed to really appreciate the tension and danger of the situation, and that there were no guarantees. They thankfully lost the modern mind-set and benefit of hindsight that had been hindering them, and they were certainly engaged in the lesson! [A really nice use of an accessible demonstration to help make the abstract more concrete here. Importantly this is linked back to the core content really well. Cracking! *sorry*]
A few weeks ago I was working with trainees at Leeds Trinity on the theme of local history. I wanted to place a particular emphasis on how local stories might be a means to help pupils connect to the wider national narrative. This is not only a great way to approach complex national stories, but also ties in with the new focus in the curriculum on putting the historic environment in context, something which I think is a hidden gem of those specifications where you get to choose your study!
The idea was to replicate some of the planning processes we used to go through when I was head of history and to build an interesting historical enquiry rooted in a local story. As such I hope this might be of some use to departments planning their own local history enquiries.
Over the course of a day, we were able to wrestle with enquiries which linked pupils' localities with the bigger national picture. We were also able to grapple with real issues around appropriate sequencing, disciplinary development, and the interplay between contextual knowledge and historical thinking. We also learned some interesting lessons about letting the history lead the lesson sequence, rather than the other way around, as I will explain in due course...
As a rule I try to let some of the more extreme posts on Twitter pass me by. I find it is better for my blood pressure. However, the recent blog by Anthony Radice, the self-styled “Traditional Teacher” was just so abrasive and wrong-headed that I have felt the need to pick up on some of the points he raises.
In his post, “The Ideas Behind Forced Academisation,” Radice uses Hirsch to create a kind of apologia for the policy of forced academisation being pursued by the government. I do not really want to get into my own views on this issue, save to say that the process tramples on much democratic accountability and needlessly removes co-operation from the school system. Instead I want to focus on why Radice’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny, whether it is closely based on Hirsch or otherwise.
Radice begins by taking Hirsch’s assumption that progressive notions in education “became so widespread, to the point where young people could spend many years under the care of expensive professionals, and emerge lacking even the most basic knowledge of the history, geography and literature of their own country.” This assumption rests on an unstated belief that there must have been a golden age of some sort before progressives took hold of education in schools when all children left with a clear grasp of all required adult knowledge. The simple fact is that this is not upheld by historical investigation. For a really detailed study of how history education in particular has performed and developed over the last century, Radice may wish to look at Cannadine’s “The Right Kind of History.” One core aspect of Cannadine’s findings of history teaching in the 20th century is that the idea that there was a golden age of history teaching is largely a myth. What he does show is that more and more children have been given access to history education as time has moved on, resulting in a thriving discipline which values both pedagogy and knowledge.
Radice goes on to suggest, in line with Hirsch, that the spread of progressivism was the result of parents being “pushed out of educational decision making” to make way for the educational experts. Even a cursory glance at the Academies programme shows that parents are being completely sidelined in the new world of MATs. Indeed, the CoOp who have suggested an alternative MAT model, in which parents maintain a democratic role, has been rejected multiple times by the DfE. Radice also suggests that parents values of hard work and discipline were overridden by progressive teachers. Once more, I am not sure the realities agree. To go back 75 years, my grandmother’s brothers both opted not to attend school, not because of the “crazy” educational theories being peddled there, but because they were seen to be more valuable if they put their hard work and effort into earning a wage to help the family survive. I don’t doubt that if they had gone, they would probably have found the experience much more rewarding in the long run, but the simple fact is, that was not a choice they could make. In many ways, progressives sought to encourage a generation of children to stay in education. Granted, they may not have always got the balance right; and granted, they may have at times denigrated the value of subject knowledge; but to term them “high priests of the new gnostic religion” is stretching the truth somewhat. One might also criticise the “dusty guardians of pointless facts”, but I won’t because I don’t believe that!
Not content with his attack on progressive teachers, Radice continues to show how Hirsch proves that university education departments were also part of a master plan to control the teaching of subjects and claim their academic credibility. What is interesting here is that there is seemingly no engagement with the current state of university education. Whilst I am sure I could find examples of people in education departments playing down the role of knowledge, I have yet to meet one in person at any HEI I have been in. A brief glance at the course of the Cambridge History PGCE would reveal a course steeped in knowledge, but also supported by pedagogical thinking. Indeed, I have spent every PGCE session since joining my current HEI showing how knowledge is a core around which meaningful pedagogy is practiced. To say that there is no pedagogy worth knowing trashes decades of fantastic work by professionals dedicated to developing pupils’ knowledge. It is also interesting that Radice does not note that history as a discipline had to establish its own place in universities during the nineteenth century, and that almost all subjects barring theology have had to fight to validate themselves as worthy of study. Just as historians spent a generation or more arguing over whether history was a science or an art, so educationalists have debated the role of knowledge within their field. What we see today is diversity, but certainly not a group of people who are endeavouring to “rule supreme” over a domain divorced from knowledge.
Later, Radice echoes Hisrch in characterising progressives as “anti-knowledge” in an absolute sense. This again does not hold up to scrutiny. More accurately we might say that many progressives are against a particular type of knowledge, or value other forms of knowledge in addition to that cultural capital Hirsch is so keen on. An important point here is that cultural capital is of course a currency set by the dominant culture. Whilst traditionalists might say we can liberate students by giving them this capital, many progressives argue that we should change the currency. I wonder if Radice believes that we should still learn our church history and catechisms by rote? This was definitely the cultural capital of the pre-Enlightenment world, but it is no longer! To take another example of the above, many of the problems which have come about in the Deep South of the USA in the last decade might be traced back to the fact that education authorities there are controlling what has currency. Texas textbooks tell the tale of loyal slaves fighting for the Confederacy, whilst a recent McGraw Hill publication referred to slaves in the C18th and C19th as “workers.” The cultural capital here is controlled by interests which seek to create a particular type of society. It is this blind acceptance of the currency of education which many progressives seek to challenge.
There are however two points on which I will agree with Radice. First, I think that there is an issue in the teaching profession in terms of awareness of educational debates. For me, this has been caused by two main factors: an excessive focus on high stakes, nationally published examinations; and the decline of educational theory as a core part of university courses. The former has been driven by successive governments of all colours. The latter has come from a demand for more “practical” teacher training and a push for teachers who can be deployed to deliver externally controlled curricula. Whilst there is some truth in the “knowledge light” classroom claim, it is certainly not driven solely by extreme progressive agendas.
Finally, I would agree with Radice that forced academisation is a kind of “creative destruction” (incidentally not really connected to the points being raised before). However, I would take this in the way Schumpeter originally intended: that Capitalism is fundamentally a process of change, and that in being a process of change it is ultimately doomed to fail. I will outline Schumpeter’s explanation here in brief because I believe it illustrates nicely why the Govian approach to educational reform is also doomed to fail:
Or to give this it’s fuller title: “Shackled to a corpse by hands and feet, tied to a 50 tonne block made of GCSE specifications, in a sea of indifference, blinded by the sea-spray of accountability, with a guy sat in a boat asking why we are not swimming better: Why can’t we make progress in our understanding of progression?” To be honest, if you want the short version and have a bit of imagination, you can stop reading right there.
I will warn you now, this is a long post. But then again, progression is a complex subject…or rather it is a subject which has been made complex. Please bear with me though, because I think this is fundamental!
If you have not yet read my “primers” on progression, you may wish to do so now.
If you are already familiar with the two aspects above then please feel free to read on...
Over the last week or so I have been marking PGCE trainees’ assessments on planning for progression in history. As I have done this, I have found myself returning to a common theme in my comments; namely that trainees first need to consider WHAT they want pupils to get better at before they start considering HOW they want to achieve this. Where trainees did focus on the substance of history, there was either too much generic focus on the development of historical “skills” and processes (and issue which I will deal with later), or too much time spent on discussing knowledge acquisition and aggregation with little sense of how this contributed to overall historical progression. Knowledge acquisition certainly is a type of progress, but I would argue is insufficient to count for all progression in history. In essence, trainees have found themselves wrestling with history’s twin goals of developing pupils’ knowledge as well as their second-order modes of thinking. Too often they fell down the gap in between.
Interestingly, these confusions were much less evident in work produced by maths trainees. This may be because the maths curriculum specifies a series of substantive concepts for students to master. For example, in understanding algebra, students are asked to “simplify and manipulate algebraic expressions”, to “model situations or procedures by translating them into algebraic expressions”, or “use algebraic methods to solve linear equations in 1 variable” (DfE, 2013, p. 6). As such, maths teachers can help pupils progress to more powerful ideas about maths through a clear content focus. Maths does still have its unifying second-order concepts, “select and use appropriate calculation strategies to solve increasingly complex problems” for example (DfE, 2013, p. 4), but progression in these is can be tied to precise curriculum content. To be fair, this does also come unstuck, as pupils failed to use their second-order ability to apply maths in context in the “Hannah’s Sweets” controversy last year!
A very real confusion
In many ways, the confusion about progression is at the heart of history teaching more generally. Indeed, the recent book "New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking" (Ercikan & Seixas, 2015) suggests that there are vastle different approaches to understanding historical progression both internationally and within countries and states. This is certainly true of history education in England. There are many reasons for this:
This is a primer post which goes with my upcoming blog on progression in history. You can find the main post HERE. You can also find my other primer post, in which I attempted to do a demolition job on the idea of linear progression models HERE.
Linear progression models are riddled with problems. In this post, I want to focus on one response to the confusions created them: research-based progression models. Let me be clear from the outset, research-based models of progression were not designed as a replacement for National Curriculum levels, rather to address their myriad shortcomings and help teachers to really get to grips with what progression in history looks like.
The best thing to do to understand research-based models of progression is to read Lee and Shemilt’s seminal article in Teaching History 113, “A scaffold not a cage”. Research based models differ from linear models because they take students’ work and understanding as a starting point to describe what improvement in history actually looks like. In the above article, Lee and Shemilt offer some descriptions of what pupils’ thinking about historical evidence looks like. They then divide this into “stages” of development. The upper four stages of their model are given here.
This blog is a primer for my upcoming post on thinking about progression in history. You can find the main post HERE.
Linear progression models have dominated the way we talk about progression in history for many years now. Once upon a time, they were an odd perversion created by the mis-use of National Curriculum levels, but now they are absolutely everywhere, infiltrating everything from A Level to GCSE.
Linear progression models attempt to create a series of steps which pupils must climb in order to improve at a subject. In maths for example, pupils might begin to understand the concept of angles and their relationships to straight lines by looking at how angles on a straight line add up to 360 degrees, then moving on to deal with angles on parallel lines, and so on. In maths this has the potential to work because there are clear steps for pupils to take to improve in their knowledge of angles and lines.
In history the situation is quite different. Linear progression models, such as those used by many schools up until the abolition of the National Curriculum level descriptors, were generally based on the idea that students could improve through a focus on their second-order understanding, rather than knowledge; that is to say, the ways in which we understand history, for example through our understanding of significance, cause, or change. See the example below:
So buried in amongst the tax tweaks, smoke and mirrors of today's budget announcement is a major statement from the government about the future of education in England. George Osbourne (yes the Chancellor, not the Secretary of State for Education) has announced that all schools will need to have left Local Authority control and have become academies between 2020 and 2022. There are many reasons to be wary of such a change, but I really want to focus in on one of those here: the loss of the National Curriculum.
As academies have the freedom to set their own currciulum and are not bound by the nationally agreed document, the movement of all schools to become academies means an end to over two decades of government-set curriculum. "Good!" you may cry. But actually I am not sure it is all that good. Like it or not, the National Curriculum has done an awful lot of good to British education, as well as the more widely publicised negative impacts. The reason it does some good is mainly down to the fact that it balances out other pressures which the government puts on educations, notably the drive to produce ever improving exam results (but not have more people passing).
You may remember that between 2010 and 2014 there was an enourmous fuss made as Michael Gove and the education people (or otherise - you decide) in Whitehall attempted to re-work and re-write the various statutory frameworks for study. History of course was famously controversial, with a list of content which initial looked like it had been dreamed up by a drunken Nigel Farage on a bender at the Premier Inn with David Starkey and Nial Ferguson. Yet the thing which was always striking about these reforms, was that the academies Gove created did not have to follow this curriculum at all. Why then go to all that trouble if some schools could just ignore the results? Indeed, some schools who became academies were also some of the worst for teaching a narrow, C20th heavy history curriculum. With academy status they had no need to change. Indeed, they were even permitted to continue using National Curriculum Levels if they so chose (and many did!). But at the moment, this is intertia, already there are some major and worrying changes to the curriculua of academies which are setting a potential future trend for English education. The National Curriculum was far from perfect, but it did (and currently does) enshrines a number of principles which may risk being lost if academies continue to be allowed to plough their own curricular furrows. For the purposes of brevity I just want to deal with two of these.
Richard White's "Remembering Ahanagran" is a book which I have been unable to put down. At times witty and amusing and at other times deeply moving, White tells the story of his mother's early life and emigration to the United States through her own memories, gathered over a lifetime.
"Lives are not stories. A day, a month, a year, or a lifetime has no plot. Our experiences are only the raw stuff of stories...We turn our lives into stories, and, in doing so, we...[give our] lives a coherence that the day-to-day lives of our actual experience lack."
One one level, White helps us to get a glimpse into the intimate stories of his family and shows us the strangeness of the world they inhabited. We see the impact of British policy in Ireland, we feel the social stigma attached to mixed marriages, we appreciate how people were both driven by the own desires but also controlled by factors outside their control. I was particularly drawn in by the detailed focus on the construction and reconstruction of ordinary lives. White is by no means glorifying the life his mother led, however, he shows it to be of the same interest and importance as so many other "famous lives" which have of course received far more attention. He demonstrates this beautifully when talking about the house in which his mother spent her early years in the USA.
"There are no histories of Chicago in which 6420 South Mozart Street...matters very much...But for Sara, Chicago always existed in relation to South Mozart Street. And all of America existed in relation to Chicago. South Mozart Street, where she started and ended her day, was the center of America."
On a different level, the book is also a history of the United States in the early 20th century. The characters of the story, whilst very ordinary, are also touched by the major events of the time. During Prohibition illegal stills are kept in the basement. When the Great Depression arrives its toll on the immigrant Americans can be seen. The racial tensions in the South also receive mention as do the corrupt legal systems of Chicago which find themselves in thrall to the Irish gangs. Towards the end of the book, themes of anti-Semitism and racism tinge the story, whilst the War throws the lives of the characters into disarray. If nothing else, the book is well worth a read to see how these "great" events impacted on the lives of everyday people. It is a story about what it means to be American and how American identity has been shaped.
Finally, and most importantly, "Remembering Ahanagran" is something of a historiography. The memories of White's mother are the raw materials of the book, however White has taken a very different approach to this. Much of the book sees him discussing and dealing with the gulf which exists between the memories of his mother and the evidence he can find historically. He begins by outlining the tensions between memory, story-telling and history.
"I once though of my mother's stories as history...Then I became an historian, and after many years I have come to realize that only careless historians confuse memory and history. History is the enemy of memory. The two stalk each other across the fields of the past, claiming the same terrain."
In every aspect, White compares his mother's memories and stories with the evidence he can find. In most cases there are huge tensions between the two version of the past and the book deals with how these might be reconciled. This is often a difficult process, and on more than one occasion it is clear that White's mother is not entirely happy with the direction the book is taking, she would rather keep the version of history she has created for herself. However White persists and the most fascinating aspect of the book is how White deals with these tensions and how he attempts to construct a history from the fragments. This is one of the most brilliant and eloquent explanations of the historical method I have read. It is like picking up White's thoughts and notes as much as it is a finished book. He also clearly struggles with his own memories of his mother and father as these are challenged by the evidence.
I think my favourite aspect of the book has been, what White would term, its anti-memoir quality. There is no attempt here to construct simple stories with simple meanings. Every aspect of Sara Walsh's life story is scrutinised. In many cases the result is complex and the result seems strange. But as White notes:
"Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present...The past should be so strange you wonder how you and the people you know and love could come from such as time..."
Ultimately the book feels like a discussion, a conversation about the past and how and why we construct it. It is a brilliant way to get thinking about the historical method and a highly recommended read to really get you thinking about what it means to be an historian and what the role of history should be. It also asks us to consider the meaning of historical significance, taking seemingly innocuous events and showing the enormous shadows they cast over the lives of the people in the book. White also demands that we think about the nature of time itself. He shows how some stories occur in ordinary time, whilst others, such as those of the heroes of The Troubles, take place in a "monumental time", where lives and deaths can span centuries instead of decades. Of course, ultimately the question of historical truth is raised. The conclusion on this is far from clear cut. The themes of the book are universal, they ask us to consider the merits and dangers of memory, and the shortcomings of History as a discipline. This book has not always been a simple read, but it has been absolutely riveting. I am not sure I have done it justice here but I cannot recommend it highly enough. I will finish with one last quote (from a book I could quote every second page of).
"Memory is a living thing vulnerable to a dead past until memory itself dies with its creator... History is a dead thing brought to new life. It is fragments of the past, dead and gone, resurrected by historians...It threatens our versions of ourselves."
Below you will find a link to the Teaching Personnel, Planning for Progression Session I ran on 23rd February. Please do feel free to download the materials. I would just ask that any attributions are left in.