Some aspects of this year’s 1916 centenary commemorations have come in for criticism, but this one certainly did not.
Last week, the boys of third class in Sunday’s Well National School in Cork City uploaded their own Lego figure depiction of the Easter Rising on YouTube. Since then, it has been viewed almost 60,000 times, and among those commenting was one Ian MacDonagh, who wrote: “My great grandfather Thomas MacDonagh would be impressed I’m sure, well done everyone!”
The stopframe video is a brilliantly succinct retelling of some of the key aspects of Easter Week 1916, the voiceover from the children, homemade sound effects, and staccato action imbuing it with an unexpected dramatic tension. It must have been both challenging and enormous fun for the boys of third class to do, all under the guidance of their teacher, Michael O’Connor.
Putting bricks together came easy to the 36-year-old from Cork — he worked in construction before he began teaching.
He admits to being surprised at the response to the 1916 clip, particularly considering “other things we’ve done that we put a huge amount of time into”.
He and the class had produced an earlier Lego stopframe project but a live action film they recorded on the subject of Romans had such production values that just creating the costumes and swords took a week.
Michael, who has taught at Sunday’s Well National School for six years, firmly believes that the old methods of simply flicking through the books will not fully inform students.
“It shows that that is only going to serve a certain number of pupils, that they can learn that way. Acting it out and dramatising it gives them a different insight and it is good for their confidence,” says Michael.
All of this turns the focus on how best to engage students at both secondary and primary level in history, and whether or not teachers are under greater pressure to find new and innovative ways of educating children about events such as the Easter Rising.
According to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the Rising and how it should be approached in schools is a current hot topic, with the primary history curriculum referring to our identity being “shaped by the cultural and social experiences of many different peoples in the past”.
The INTO has developed an online resource for teachers to explore the 1916 Rising and provide active learning for pupils, and one of those responsible for it, Ann Murtagh, said teachers “ are under a certain amount of pressure to be innovative”. However, the INTO resource notwithstanding, “the resources are not there”, says Ms Murtagh.
She praised Michael’s efforts but said the curriculum is focused on using primary sources when it comes to the teaching of historical events such as the Easter Rising, but often those primary sources can be “quite difficult” to access.
Ms Murtagh, a learning support resource teacher at the Kilkenny School Project Educate Together School, gave the example of teachers being encouraged to attend local libraries to source newspaper reports of the time, but she says in reality this means the teacher going in their own time and combing through hard copy and microfilm until they find what they need. She says other sources, such as archive material online, is available, but at a cost.
A keen historian, Ms Murtagh says 1916 is “more relatable” to children than many other historical periods, because so many children may have a family link to the events of the time through a great-grandparent or other family member.
At second level, there has been severe criticism from some teachers that history’s importance has been relegated as it is no longer a compulsory subject for those in the junior cycle, which it had been up to recently in around half of all secondary schools.
Christian O’Connor teaches history at St Mary’s Secondary School in Mallow and is also vice-chairman of the Cork History Teachers Association. Unsurprisingly, he sees a disconnection between the focus this year on the events of the Rising, and what teachers feel is the relegation of history as a core subject in the junior cycle.
“The position of history in secondary schools is under threat,” he says. “With the junior cycle reforms that are coming down the line, it will become an optional subject. We feel it will have a very negative effect on the subject.”
One problem could be that parents, conscious of the drive for greater success in maths and science, might influence their children to swerve around history.
This, says Christian, would have a knock-on effect at leaving cert level: “It would be a shame — it is a valuable subject.”
His own school has thrown its lot in with the 1916 celebrations and has already held a dedicated History Week and took as a special theme ‘The Women of 1916’.
Christian believes the department has made adequate resources, and lists some of the events secondary students will be able to attend.
Meanwhile, Michael confirms that Disney Pixar and the like have not been in touch looking to steal him away from the classroom.
“I’ll be waiting a while,” he laughs.
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