PhD students Eleanor Barnett (@eleanorrbarnett), Trina Moseley (@trina_moseley) and Lewis Defrates (@lewisdefrates) talk to Doing History in Public about their experiences running sessions with primary school children for the Faculty of History’s History for Schools programme.
What was your History for Schools session about and how does it link with your research?
Eleanor and Trina: Our History for Schools session was called ‘Hungry Historians: A Delicious and Disgusting Journey Through Time’. We used our combined research interests in early modern (Italian and English) and modern (British) food history to teach about how flavours and ingredients have changed over time. We tried to have as many hands-on activities as possible, including opportunities to taste historical sweets and cakes! You can find out more about our session on the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group blog.
Lewis: My session was on the first visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to London in 1887. More broadly, my research concerns the movement of a variety of cultural actors and performers from the United States to Britain between 1880 and 1914 and differing conceptions of ‘Americanness’ that travel and performance enabled these figures to formulate, but this was a great chance to focus on one particular instance of travel and explore what it would have shown British audiences about ‘America’ in the late nineteenth century.
Did running the session make you think differently about your research? What did you learn from the children?
Eleanor: The children’s mixed reactions to tasting our historical recipes made me reflect on the novelty of seeing and tasting new foods in the early modern period, especially those arriving from the newly ‘discovered’ Americas. It also was a great opportunity to relate my research to change over time. For example, how did tomatoes, arriving in Europe in the sixteenth century, come to form such an integral part of Italian identity, and what wider systems have developed that allow them to be found in restaurants across the globe?
Trina: I’ve always felt that food and drink are good communicative topics: we all eat and drink to survive, so everyone has a stake in the intellectual discussion. I think that is a real plus when it comes to translating academic work about food to public audiences. The History for Schools workshop made me further appreciate the value of historical reconstruction. Getting the kids away from texts and images to focus on the experience of tasting food was really productive. It has made me reflect on the usefulness of the senses in public history and on the place of the sensory in my own work.
Lewis: In my work, the Wild West serves as a sort of normative representation of the United States in Britain, with an assortment of other performances challenging or conforming to the example the Wild West set, but running the workshop forced me to unpack the significance of the Wild West in ways I had taken for granted. We looked at how Native Americans were represented in the publicity surrounding the show, compared to the experiences of some of the individual Lakota performers, and I was taken aback at how quickly the children understood that these documents had been created by white Americans and were both one-sided and indicative of the attitudes of the period. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot more deeply about the ways in which nineteenth-century British publics were conditioned to accept these depictions in the first place.
How did teaching history to school-age children compare with other experiences you’ve had of public history?
Lewis: I have taught a few older groups of children, led a webinar with university applicants and run a podcast for my subject group called the Cambridge American History Seminar podcast, which have all been rewarding in their own way, but the interactivity of this session, combined with the younger age of the participants, made it unique for me. The students had to design a poster advertising the Wild West, and it was so encouraging to see how quickly they had taken on board what I had spoken about and combined it with their own experiences and existing knowledge from school (such as learning how to write persuasive language). It was by far the most instantly affirming experience I’ve had with public history.
Eleanor: The workshop was activity-based, which meant thinking of creative ways to present information, rather than simply speaking from the front.
Trina: My only real experience of public history (and I’m not sure if this counts) is my use of oral history in my PhD project on food and body weight in post-war Britain. There is a different power dynamic at play in oral history, since you are co-constructing knowledge with your interviewee, and learning from them as opposed to imparting knowledge. Working with a younger audience here felt more like ‘teaching’, although the interactive elements of the session helped to balance it out into a workshop as opposed to a lesson. Hopefully the kids came away feeling that they had been historians for the day, much in the same way that an oral history interviewee leaves the interview (it is hoped) knowing that they’ve made a valuable historical contribution.
Do you have any advice for historians adapting their work for a younger audience?
Eleanor and Trina: It’s a great opportunity to cut through the analytical noise and bring real events and real people to life. As we found out, less is more in an hour and a half session. Think back to the things that made you first excited by your topic. Boil down your research to a couple of key concepts – consider what will spark children’s curiosity and come up with one or two simple learning outcomes.
Lewis: I’m quite fortunate in that some of the topics I research were historically intended for consumption by the general public, and often young children, but I think younger audiences can grapple with a lot of complicated topics. For me, the key was being specific. People tend to understand broader themes if they have some interesting details to help carry those along. The children understood the general point about Victorian British understandings of people in the United States being limited by the media that was available at the time but talking through logistical details like the collection of animals that the Wild West took on their journey across the ocean helped make it more real to them.