Is Granny really “well old”?
Can’t we give her life – and Roman Britain – a better description than that?
This activity comes from Esther Arnott who teaches in Hounslow. It’s not just about Granny, pivotal though she is – it’s actually about helping students develop their sense of duration back as far as the Romans. And although Esther used it with a Y10 class the approach is equally applicable at KS2. The need for this activity with Y10 also underlines the fact that you don’t ever stop developing chronological understanding but need to keep working at it (including at A level) by focusing on its individual elements – sequencing, duration and sense of period. A key part of the activity is helping students develop their vocabulary for describing duration. It’s in the searching for the best words to sum up the passage of time that the learning will really take place.
To help students get a sense of how long ago the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans lived in Britain (Granny is usually the most ancient person they know!), [or any other period for that matter] and to understand why historians use a chronology short hand to describe the past and its distance from the present.
Ask students how old their Granny is. Write the number down and work out the year she was born.
Now turn your room into a timeline - mark one end 2010, and then put date markers for each of the years a student’s Granny was born (e.g. 1954, 1948 etc).
Ask students, how old are you? How far along the line do your years go? (Year 10s as an example: 14 years back from 2010 is 1996.)
Get students to describe how far that seems – what words would they use to describe the proportion of time taken up by a 14 year part of their Granny’s life.
Then, how many 14 year olds do you need to fill Granny’s life?
Now use the teacher – how far along the line in Granny’s life does the teacher go – measure this out again and repeat. There’s still a lot of time left. What words would the students use to describe the proportion of time taken up by the teacher of Granny’s life?
So, Granny seems like a long, long time ago - in the students’ perception. Ask the students: you think Granny is “well old”, but is she as old as the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans?! (Obviously tongue in cheek here - especially for Year 10s - but point is to emphasize breadth of time and space between what they perceive as “well old” [Granny], and what really is a long time ago [Romans et al].)
Add 406AD in to the classroom timeline, as a marker (when the Roman army left Britain). How many 14 year olds does it take to get back to 406AD? What words would the students use to describe the time between 406 and 2010?
Ask the students: looking at this timeline, why do you think that in history we...
a. ... carve the past up into centuries?
b. ... talk about the past using a chronology shorthand, like the “Roman period”, or the “Saxon era”? (clue: it’s a bit like why you use a shorthand like “LOL”, “BFF”, “TTYN”, or “BTW”) *
LOL = laugh out loud, BFF = best friends forever, TTYS = talk to you soon, BTW = by the way
Now add the following to the timeline:
440: Saxon raids begin
793: Viking raids begin
1066: Norman invasion
Repeat (how many 14 year olds etc).
Final reflection for the students: look carefully at this timeline. What word or phrase or descriptor would you use to express your Granny’s life when you see it in relation to the Romans, Saxons and Normans? What about your life in relation to these groups?
So the outcome is that Granny’s life is not “well old” (she’s actually “well young” in comparison to the Romans and co!); that the Romans et al were in Britain even longer ago than Granny’s life; and we use phrases like “Roman period” as a shorthand to quickly express periods of time.
Ideally, this should be followed with ‘Romans, Saxons and Normans - the overlap activity ‘Timelines for Understanding Duration’ to show students that shorthand and timelines can be misleading because the Roman period overlaps with the Saxons and so forth.