These tips for teaching VCE History (Revolutions) are kindly provided by Kieren Prowse. Kieren is an experienced teacher of VCE History. He has also been a contributing author at Alpha History.
Starting out as a teacher of History (Revolutions) – or indeed any VCE History unit – is incredibly daunting. On top of the weight of expectation carried by all VCE teachers, History teachers are expected to know or have access to an enormous amount of information. They must understand extensive and complex course content – and how to teach it clearly and effectively. VCE History teachers are expected to be the ‘expert in the room’, answering a barrage of questions from those they teach. There is also the constant flow of administrative and regulatory information that comes with teaching VCE: study designs, syllabuses, assessment guidelines, marking advice and exam assessors’ reports. I have received valuable advice from several experienced colleagues over the years. This advice helped me develop from a nervous and indecisive teacher into someone who relishes challenges and enjoys walking into every history classroom. This article is a digest of this advice, intended for new and inexperienced teachers. As is always the case with teaching, however, the best advice can only go so far: there is no substitute for trying things in the classroom and learning from experience.
Find a mentor. The first goal for a teacher new to VCE History should be to find a mentor. Seek out, meet or talk with an experienced VCE History teacher. If nobody at your school has taught it, contact a subject association like the History Teachers Association of Victoria; they can put you in touch with learning networks or experienced history teachers in your area. Once you have secured a mentor, ask them for suggestions about resources, units of work, lessons plans and assessment tasks. Pick their brains about what works in the VCE History classroom and what doesn’t. Ask if they have any resources they are willing to share. Ask if they are prepared to do some collaborative marking. Ask your school for day release so you can watch your mentor in action – or ask your mentor to sit in on your classes and offer advice. Whatever you do, don’t try to do it all alone.
Choose a course wisely. The VCE History Study Design offers a range of options for VCE courses across Units One to Four. Many new teachers won’t select their own course or revolutions; these decisions are often made by the school, previous teachers or faculty heads. But if you do have the luxury of selecting a course, think carefully about whether the existing course is appropriate for you and your students. Don’t be afraid to change an existing course if it is outside your area of expertise, poorly resourced or unsuited to your students. Implementing a new course takes some extra effort early in the year but is worth it in the long run.
Write a unit plan. As any teacher will know, sticking to a rigid syllabus is difficult. School interruptions and absences eat into class time; students don’t always learn or work at a consistent pace; teachers have a tendency to digress; some topics and units simply take much longer than expected. For these reasons it is a good idea to draw up a broad but flexible semester plan, listing topics the students must learn and the assessment tasks you must administer. Plot these down on a document, along with anticipated times and dates. It will provide you with a framework to proceed through the content and prevent meandering during the early parts of the course. Give a copy to your students, if you wish.
Invest in resources. If teaching VCE History for the first time then consider investing in some resources, both to provide you with teaching material and to expand your own knowledge. Don’t rely on the school for this: buy your own books online. Amazon and The Book Depository (free shipping) offer great prices on both new and second hand texts. The auction website e-bay also contains thousands of used books at any given time, some costing next to nothing. Having an array of books to hand is a tremendous asset for VCE History, where depth of knowledge and access to different interpretations are critical. Reading about the same topic in two or three different books has expanded my understanding considerably. An assortment of books is also valuable when preparing student activities, such as handouts, analysis tasks and SACs.
Be honest about your inexperience. When starting out as a new teacher in any course, it pays to be brutally honest. Tell your students that you are new to the course – but assure them that you are well prepared, well resourced and will work hard to help them succeed. Most students will appreciate this honesty and give you a chance. Trying to bluff or feign expertise rarely works. Students will test out new teachers and they are quick to sniff out inexperience or intellectual dishonesty.
Leave your ego at the door. Some history teachers, whether through talent or experience, are walking encyclopaedias who can answer any question put to them. The rest of us mere mortals are occasionally stumped by student questions. Once again, it pays not to bluff. If I cannot answer a question I am quite prepared to say “I don’t know that”. What I do then is to write the question down and research the topic later. I challenge the student asking the question to do the same, so we can compare our findings next lesson. I also let the students know that like them, I consider myself a learner with regard to the subject and to history in general. Encourage their curiosity and learning by being prepared to share your own.
Connect your lessons. A simple and obvious tip – but one that is sometimes forgotten in the hubbub of school life. Make sure your lessons follow a sequence: that one follows the other chronologically, sequentially or conceptually. If students believe they are learning about one big story – with a beginning, a narrative or process and an endpoint – they will find it more interesting and engaging. Spend the first few minutes of your lesson recapping the previous lesson and quizzing the students about what they understood. Encourage questions and comments about the previous lesson and its content. This process is very useful for both the teacher and students.
Make history engaging. This is a cliche and it is easier said than done, but I certainly try to make learning history engaging and fun. I enjoy talking about unusual, interesting and quirky aspects of history – and students do too. They remember trivia and odd information – like Gavrilo Princip chancing upon his victim, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as he was waiting to get a sandwich in Sarajevo. Find snippets like this to bring colour to your lessons. I also use as much visual and audio-visual material as I can find, from sites like Youtube, Wikimedia Commons and Google Images. Having a map or some relevant images as a backdrop to your ‘chalk and talk’ allows students to visualise historical narrative.
Use professional development. There are some terrific agencies out there offering professional learning for teachers of history. None are better than the History Teachers Association of Victoria (HTAV). I strongly recommend the HTAV’s annual conference, which is held in July or August each year. This conference brings together the best historians, history teachers and resource providers in Victoria. It’s a great event for attending workshops, learning new strategies, locating great resources and networking with other teachers. The HTAV also offers VCE History conferences early in each semester. If you are new to VCE History, attend as many of these as you are able; they are an invaluable resource. Social Education Victoria, the State Library of Victoria, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Shrine of Remembrance also host interesting and useful professional development events. Visit their websites or join mailing lists to keep up to date with these events.
Mirror your assessment tasks to the exam. This is a strategy I was not aware of in my first years of teaching VCE and I regret it now. The History (Revolutions) course requires the teacher to set and administer four SACs throughout the year. I construct my SACs in a similar format to questions from the end of year exam. This allows students to practice their exam technique as they complete in-school assessments. It also provides teachers with good practice at marking exam style questions. Using the exam format in Unit One and Two (Year 11) assessment tasks is also a good idea, if it can be implemented. Remember: the more exposure students have to exam questions and formats, the more confident and competent they will become.
Allow students to practice. In the days before each SAC, I always give students the option of completing a practice task that is similar but not identical. This allows the student to develop a greater understanding of the task and its requirements; and to identify areas they need to improve on. Offer feedback on these practice tasks, either in writing or verbally. Not every student will take up the offer of a practice task but those who do benefit considerably.
Mark tough. History (Revolutions) is a weighty and challenging subject that tests the mettle of every student. Almost every VCE History classroom contains a low to middle band of students. Some students may try hard but find it difficult to make substantial progress. This can lead to frustration, disappointment and stress – both for them and for you. It is tempting for teachers to alleviate this by dispensing marks for effort rather than outcomes. But in VCE History this ‘soft marking’ can be a road to disaster. Generous marking not only gives students a false sense of optimism, it may inflate the value of SAC scores. Be tough with your marking. Your students will benefit in the long run; they will be better prepared for the exam; their SAC results won’t be brought to earth with a thud by statistical moderation. Of course ‘marking tough’ doesn’t mean you need to be cruel. Use written and verbal encouragement to explain numerical grades and reward progress. Give students regular feedback, encouragement and praise to build their confidence.
Become an examiner. Without doubt the best professional development for any VCE History teacher is to become an examiner for the November exam. All examiners complete a full day of training with the chief examiners. When students have completed the exam, each examiner marks a considerable number of exam papers. This enormous exposure to a range of responses, both good and bad. Working as an examiner is not for teachers new to the subject – but for those with a few years of teaching under their belt, it is a great form of professional development. Since working as an examiner my own confidence has increased and I am now more able to assist students with exam technique.