Great ways to teach Bonfire Night

Emily Tostevin

Emily Tostevin is a Religious Studies and History Teacher with responsibility for Gifted, Able and Talented Education at St Sampson’s High, a mixed secondary school in Guernsey, Channel Islands.  Emily worked for Health and Social Services before training as a teacher at Oxford University in 2010.  Since then she worked for one year with the anti-smoking charity GASP, the Guernsey Adolescent Smokefree Project, before starting at St Sampson’s in 2012.   

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Image credit: Flickr // Adam Carter. Image credit: Flickr // Adam Carter.

Last month I received an email asking me to write an article entitled ‘Great Ways to Teach Bonfire Night’. Having been a teacher of RS and history for four years, and still not yet lost any of my enthusiasm for the job, I was really keen and immediately agreed to do it.

I considered some of what I learnt on a recent course on ‘How to Deliver Outstanding Lessons’ in order to brainstorm some ideas on what to include. On this course, we were first introduced to the concept of a ‘parachute’ that immediately launches students into a lesson and engages them with a topic. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, this could mean setting up something in the middle of the classroom, such as last year when my year 7 students arrived in the lesson to hear church music playing and saw a murder scene set up in the middle of the room, taking them back to Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This immediately launched them into a lesson where they had to work in teams to investigate different sources of evidence in order to decide for themselves who was responsible for the death of Thomas Becket.

It is a truly fantastic feeling to see a class of students walk into a room and immediately engage with their learning. I do not claim to put together a murder scene every week, but in the last two years, my classroom has also witnessed the murder of Julius Caesar, had the sights and sounds of first world war trenches (including a table of WW1 rations to snack on) and most recently, had a Hindu shrine set up to celebrate Diwali. If you find yourself with the time on 5th November, why not create your own mini scene of Guy Fawkes hiding out under the Houses of Parliament? Or if you want to investigate corporal punishment in the Stuart period, why not be truly gory and include a scene of the torture and/or execution of Fawkes and his conspirators?

While many of us love the idea of doing occasional ‘wow’ lessons such as these, ‘parachutes’ do not need to be so complicated. Last year, I asked my year 8 tutor group how long it took them to start learning in a lesson, and was shocked by their response. Most of them estimated it took them 5-15 minutes for them to start thinking in an average lesson. When I questioned this, they explained that in some lessons they would have starters which they liked, but that lots of teachers like to do the register, check homework, uniform, hand out books, let them chat and so on, all before they actually get on with any work…

Being a bit of a geek, I do read a fair few blogs and teaching books, and know that there are many people out there who sigh when they hear people start referring to the need to include starters, ‘ups’ and ‘parachutes’ in every lesson. However, when you talk to students and realise how much of the day can be wasted at the start of each lesson, it surely seems common sense to want to immediately engage your class with your subject and keep them interested in what your lesson will be about.

Here are a few simple ways in which you could let a lesson on Bonfire Night go off with a bang (I apologise for the cheesy pun!):

  • Give students two minutes to brainstorm facts they already know about Bonfire Night on Post-It Notes – add these to the board and then discuss as a class.
  • Play a game of Taboo: students number themselves 1 and 2. 2s face the wall and 1s face the board. 1s have to describe the three-five words on the board – the first pair to guess all their words stands up and shouts “TABOO”. This can be very competitive and is always popular with my students! Try and include a range of words (ideas to borrow include: Firework, gunpowder, Henry VIII, church, Monarch, Catholic, Guy, explosion, etc).
  • Connect 4: Include four words or pictures on the board and students have 1-3 minutes to make a connection between the images/words. Examples I have done include ‘Jesus-Miley Cyrus-the Pope-Selena Gomez’ (one link is that all 4 have at some point have spoken about the importance of chastity – yes, really!).
  • 3 minutes to describe as many nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs as they can find in a picture of Guy Fawkes. This is another competitive way to encourage students to improve their literacy. 
  • Have 2-3 sources on Bonfire Night on PowerPoint, e.g. a picture on the conspirators, a copy of Guy Fawkes’ signature, an account of his arrest. Students have five minutes to bullet-point facts that they can learn from these sources. This is a very effective way to teach students how to understand and describe evidence. 
  • Odd One Out: Include five pictures and students have to decide which is the odd one out (you don’t have a specific right or wrong answer – it’s purely about getting students to justify an opinion), e.g. pictures of an explosion, a witch, a Catholic Church, King James I, the rack.
  • Create a lesson on timelines where students match up the main events in the correct order. This can be done on the SmartBoard or on cards.

Whether you have the time to set up an entire crime scene or just take five minutes to create a short parachute for the start of your lesson, see if you can put any of these ideas to use- even if you don’t get round to them until after the 5th November! In fact, having had a week off this for half term, I am perfectly willing to admit that this morning I realised that despite me enthusiastically signing up to write this article, I had failed to notice that it was even November, never mind that Bonfire Night was almost upon us. With only five minutes to spare, I loaded Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework’ onto Youtube and started my lessons off with a quick game of Taboo. Whilst none of my lessons were actually centred on Guy Fawkes, I still found a way to bring Bonfire Night into my lessons and dare I say it, make my students that little more engaged…

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