teachingrenaissance: University outreach and teaching the Tudors in primary schools
I love teaching at all levels, but while there is certainly an element of joy and fun that comes with teaching primary school children, for somebody who usually deals with university students, there is undoubtedly also fear and apprehension that comes with that. Let’s face it, comparisons to gladiatorial combat may be quite apt here, with the children having the advantage both of numbers, and of size ( they can move quicker around these knee- high tables and chairs than I can), but also of familiarity. The children operate in their normal sphere , while I am definitely out of my comfort zone. But that is what makes it so exhilarating, and that is what makes me work harder and hopefully makes me better at delivering teaching that is appropriate and exciting.
So, being offered the opportunity to contribute to teaching Tudor topic work at a local primary school was one chance I was not willing to pass up. I have some experience teaching at both primary and secondary school level, and have learnt that I have more freedom in shaping the delivery of my session than I had expected. In particular, the lay- out of a class room in school is usually already set up for small groups, so session planning needs to be dynamic, and flexible to work with task-based learning. My core discipline is art history, and that lends itself to using crafts, to learning by making, one of my key teaching principles. The Tudor session was no exception, built around a writing task and one that asked the children to design a commemorative medal.
The art historian has quite a few things to reflect on when teaching the Tudors. In many ways, the images are iconic; few would not recognise the iconic portrait of. Henry VIII, legs splayed, majestic, imposing, overwhelming, yet who are the artists? Tudor images have- arguably- been reduced to become part of a historical narrative only, a narrative which they serve to illustrate, but Tudor ART history remains to be written. It is good to see an increasing number of publications reflecting attempts to construct new histories of sixteenth- century England, narratives that are focused less on the agency of the dominant dynasty, but more on the rich and diverse visual culture of a dynamic society whether outside London or within the great metropolis? For art historians, the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on ‘Elizabeth I and Her People’ certainly offers a refreshing perspective, with the focus no longer solelyly on the figure of the monarch but extended to her circle. If anything, though, it emphasises just how much there is yet to explore about a century that is about so much more than a surprisingly successful but short lived and flamboyant dynasty, with two charismatic rulers and a few hapless wives.
Art history can help untangle some of these narratives, maybe about self-fashioning and a very sophisticated attempt at defining propaganda through material culture. Henry VIII for example certainly learnt much from the ‘Most Christian Republic’ of Venice, whose ambassadors were present at his court throughout the defining years of the 1520s and 1530s. There are visual artefacts, in particular maps, that speak of an attempt to create a different type of history; there are performances and celebrations that define a new means of self-fashioning; there is a different way of structuring the spiritual landscape of the English. But, teaching at a primary school is not the place to have these debates but maybe it is a place to start planting the seeds for an alternative narrative nevertheless. And for that, what better prop to use than
a) a teddy bear and
b) some crafts materials.
Regular readers of this blog know that I like to teach by doing, and one recurrent theme of my teaching is to get the students I am working with to think through aspects of material culture by constructing objects in order to tell a story. For the Tudors session, I played with ideas about self-fashioning, and there is no better way to do his than look at commemorative medals. The two-sided nature of a medal, with a primary narrative on the obverse (usually a bust portrait of the subject) that is then supplemented and complemented by the secondary narrative on the reverse, is just enormously fun to play with. Medals are tactile objects and tell stories that rely on you handling, turning over, looking at the disc that fits really rather nicely into your palm. Now this may sound all very complicated, about the projection of an idealised image of self expressed through metaphor, but children get this in a matter of seconds. And then, you let them loose on making their very own medals. For this task I use gold and silver card, that I have pre-cut into ca 15 cm circles at home; turn-around times at schools are tight, so I need the children to get on with the task quickly or the session will be finished before we have got anywhere, hence the preparation in advance. The medal task grabs the children’s imagination because it is fun. First, you decide on who is depicted on the front of the medal; I help them by putting Powerpoint slides up that show the Armada medal, as well as Elizabeth I’s Phoenix portrait, so the children can make a medal that shows Elizabeth I on the obverse and a Phoenix on the reverse, but following the model I have prepared is only he start of it! What I enjoy most are the variations I then see. One of my favourite recent re-interpretations shows Elizabeth I as Katniss Everdein (from ‘The Hunger Games’) , which is a rather imaginative and very astute reimagining of the Virgin Queen as the feisty girl warrior, and one that shows, without any doubt, that the child involved grasped both the concept of how a medal works, and also, how Elizabeth I fashioned her own image with reference to current cultural discourse. Am I pleased? Absolutely right. Teaching the Tudors is fresh, its relevant, and there are stories to tell.
Oh, just in case you are wondering about what was depicted on the reverse of the Elizabeth I as Katniss medal? Well, a lion of course.