'Really weird and freaky': using a Thomas Hardy short story as a source of evidence in the Year 8 classroom

Teaching History article

By Mary Woolley, published 31st May 2003

Can 25 so-called ‘low ability’ girls access 30 pages of difficult text? Yes, much more easily they can access the tiny, sanitised, made-easy ‘gobbets’ that they are normally exposed to in the name of ‘access’. Mary Woolley makes the point that boring texts are those that tell you only essential things, those that suggest that the purpose of a text is to convey core information. In reality, we sit up and take note when writers tell us the unnecessary. The unnecessary might be the quirky detail that is interesting in its own right, or it might be the detail that the author simply did not have to tell us and which therefore tells us a good deal more about the historian or contemporary author and his or her times. The unnecessary and the unwitting are what we read for in history. It is the ‘unnecessary’ that provides keys to get us into genuine enquiry and exploration. This is true of historians’ accounts, certainly (and a reason why we might use them a lot more and conventional textbooks a lot less), but even more so with original source material whose mood and message and unwitting evidence we use to unlock characteristics of the period. We probably do not help weak readers by turning reading into something that it is not - a litany of straightforward facts with no rhythm, no subtext, no ‘attitude’. Mary Woolley hit on the idea of using a Hardy short story (a very long text indeed for many pupils) as an historical source. Here lower-attaining pupils could at last really sharpen their evidential thinking.

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