by Gerrit van Honthorst, oil on canvas, 1628

It was great fun to teach on the Edge Hill Summer Residential this year.  It’s aimed at students between years 12 and 13 who are thinking of applying to do history at university (it’s one strand of a wider programme of summer residdentials for different subjects). There were two and half days of academic input, all from me apart from a 15 minute talk on student life by a student helper and a few minutes on the Monday afternoon when the head of department, Professor Paul Ward, popped in to say hello to the students.  For the rest of their time, the students received advice on useful topics such as applying for university, and there were social acitivities for the students to enjoy.

It was also a really great opportunity for me, as I was responsible for planning the whole thing.  The only proviso was that it must include an independent research project which the students had to present back to the whole group.  I chose to focus on the long-term changes which led eventually to the execution of Charles I.    I was able to try out all sorts of teaching activities that I’ve never attempted before.  Not all of them went entirely to plan, but it was interesting to see what worked and what can be improved.  Often, it was the technology that caused the problems – video linked in a powerpoint wouldn’t run in Edge, which is where it opens automatically, although it worked perfectly in Chrome…  And I’d booked a room with a visualiser especially so that I could show students each others’ castle designs.  I went in to check how it worked on the Monday afternoon so that I was ready on the Tuesday, and then on the Tuesday it failed miserably to show anything at all on the screen other than a bright light.  Note to self: must undergo some proper training on document cameras as soon as I can!

I had far more material than I could get through, mainly because the students really got stuck in to the tasks they were set.  It meant I could tailor the sessions to where they seemed interested, and that I got some meaningful responses to the activities we did complete.  One of the students was even prepared to make up a tune and sing the chorus and verse of a ballad that his group had made up about Prince Charles’s visit to Spain to woo the Infanta Maria.  They could have done with a lot more time for that activity, but I had been worried that they might not take up the challenge at all, so I had other things planned as a safety net.

There was one activity I had planned that I was disappointed not to get to.  I had put together an activity to look at how historians use their sources.  The idea was that the students would read an extract from a journal article by Nicholas Canny and some short extracts from one of  the primary sources that he used to write the article – in this case, Edmund Spenser’s description of the Irish.  I’d still like to use it, so if I get asked to take the summer school again next year, I might have to re-jig the timetable a bit in order to make sure I fit that one in.

But the crowning glory of the summer school was the mock-trial of Charles I, which we held at the end of the 2 days.  It worked like this:

  • I gave them the outline of their independent research project: Charles I was being tried for treason. This document outlined what they were expected to do, and suggested the elements which needed to be covered by each group, for example ‘absolutism’ and ‘the role of Ireland’.
  • I also gave them a copy of John Morrill’s Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the Writing of the English Revolution, with instructions to try to read through it that evening.
  • I divided the class in half.  One group had to prepare the case for the prosecution and the other the case for the defence.
  • The students divided up the various topics between them, according to their interests.
  • Students completed individual research and wrote a short speech on their chosen topic.  They were given an hour and a half hour during the teaching sessions, as well as the opportunity to do further research during the evenings of the residential stay.
  • On Tuesday afternoon, following their lecture on Charles I, we rearranged the tables into a horseshoe and sat the defence team on one side and the prosecution on the other.
  • The students on the prosecution team made the case for Charles being guilty of treason.
  • The defence team gave their speeches.
  • We held a vote on whether Charles was guilty.

I was really proud of the students, who had put an awful lot of work into their speeches, not only in terms of the subject matter but also in the way they expressed themselves.  One student, for example, went to great lengths to explain why she thought parliament’s claim that Charles was an absolutist monarch (or at least aiming towards it) was self-defeating because if he were absolute, parliament would not be sitting.  Others had managed to find out all sorts of details that I had not covered during the two days’ teaching. In the end, they voted to find him not guilty (thus changing history, of course, and that did make me wonder about unintended consequences and counterfactual history – although I stand by the fact that the outcome of the trial was less important in this case than that they had thought about the evidence for each side of the argument.  I might have a bit of a rethink about how to handle this another time).

What made the proceedings particularly interesting was that I’d invited Paul Ward along to hear the students give their presentations, and as he arrived I realised that he could take on the role of Charles I!  It could, of course, have been a bit hairy if the students had decided that he was guilty, because then I would have had to behead the head of department…



DX2GYQrWkAAEtdkTeaching at Edge Hill gave me my first opportunity to take students on a field trip – we went to the Walker Art Gallery, where Elizabeth Newell, a blue badge guide from Liverpool Tour Guide Services, took us round several of the galleries.  Obviously, we concentrated on the sixteenth and seventeenth century galleries, because that’s the period we’ve been studying recently, but before Christmas the students were studying medieval history and it seemed sensible to look at what came after while we there too.

DX2HcbdXUAARqIzThe collection is based on the paintings collected by William Roscoe, one of England’s leading abolitionists.  He amassed a large collection of treasures but they were dispersed during financial difficulties which forced him into bankruptcy in the 1820s.  Thirty-seven of his paintings were saved by his friends and acquired by the gallery in 1819.  So we started our tour by looking at Martin Archer Shee’s portrait of the man himself.

Our next move was into the medieval gallery.  Elizabeth explained that medieval artists mixed pigment with egg albumen to make their paint, and painted on boards.  As the process was so slow and laborious, the paintings were very expensive and, therefore, the Catholic church was one of the few institutions that could afford to commission or buy them.  This explains why there are many, many Biblical themes: the paintings were used to tell Bible stories to the illiterate.


The medieval gallery is also home to some beautiful illuminated manuscripts and ivory carvings, as well as the most important painting in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection: a small piece painted by Simone Martini in 1342 called Christ Discovered in the Temple.  Although the gold relief-work is eye-catching and impressive, the vivid blues used for the Virgin Mary’s cloak were particularly expensive.  There was also a very interesting triptych from Cologne.  This trio of paintings tells the story of Christ’s Passion, from Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Christ, through the crucifixion itself, to the women grieving over Christ’s dead body.  Elizabeth explained that most of the time, the two wings would have been closed, so instead, for most of the year, the congregation would have seen the images of the painting’s patrons instead!


The medieval and Renaissance galleries also gave us a chance to talk about Reformation iconoclasm – the destruction of paintings, sculptures and stained glass, particularly during Edward VI’s reign.  Some Reformation thinkers, such as Calvin and Zwingli, objected to images in church because of the first and second commandments: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”.  They were afraid that people were focussing their attention on the image, not the God that it represented – that in fact images encouraged idolatory.  By praying at images and leaving offerings before them, they were worshipping the image not God.  Although the word ‘iconoclasm’ often creates mental images of lynch mobs, in fact, Edwardian iconoclasm was state-sponsored and usually quite orderly.  Elizabeth then pointed out that one of the knock-on effects of the Reformation was to encourage a growth in portrait painting, as it undermined the role of the sort of Biblical images at which we had been looking.

Our next stops were probably the two highlights of the visit, given what we’ve been studying over the last few weeks.


The massive portrait of Henry VIII, from the workshop of Hans Holbein, was copied from the Whitehall mural.  Elizabeth noted that in its original setting, it must have been a terrifying sight.  It was also fascinating to hear about how expensive the carpet on which Henry stands would have been in the Tudor period.  Only a week before the visit, my students had been giving presentations on portraits of Elizabeth I and several of them commented on the opulence of the fabrics she wore.  None of us had paid a great deal of attention to the background fabrics, though. To us, a carpet is a carpet.  But the carpet on which Henry stands would have been made in a similar way to tapestry – time-consuming and expensive.

DX2QHB5WsAAVcJrThe students were particularly interested in the pelican portrait of Elizabeth I, which is attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  In the portrait, Elizabeth wears a brooch of a pelican as a metaphor for her relationship with her people – the mother pelican was thought to feed its young with its own blood, sacrificing itself in the process.

Another fascinating portrait in the same room was of the Elizabethan courtier, Sir George Delves, and his late wife, whose face is partly obscured by a branch of myrtle, the symbol of everlasting love.




I used the newly-refurbished Virgin and Child in Glory, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, to tell the students about the difference between English and continental art during the early modern period, and how Charles I went to Spain in 1623 to woo the Infanta and instead came back with crate-loads of continental artworks!  His trip ignited a life-long passion for art and started a collection which would later be broken up and sold off by the Interregnum regime.  Okay, so the Murillo is from 1673, somewhat later, but it’s such a glorious piece, it was worth spending some time in front of it!  We also stopped to look at the first Rembrandt to be brought into England – it was given to Charles I in the 1630s.

One of the final pieces we studied was William Hogarth’s David Garrick as Richard III, in which Garrick sits in a ‘lazy’ or ‘serpentine’ curve – the one which would become known as the ‘Hogarth curve’ or ‘line of beauty‘.


We had a really interesting and informative visit, which brought to life some of the things that we’ve been studying over the last couple of months. Our thanks go to Elizabeth for the tour.


Langden Brook, Trough of Bowland By Alexander P Kapp, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13402669

When your wheels are burning up the miles and you’re wearing down shoe leather,

When your face is frozen in a smile and the road goes on forever,

Forever, forever, the road goes on forever,

Over the next hill maybe there’s good weather.”

(Steve Tilston)

That song seemed to have been specially written for the busiest 4 weeks I think I’ve ever had.  At the end of November and beginning of December last year, I was working all over the place.  In one week, I taught in Liverpool, Birmingham, Bury, Manchester, back to Liverpool, Longridge and finally Garstang.  The quick-witted among you will have spotted that it meant two places in one day.  There was a lot of driving, and a lot of travelling on trains.  On some days I felt like I was meeting myself coming back.  I certainly started counting up the hours to see whether I was spending more time travelling than actually teaching.

There are several good things to be said for this it.  First off, the weather was mainly good.  It was cold, but it would have been a nightmare if there had been 4 weeks of torrential rain.  Secondly, it meant I was actually working and therefore I had money coming in. It was just that everything seemed to come at once.  I had my normal tutoring and my class for Liverpool Hope in Bury, as well as some A-level lectures for Sovereign Education.  On top of that, I was asked to cover a few weeks of a course on witchcraft and witch hunting for Hope in Liverpool.  Then, into the middle of it all, some podcasts to write and the copy edits of the book to respond to.

Busy, busy, busy.  But also, the exhaustion. With several long days (and I mean long!) each week, I was tired out by Christmas.  Just in time for the proofs of my book to arrive for me to check and write the index…

My portfolio career is such that among my teaching is an introductory module for Liverpool Hope University on twentieth century Europe. This is ‘flipped learning’ course, where the students access recorded lectures and course materials via the course moodle and then attend seminars and tutorials ready to discuss the issues that they’ve come across.

Last year, I enjoyed teaching in a maths classroom.  The benefit of this was that the walls were covered in huge whiteboards, which I used frequently to brainstorm ideas and, for example, to get students to create composite drawings which reflected their understanding of the issues that led to the civil war.  This year, to my horror, I am teaching in a psychology room.  The whiteboard is minute and placed directly behind the teacher’s desk.  Well, I wasn’t prepared to jettisone those carefully prepared activities that get students talking, thinking and creating.  How then to solve the problem of classroom activities that required those whiteboards?

In the first instance, I decided to use post-it notes.

2017-10-10 19.11.35

The task was for students to brainstorm aspects of European society c1900, writing each one on a post-it note and placing it in a ring around the central idea.  From there, the students had to break those aspects down into their component parts, and place them down as spokes coming off the ring.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did get the students (who at that stage didn’t really know one another) out of their seats, talking to one another and discussing the different angles and issues that Europe faced at the turn of the century.



Back in February, as part of the Embodiment and New Materialism conference in Lancaster, I was part of a drama workshop which took place in Lancaster Castle.  It was somewhere that I’d been intending to visit for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it. So over the Easter break, we all went on the castle tour to get a proper look round.


Of course, one of the most interesting things about the castle for me is that it was where the Lancashire witches were tried.  Living near Pendle and teaching witchcraft as part of the undergraduate early modern history survey course meant that it was going to be a place I wanted to see.  Tradition has it that they were held in the medieval Well Tower before their trial.


But there were plenty of other good reasons to go. It’s an amazing place – the most secure court in the country on account of the keep walls, which are 3 metres thick!  It’s a hotch-potch of buildings clustered on a site that was first used in the Roman period.  Several buildings date from the medieval period, while the women’s prison was built in 1821 on the panopticon design.

The tour was excellent, and although it’s forbidden to take photographs in some parts of the castle because it is a working court, the are areas where photography is allowed.  The tour was excellent, finishing in the cells, where there was a display of prison clothing designed to humiliate the inmates and make them easy to spot if they escaped.  The condemned cell was rather more luxurious than the ordinary cells.


Another reason for my interest in the castle, though, is that my mother lived in Lancaster as a child and walked to school alongside the castle each day.


I have a confession to make…

I quite enjoy marking.

There.  I said it aloud. I know we all moan about marking – grading papers is laborious and can take up a lot of time, especially if you have a lot of students.  But actually, there are several aspects of it that I enjoy.  One of them is the moment when I come across a student quoting from a work written by someone I know.  For some reason, it always makes me smile.  That happened this afternoon and it’s one reason why I thought I would write this quick post.

Another reason is that I like helping people learn, which I suppose is why I went into education in the first place.  My tutor at Edge Hill, the lovely Darren Murrall, once described me as a natural born teacher and I suspect my children would testify to the fact that I can’t help myself.

But the main reason that I enjoy marking is because it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see students improve.  It’s particularly great when a student takes on board advice that you’ve given and pulls a really significant improvement out of the bag, and that was what happened just before I knocked off work this afternoon.  Not just a smile, but a big grin and a good feeling.



Last Friday saw the publication of my first full length, peer-reviewed article, Verse Epitaphs and the Memorialisation of Women in Reformation England, commissioned by Liz Oakley-Brown when she was editor of the Renaissance section of Literature Compass.  I’m happy to say that it comes with its own teaching and learning guide, as well as supporting materials such as a ballad recording and a video abstract, although when I try to access the video abstract from the Literature Compass page, it takes me not to my abstract but to one by Jolyon Thomas.  Not that I’m not interested in the religious policy of modern Japan…  And frankly, I’d much rather watch someone other than me…

Anyway, it’s a nice way to start what promises to be an eventful week, because on Thursday I will be speaking at the Early Modern British History Seminar at Oxford University.  The title of my paper is ‘Text, Truth and Tonality in Mid-Tudor Ballads’. 

I’m also enjoying getting to know a bit more about twentieth century history, both for my tutoring of GCSE history pupils and my teaching at Holy Cross College for Liverpool Hope, although juggling all my different roles is proving interesting.

Before the summer vacation I completed the FutureLearn Blended Learning Essentials – Getting Started course, so when it finished I thought it probably made sense to sign up for the follow-up course on Embedding Practice.  As someone who teaches on a blended learning degree course delivered by Liverpool Hope University through Holy Cross College in Bury, these courses are providing useful Continuing Professional Development.  But in the spirit of using technology to assist learning, I have decided again to keep my reflective log here on the blog.

The course leaders define blended learning as

an appropriate mix of face-to-face and online learning activities, using traditional instruction, guided support and independent learning, underpinned by the use of digital technologies and designed using strong pedagogical principles, to support learner engagement, flexibility and success.

One of the first activities asked what learners think about blended learning.  Well, as you might expect, some answers were more nuanced than others:

  • It generates more enthusiasm because it’s  more fun
  • It generates competition between students which makes them want to do well
  • It makes it easy to collaborate, because students can work on one thing together but on their own computers
  •  Some identified it as significantly better than pen, paper and text book because you can do things that they can’t do – demonstrations, for example.
  • It offers the ability to check what you need to do whenever you like (at undergraduate level it would have been normal for years to provide this kind of information in a course handbook although I accept that at school it was less so).
  • You can use interactive quizzes to test yourself.  this helps you to find flaws and gives you an immediate response)
  • It allows you to complete things at your own speed. (I’m not sure I agree with that – you still have to keep alongside the rest of the class in order to progress with class activities).
  • Foremost, it is easily accessible – it makes education available when you want, where you want.  There are disadvantages to this though: if you’re trying to do all your studying on the bus, it might not be the optimal learning environment.

The video made the point that blended learning works well at the college because it is “carefully managed and well supported.  They’ve embedded it into their practice by engaging staff and listening to learners”.

The next activity asked me to suggest ways in which teachers could collect evidence of learning during a session teaching aromatherapy (yes it’s a bit far removed from academic history, but I knew that when I signed up for it, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the implications of moving the techniques from vocational FE to academic HE later).  First off, they can make sure that people appear to be paying attention to the teacher speaking.  While doing the planning and practical activities they could walk round the classroom and watch what the students were doing.  This helps the teacher to see if they have understood the passive, listening activity.  They could also have collected in the recipes of three suggested mixtures.  The course leaders also pointed out that the computer aromatherapy programme gives the students instant visual feedback on their choices, while promoting discussion and planning on the part of the students.  Here again, the teacher can listen to what the students say to identify evidence of how well the students learn the concepts they need.  In summary

The pie chart feedback encourages experimenting. The digital tool records their sequence of experiments. The collaborative task promotes discussion, which the tutor can reflect on. And the students record their own results, which provides evidence of what they have learned.

 The sixth lesson was to look at an existing learning plan and see how technology could be used to enhance it.  It showed that by adding blended learning activities to the vocational lesson, the students were engaged in more active learning. Now, I still have a bit of a problem with how to adapt some of these activities for the sorts of higher level, critical-thinking skills that I am trying to encourage in my students.  One bit of advice did have resonances, however, because it related to the ways in which students upload their own work to a website for comparison.  It didn’t sound dissimilar to the chat-room activity that I conduct fortnightly with my students.  It suggested that they could use their own research

to produce a digital report, and then upload that to the class website. And then, the next class meeting, this means that instead of just discussing what they found, both learners and the tutor can make use of the website to compare their shared experiences, and then make an edited record of the best bits of their reports. It’s a great way to summarise what they found that’s relevant to the intended learning outcome.

I wonder if it’s possible to do this with the student analyses of the secondary sources which they study each week?  If I could persuade the students to upload their responses to a forum ahead of the session, we could then use that as a starting point for an online discussion which identified the most important factors, or where students had got a particular idea.  I wonder if this would make better use of our online time than just reading through 12 sets of answers to the same questions without having time to engage in any debate…  There is a problem though, because I usually find that my students aren’t actually able to type, which means that they are unable to answer anything other than seen questions.  They can’t type fast enough to answer off the cuff questions.

From a management point of view, blended learning technology offers the ability to track the amount of work done by individual students and the progression of students under the supervision of different teachers.  The course pointed out that it is possible to track progress towards learning outcomes (either as a teacher or manager) through

  • Reading comments in a forum
  • Tracking learners’ VLE activity
  • Results from automated tests
  • Using voting tools in response to your questions in class

The data generated by educational technologies such as Moodle are known as ‘learning analytics’ or ‘activity data’.  There are, however, some significant ethical issues surrounding learning analytics, particularly with regard to clarity, privacy and validity.

 I also had a go with an electronic lesson planner, or as it prefers to call itself, a learning designer. It was useful to be able to see instantly how much time  you had used up, and the pie chart made it easy to see the proportions of different types of learning activity.