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…