As you will have noticed if you have been anywhere near a supermarket since June, this month it’s back to school, and for primary school children like my eight year old daughter Laura, another term means another topic.
When I was that age, a topic was a simple, self-driven task: four sheets of paper to fill on a set subject, the next on the list set by the teacher. I can see now that these topics were time-fillers, to occupy the brighter pupils who had completed all the workcards while the others caught up. I remember vividly picking bits of pebbledash off my suburban semi-detached house to sellotape on to my rather literal interpretation of the topic “My Home”.
These days, it’s not so simple. The modern topic is a whole-class, cross-curricular activity in which a single theme unites the many subjects to be taught throughout the term. Picture the topic a the spider at the heart of its web, the focal point of many subject strands woven cleverly together. The whole is definitely much greater than the sum of the parts. The result is a fun learning experience, leading to a broad, balanced outlook on life that I wish I’d had at Laura’s age (or indeed, now).
Last term, for example, Laura’s topic was on World War II. I was astonished at how dextrously this sombre subject was presented to capture her young imagination. And capture her imagination it certainly did. The class didn’t want the term to end.
“I think this is probably the best topic I’ll ever do in my life, Mummy,” she declared at half term.
Digging for victory in the school’s new vegetable garden and comparing the effectiveness of different materials for black-out ticked the science box. Writing speeches for Churchill, composing propaganda slogans and drafting newspaper reports covered literacy. Calculating the best use of their sweet ration was about as compelling a numeracy task as you can get. Swing dance was a popular PE session and learning catchy war-time songs went down well for music. One of Laura’s friends spent most of a playdate at our house singing “We’ll be hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line” at the top of her voice, with as much enthusiasm as any pop song.
I’m not sure what part of the National Curriculum was served by sitting under their desks for half hour for a mock air raid, but it’s certainly a lesson they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Ever the dutiful parent, I conscripted my parents to visit Laura’s class to talk about their experiences as evacuees from London, my father having been helpfully sent to the Cotswolds. Indeed his wartime love affair with the area (and one Dorothy Duckett) is what led me to live here myself. He brought his own children back for summer holidays and I vividly remember deciding when I was about Laura’s age that this was where I would live when I grew up.
To give some airtime to all sides, I also invited an elderly German friend, contemporary with my parents, to write the class a letter about her own experiences of evaculation to the German countryside. Many of her neighbours were killed in British air raids and she has suffered from claustrophobia ever since her numerous trips to the air raid shelter. An old Dutch school friend of mine recounted his mother’s experience of Nazi occupied Holland. Her greatest trauma was losing her mother and her home to an American (yes, an American) bomb. Friendly fire: it happened then too.
But just when I think the World War II topic has drawn to a close, and I’m packing for our summer holidays, I’m taken aback by Laura’s request to divert the itinerary. She thinks our leisurely tour of France in our camper van should now wander east: she wants us to annex Germany. I’d be less keen to change our plans, had I not overheard a game that she was playing with friends one afternoon towards the end of term. The trampoline had become a Nazi concentration camp, in which Laura and two of her friends were imprisoned. A fourth friend was playing the role of a German soldier. Fetching some glasses of squash from the kitchen, she shouted at them “Here, drink this slime, prisoners!” In the interests of international relations, I think I’d better take her there to make some German friends. But while we’re there, I don’t think I’ll mention the war.
(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2011)