During Summer Term, Years 3-5 students at Yew Chung International School of Beijing have been immersed in the worlds of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilisations. Venture up to the open-plan Learning Communities and you will find yourself transported back many thousands of years – with Grecian vases on display and Egyptian craftsmen with their heads down, hands covered in clay, crafting pieces of delicate jewellery.
Taking students back in time
To teach ancient history to our students, explain Mrs Jane Kang (Year 3 Learning Community Teacher) and Ms Iyabo Tinubu (Year 5 Learning Community Team Leader), we must bring the subject to life. We engage our students with ancient civilisations by encouraging them to get under the skin of the Egyptian and Greek characters – their day-to-day lives, jobs, clothing, diets, stories. It’s a fabulously enjoyable topic to teach, because the children get swept up in the excitement and foreignness of these ancient worlds.
“At the very beginning of the topic, I took the children back in time”, explains Mrs Kang, whose Year 3s have been focusing on Ancient Egypt. “I turned up the heating in the 3A base to 35 degrees, I emptied sand over the tables and I played Egyptian music. We then spoke as a class about how it felt to be in the hot Egyptian desert.” This approach really sums up how ancient history is taught at YCIS Beijing primary. The learning spaces become windows onto a different world where children can live and explore the topic in an immersive way.
A range of ways to teach and learn
Teaching ancient history is particularly fertile ground for a great range of learning. “Our art teacher Ms Cusato came to craft Greek jars with the students”, explains Ms Tinubu who has been teaching Ancient Greece for six weeks. The wonderfully characterful Greek jars are on display in the Learning Community – hand painted and crafted from clay. Meanwhile the Year 3s have been making beaded jewellery from clay and Canopic jars from papier-mâché. There has been opportunity for creative writing tasks too – writing plays based on the Greek myths and stories on the lives of the Egyptian characters.
The bigger picture
There is no doubt that the details of these topics are brought to life in a colourful and immersive way. But the broader significance of learning about ancient cultures is not forgotten. For both years, the objective of the topic was to understand what ancient civilisations have handed down to the modern day. “Throughout the topic, I encouraged my students to see the links between ancient and modern times – we have inherited so much from the ancient Greeks”, says Ms Tinubu. “On top of this”, she explains “learning about ancient history is an important grounding for children when they go on to study more recent history in Secondary school. We learn about different types of sources, how to interrogate our sources, and to understand history as the real lives of real people – as opposed to something far away and hard to relate to.”
Mrs Kang explains that she seized the opportunity to discuss the passage of time in general. “It is very hard for children to visualise long time frames. So I got a piece of string and measured out 1cm to represent the children’s age (8yrs). I then used the length of string to show them how far back in time we were talking – if 1cm is 8 years, 625cm is 5,000 years. There are just so many opportunities to learn about the world when teaching ancient history to our students.”
As is customary at YCIS Beijing, at the end of their topics both Year 3 and Year 5 put on Celebration Days for parents. These days are an opportunity for students to showcase all the work they have produced, present to parents and peers and, last but not least, dress up in character! Celebration Days are always impressive displays of learning and creativity. The Year 5s performed their own plays, based on the Battle of Marathon, the Greek Gods and Goddesses, Theseus and the Minotaur, and the Life of a Spartan. They came dressed in outfits that they had researched and made at school, and were rewarded with a delicious spread of Grecian food – grapes, olives, juice.
“I always look forward to the Celebration Days”, says Ms Tinubu. “They are a good opportunity for students to take ownership of their work and engage their mums and dads with what they’ve been studying. It’s also a great way to conclude the learning in a purposeful and enjoyable way.”
“Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the topic came out of the Celebration Day”, says Mrs Kang. “Our students designed and crafted incredibly elaborate and historically accurate Egyptian costumes. They put so much time and effort in – continuing the projects at home – so that on the day itself we really were transported to the sandy streets of ancient Egypt.”