Sharing European Histories through stories of the past

Helen Snelson, the Curriculum Leader for History Teacher Training at the University of York and a teacher of 11-18-year-olds with 20 years experience, sat down with us to discuss her role in the development of the Sharing European Histories project and the inspiration behind her strategy – Using stories of the past to teach students about its complexity.  

I was very excited when I first heard about the Sharing European Histories project. For me, the project is an example of history education at its best. It is focused clearly on supporting real teachers, in real schools, teaching real children about history and the past. At the same time, it is a project that is not afraid to acknowledge that the past is a very large ‘place’ and that history is messy and complex.

You will hear a lot of people say that we need to look back at the past in order to understand where we have come from, and in order to learn how different people interpret the past to construct historical identities. I agree! But it makes history a hard subject to teach well in schools. Thankfully, it also makes it a rich and endlessly fascinating subject when it is taught well. In addition, young people who know about the past, and about how history is created, are able to join in contemporary debates and discussions with informed perspectives of their own.

At the heart of the strategy of stories of the past is the idea of focusing on people. These people might have lived through the same time period in Europe, but they all responded to the events and other people around them in different ways. Allowing this similarity and difference to be centre stage in the study of the past is a good way to avoid ahistorical over-simplifications about groups of people, how they thought and how they acted. At the same time, personal stories of real people are relatable and concrete. They enable students to engage with stories of the past in order to draw out bigger ideas and meanings.

Each story from the past tells the story of a different person relating to, or during, a specific event or time period. A set of stories has the event or time period as a common focus. However, a successful set draws on stories of people of different ages, gender/sex, backgrounds, locations and perspectives. That is, a diverse group of people. By engaging with a range of personal stories, students are able to identify similarities and differences between their thoughts and experiences. They are able to see that lives and responses are often full of complexity and nuance. They are better able to understand the context of actions taken and views held. They are also able to read about people whose voices may not usually be heard, and about the ordinariness of past life that may not be dramatic enough to warrant a history textbook chapter.

Stories of the past can help students to gain a sense of what a period was like. This then supports learning about major events that may be specified learning for assessment. They can also gain a richer understanding of these major events by reading about the nature and scale of the impact they had on people at the time. And it is possible to consider the stories as source material in the form of oral histories, particularly if teachers choose to engage students in adding to a set of stories of the past by interviewing friends and relatives about their memories of the time period being studied.

For the collection of stories from the past for the Sharing European Histories project I chose to focus on the topic of ‘After the Cold War: how do different people remember the years 1989-2000?’ The EuroClio network made it possible to contact people across the continent who were willing to share their stories. I would recommend working on developing a set to any colleague as a wonderful way to get to meet other people. However, it is also possible to use ready-made sets of stories from the past, for example, stories from 1945-49 are available on historiana.eu.

Students were asked to read the stories and to compare the similarities and differences between them. They were then asked to think about how easy or difficult life seemed for people, how much change was happening in people’s lives, and how much people were focused on wider events in the world. Having become very familiar with the stories, students were then able to suggest the impact of location, personal factors, and other factors on people’s experiences and memories. Using that discussion they could then make more general suggestions about life for people in the period 1989-2000.

The stories of the past strategy provides an accessible way to teach about complex ideas. It makes a virtue of the plethora of perspectives and experiences that humans have, in order to develop a richer knowledge and understanding of events and changes.

Helen’s strategy – Using stories of the past to teach students about its complexity – is part of a five-part teaching strategy series designed and tested by teachers for teachers. The aim of Sharing European Histories is to help young people understand the complexity, multiplicity, and transnational character of European history and recognise how history can engage everyone in understanding Europe. For more information, go to sharingeuropeanhistories.eu.

Partner Project (Re)Viewing European Stories Publishes Learning Activities

European histories are most prone to conflicting interpretations in places where national borders shifted repeatedly and local communities were uprooted or new communities settled in. To integrate these border dialogues in the classroom, EuroClio’s Sharing European Histories project supported efforts by the EUscreen Foundation to develop learning activities about borders and their significance in European history. The resulting educational  project (Re)Viewing European Stories has now published three ready-to-use innovative learning activities, which make creative use of audiovisual content from the EUscreen and Europeana archives. The activities encourage students to widen their perspectives and provide better context to many events in twentieth century European history, making them useful for any national curriculum. Additionally, the activities put personal stories at the center of students’ engagement, promote critical historical thinking, develop media literacy skills, and give students and teachers the flexibility they need to adapt them to their own learning goals. 

About the project

(Re)Viewing European Stories kicked off in October 2019, when a team of archival practitioners, historians and educators, as well as external experts convened in Warsaw to come up with ideas for engaging and interactive learning activities provoking critical thinking, while also using digital source materials and enhancing media literacy. The team settled on exploring the themes of migration and movement around three short films made by The European Network for Remembrance and Solidarity, one of the contributors, in their 2017 In Between project. The films investigated the dynamics of history and remembrance in three European borderlands, which suffered from big changes and upheavals in the twentieth century. By displaying oral history research in the chosen regions, the films allow students to engage with local and personal stories, before connecting them to the bigger historical context. The depicted borderlands include the Polish-Lithuanian border, where different groups of people have lived together for centuries while the borders drastically changed during 20th century,  the Bosnian town of Mostar, which found itself at the crossroads of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and the Catalan cross-border region, where many Spaniards attempted to flee the Franco regime at the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War. 

This image showcases how the films correspond to wider historical themes

The Learning Activities

In December 2020, the team finished their work and the completed activities are now freely available for teachers to use in their classrooms. All learning activities come with a premade package of learning materials, including information packs, step-by-step activity plans, and stimulating visuals. The intended age of students varies between 11 and 18 years old. The activities are initially designed for two lessons of forty-five minutes each, but can be adapted to suit any teacher’s needs.

Download the Learning Activities

The project’s learning activities have been published here under EuroClio’s educational materials or can be downloaded directly from the EUscreen Blog: 

        

More information

Visit the EUscreen blog for more information on the development of (Re)Viewing European Stories:

The Project Page: http://blog.euscreen.eu/reviewing-european-stories/ 

The History of the project: http://blog.euscreen.eu/2019/12/reviewing-european-stories-co-creation-workshop/ 

Contributors

(Re)Viewing European Stories is coordinated by the EUscreen Foundation, funded by the Evens Foundation and supported by EuroClio as part of the Sharing European Histories project. The project brought together archival practitioners, historians and educators, as well as external experts from a number of European countries: Documenta – center for dealing with the past (Croatia), Borderland Foundation (Poland), European Observatory on Memories (Spain), European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (Poland and others), National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute (Poland), Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Netherlands), with Jacek Staniszewski (Poland), a history teacher and EuroClio ambassador, serving as an independent education lead.

“Sharing European Histories” Kicks-Off in Gdansk

From April 5-7, the Kick-off meeting for the Sharing European Histories Project was held in parallel to the Annual Conference in Gdansk. EuroClio partnered with the Evens Foundation on this project because both organizations believe that opening up a space to engage with the dissonant and often conflicting nature of European history is the first step in discovering common positions or overcoming divisions while acknowledging existing differences. On behalf of the Evens Foundation, Chairwoman Monique Canto-Sperber welcomed participants to the conference during the opening cermony, introducing the Sharing European Histories project.

The Sharing European Histories Project aims to inspire and support history educators across Europe since we find that history educators are uniquely positioned to engage young people in confronting the dominant national narratives of history to overcome the divisions between nations and cultures.Back in September 2018 EuroClio and Evens Foundation put out a call for applicants; from over 70 applications received, two project partner organizations and five individual contributors were selected to join the Sharing European Histories project team. Rounding out the project team are two teacher trainers, Richard Kennett and Iryna Kostyuk, who will work with the individual contributors to help them develop their projects.

During the kick-off meeting all the team members had an opportunity to introduce their project ideas. Individual contributor, Helen Snelson, from the UK, shared her proposal for an oral history collection on how people around Europe experienced the end of cold war. Gentian Dedja, from Albania, proposed a practice that explores local historical heroes in cross border contexts to demonstrate how historical figures can surpass national prejudices. Elisabete Pereira, from Portugal, proposed a study of the hidden history of objects that explores the life cycle of their development and circulation around Europe and the globe. Presented in workshop at the Annual Conference, Juan Carlos Ocana, from Spain shared his proposal for actives that help history and citizenship educators confront the complex issues of Jihadist terrorism and the rise of the radical right in Europe in their classroom. In another workshop Joanna Wojdon, from Poland, demonstrated her proposed resource which explores how the historical thinking concept of continuity and change in historical events and processes changes perception depending on different perspectives.

Our project partners also shared their proposed projects with conference members during the Marketplace of Ideas. Sonja de Leeuw from EUscreen in partnership with Maja Drabczyk from National Film Archive-Audio Visual Institute, Poland (FINA) and Karolina Dziełak from the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS), shared their project proposal to develop interactive learning activates which explore migration in Europe using EUscreen’s large collection of digitized audio-visual sources. From the Croatian History Teacher’s Association (HUNP), Vedran Ristic shared the proposal for a project to investigate local material heritage and the personal stories connected to these materials from a contemporary global perspective.

The team decided that the individual contributors will spend the next year working with the teacher trainers to create a set of unified teaching strategies that form the basis of their proposed projects. These strategies will be peer-reviews and published on Historiana so teachers from across the globe can use them to teach history in a way that respects diversity, counters nationalist narratives, and promotes a critical enquiry about the past. Additionally, the individual contributors and project partners will be sharing the outcome of their proposed projects next year at the EuroClio Annual Conference 2020 in Serbia. Keep an eye out for further updates on this exciting project!