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Using life histories deepens students’ thinking

This activity, by Diana Laffin, forms part of a sequence of learning focussed on the enquiry question: Did the Fascists unite or divide Italy in the years 1922-1944?

It uses real life narratives to develop students’ thinking about the impact of fascism on the lives of individual Italians during this period. The activity requires small groups of students to work collaboratively on an individual life story. Students make judgements about the factors that might have made the individual feel ‘at the heart of’, ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ Italian society at different points in time. In a follow-up activity, students relate their use of life histories in fascist Italy to the broader historical approach of micro-history.

Note: You can read a detailed description of this activity and find further life histories in Diana’s book Better Lessons in A Level History (History In Practice) Hodder (2009).

Download the Activity and Resources

The activity [ click here ]

Resource 1 – Character Narrative and other possible characters [ click here ]

Resource 2 – Zonal Diagram [ click here ]

Small-group work on individual narratives

• Organise your class into small groups of 4 and give each group a narrative relating to a real life character

• Divide the groups into two with one pair looking at 1929 and one at 1939.

• Using their knowledge of the fascist state in Italy each pair to completes a zonal diagram for their year with factors which might have made their character feel ‘at the heart of’, ‘part of’ or ‘outside’ Italian society.

• Students discuss with the other pair what had changed between the two dates.

Whole-class kinaesthetic activity

• Nominate one student in each pair to wear a tabard labelled with the name of the person whose life history they have studied.

• Clear a space in the classroom or find an open space where you can recreate the zonal diagram. Place the heart in the middle of the space ( at the ‘heart’ of Italian society ) and divide the space into three zones.

• Put up the 1929 date and ask the individuals in tabards to stand in the zone they feel they belong. Question them about why they are there.

• Put up the 1939 date and repeat the process with the 1939 student wearing the tabard. Question them about why they have/ have not moved zone.

Adapting the activity

1. Use an individual narrative as a starter and plenary for an enquiry. Find a particularly interesting individual narrative. This could be a written account, an oral or video clip or simply a narrative that you tell yourself. Describe the individual’s background and situation at the start of the regime/event/situation you are studying. Ask your students to speculate on what might happen to them in the next few years (or whatever time period is appropriate) and put these in a sealed envelope. At the end of the unit, display and share the speculations and reveal what really did happen. Discuss the differences.

2. Get students to relate the live of individuals to wider changes. Divide the class into small groups and give each group an individual life history. As you teach different phases or aspects of a topic ask students to explain the impact on their individual and to and make judgements about how far their individual’s experiences can be generalised to other people from their age group, gender, social class or religion.

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