When teaching a lesson in history, it can often be useful to base your lesson around a particular set of sources. The benefits of this are that students can make valuable human connections between the content they are learning and how it relates to real life. I often tell my Junior Cycle students that as historians they are like detectives, they are given a source and their job is decode the obvious and more hidden meanings behind it. While it can seem daunting to look for sources which are rich in information and accessible to students, the IAR has a catalogue of numerous sources which are practically ready for use with little need for adaptions.
One example of this, is the Clifden Poor Law Union collection which is held at Galway County Council Archives. I found this collection while browsing through the “local government” section of the IAR’s website.
The Clifden Poor Law Union was a union established in August 1840 in an attempt to deal with extreme poverty in the Clifden area. As part of it, it had a workhouse which started receiving inmates from March 1847. An advantage of using this source in the classroom is that it is digitised and has unrestricted access so teachers are free to use it without having to physically visit an archive. In addition to this Galway County Council has created a comprehensive descriptive list which details and explains the sources in the collection as well as some contextual information. This means that the source is ready to use and teachers would have to do minimal extra research in order to incorporate this into a lesson. The collection includes a wide variety of sources such as minutes from board meetings, an image of the workhouse, letters from doctors and board members, census reports for some inmates and a diet book.
The use of this collection in a history lesson would help teachers include learning outcomes from two strands of Junior Cycle history. Firstly, this source could be introduced around teaching the Famine and Irish diaspora (Strand 2; the History of Ireland). While the collection begins around 1849, it could inform students about the conditions of workhouses and can lead into the discussion around emigration and diaspora. By students having a clearer knowledge of living conditions in 19th century Ireland, it can help them to better understand why emigration continued long after the Famine. This is a concept that students often struggle to grasp as they are not aware of the hardships people faced at this time. Secondly, students can analyse the sources and use historical terminology to examine their findings (Strand 1; the Nature of History). This also allows teachers to differentiate sources by asking higher and lower questions, grouping students when doing source activities or by providing scaffolding during source analyses.
When using this source, I introduced it to my class after we had studied famine relief efforts and before we examined the impact of Famine in Ireland. This meant that students were aware of workhouses and public work schemes and after looking at these sources would understand the context for the large drop in population due to death and emigration. In order to get the most out of these sources, I would recommend devoting one-hour long class or a double class if working in forty-minute slots, depending on your school. I found that by producing these sources in a booklet with accompanying questions that students found it less daunting and treated it as if they were completing a workbook. After going through the learning intentions of the class and giving a brief explanation on the Clifden collection and how it related to our studies, I began by introducing the sources. As the students are in second year, they are still coming to grips with source analysis so it is a good idea to explain each source clearly and what information it reveals. From there, they can identify the types of sources and what the information can tell us about the time period.
The first source which I introduced to my class was a recorded number of inmates who resided and/or died in the workhouse. I chose this source first as the archivist had collated it into a clear table. This made it easy to read and understand so students were not confused or intimidated by difficult handwriting or old phraseology. I also highlighted the contextual information at the top of the page which indicated the workhouse capacity and population of Clifden. While this source is useful as it puts into context the level of poverty within Clifden at the time, it also encourages numeracy which is a key skill in the Junior Cycle. New teachers can often struggle to incorporate numeracy into history lessons but simple activities such as getting them to state the difference in inmate levels between certain years is an effective way to do this.
Recorded Number of Inmates Resident and Deaths in the Workhouse, Clifden Board of Guardian minutes, 1849-1921, Appendix D, this collection is held by Galway County Council Archives, and is available free online at www.galway.ie/digitalarchives
Another source which I showed my students was two census reports for the workhouse school and a workhouse staff member. Census reports are a great way of incorporating a personal element into a history topic which can sometimes focus on the bigger picture. The only challenge which may arise is that students may struggle to read the handwriting. However, once I annotated a few words for them they were fascinated by it.
1901 Census record for Workhouse School, Townland of Tullyvoheen, DED of Clifden with names of children on 31 March 1901, includes Ellen Burke, perhaps the same referred to in the Clifton Board of Guardian minutes on 12th Sept 1900, GPL3/86, p4, this collection is held by Galway County Council Archives, and is available free online at www.galway.ie/digitalarchives
1901 Census record for Bernard Bodkin, workhouse porter, Tullyvoheen, Clifden, GPL3/87, this collection is held by Galway County Council Archives, and is available free online at www.galway.ie/digitalarchives
This source is useful for when there is a mix of abilities in the classroom as teachers can ask both higher and lower ordered questions. For example, some questions could include “In the census report for the school workhouse, what level of education do the students have?” or “In the census report for Bernard and Patrick Bodkin, what are their occupations and what would they have involved?”. In order to encourage literacy, students were asked to pick a person from the censuses provided and write a diary entry for a day in their life. Students could use the information from the census and try to find their chosen person on other censuses to help them form their character. This activity is beneficial as not only does it develop literacy which is a key Junior Cycle skill, it also encourages historical empathy towards workhouse staff and inmates.
The final source which I showed students was a page from a diet book for healthy inmates. While the page itself was not included in the descriptive list, I emailed Patria McWalter, the archivist at Galway County Council Archives (firstname.lastname@example.org) who was extremely helpful and sent me on some pictures.
Diet Book for Healthy Inmates, 1856-1857, GPL3/110, this collection is held by Galway County Council Archives, and is available free online at www.galway.ie/digitalarchives
While the diet book may appear slightly challenging for students to understand, it is a valuable source as it gives an insight into the nutritional intake of inmates at the time. For this source activity, I divided students into differentiated pairs and asked questions of varying degrees of difficulty. To begin with, I asked basic comprehension questions such as “what date was this form completed?”, “what foods were prepared for the inmates for dinner?” and “How many inmates were expected to eat breakfast?” Following on from this I then got the groups to “think, pair, share” more open-ended questions such as “in your opinion is the diet of the inmates nutritional?” and “why were the inmates given these foods in their diet?” I did have to provide a bit of historical context such as explaining why there were different classes of inmates and how the quantities are written in different metrics to what the students were used to. While students found this source the most difficult to use, they were also the most engaged as they enjoyed learning about what inmates ate and could relate to it a bit more than some statistical evidence.
To conclude, the Clifden collection is just one example of how a lesson can be based upon a variety of sources. Including sources can allow students to improve their analytical skills while also relating better to the content being studied. Sources can also be adapted or explained to allow students of all educational abilities to feel engaged. I found that the IAR website gave me inspiration for how I utilise sources in the classroom and made it easier to find out how to access them. I would really encourage all teachers to use sources more frequently in the classroom to help history come to life for their students.
Aoife Flood, 2nd Year PME student