So you’re thinking of using a History Visitor?

10/08/2016

Many subjects in the Primary Curriculum lend themselves bringing external experts into the classroom, especially in sports, arts and humanities. Most schools these days are used to working with outside musicians, football coaches, dance teachers etc. for both in- and out-of-hours activities, often on a regular basis. But what about using a one-off visitor to help with your history topic?

After all, isn’t it better to go to a museum or living history centre? Well, yes and no. There are some excellent places to take children such as Anglo Saxon villages and Tudor manors and working Victorian farms, and trips out form an important part of the curriculum. However, they are also expensive, a logistical nightmare and – especially with museums – you run the risk of the children having a wonderful time in the gift shop or running off to look at the Egyptian mummies when they are supposed to be concentrating on Greeks.

Having someone come to the school to run a history workshop/activity day, can really engage the children in a way a museum can’t. They will be allowed to handle the objects, try their hand at crafts, ask all the questions they could ever wish to ask, and have the whole day immersed in the topic rather than spending two hours getting to and from the museum, trying to see crowded, glass-defended displays and then forgetting their packed lunch on the coach.

This short guide is intended to help you in choosing and using an external visitor to get the most out of an Impact/Wow day, whether you’ve used visitors before or are trying to decide whether a visitor is for you.

What is a History Visitor?

Usually, this is someone who is an expert in their particular time period. They will come to the school in period costume to present workshops for up to a full day. Workshops are available from the Stone Age through to WWII and a visitor should bring a variety of props, artefacts and activities for use throughout the day.

Whereas specialist external arts or sports teachers are usually qualified, most history visitors are not. However,
a lack of a history degree or QTS doesn’t mean that the visitor is no good – in fact it’s often an advantage when portraying a person from a certain time period. Some visitors choose to present the whole day “in character” (including eating Viking-style and chucking chicken bones at the MDAs), some use more curriculum based activities and include worksheets, and some may use a mix of the two.

Visitors may be retired teachers or historians, they may be hobby re-enactors, or they may just be interested individuals who have a knowledge of their subject. They may be professional, full time school visitors working through a company, they might be members of a reputable re-enactment society, or they might be individuals who visit schools on the side for a bit of extra cash.

Some of the best visitors are part-time amateurs, often because they have a deep love for their subject and want to impart that love to others. Don’t be put off if someone is not a full-time professional, but you do need to weed out the ones who will turn up looking like Hagar the Horrible from those who really know their subject and can impart knowledge in a child-friendly and useful way.

How to choose your visitor

Visitors do, of course, vary widely in quality and reliability, and there is no regulatory body or easy qualification to look for in a visitor. This can make for a minefield when choosing where to spend your hard won budget. You want to make sure that you and your children get the best possible experience which leads to quality topic work.

So to help you avoid Hagar, here’s five easy steps to follow when choosing a historical visitor:

  1. Read their website

    Perhaps this seems obvious: you have probably searched online for your visitor and may have found them through a website, facebook page or online directory. Thoroughly checking out their website should, however, give you a feel for their level of professionalism and certainly should allow you to see some photographs of the person in costume. Their website should also list such things as their level of experience, previous clients, and whether they are members of a re-enactment society, professional association or other group, and whether they adhere to any authenticity standards. You don’t want your Viking turning up (as was suffered by one school) with furry trousers, Ugg boots and an African drum!

  2. Ask for references

    Even if there are testimonials on their website, reputable history visitors will be more than happy to provide you with referees from schools they have previously worked with. A good visitor will be asked back year on year to the same schools so will have built up a bank of happy clients for you to contact. Do not be afraid to ask detailed questions: you’re bringing someone into your children’s safe environment, so make sure you are happy with the answers you receive.

  3. Check out the admin

    Is the visitor insured? Will they provide a risk assessment and invoice? At what point is your booking guaranteed? Do you have to pay a deposit? Is the visitor DBS checked? By law (and Ofsted, which is kind of the same thing), external visitors are NOT required to be DBS checked as they are not taking part in a “regulated activity”. However many visitors will be, which might help you make a decision depending on your school’s child protection policy.
    Has the visitor asked for plenty of information about the school? A good visitor should make sure that they are familiar with what you want from the day, any particular focus you have for the topic and any issues/barriers to learning that there may be within the group. Usually a visitor would want to know the group age, size, how many adults the school will provide for supervision, the space available (halls? Classrooms?), the school timetable for the day so that activities can be timetabled properly, any SENs or particular issues with any children, where they can change, where they can park etc. If the visitor isn’t asking the right questions then it could be an indication that they are inexperienced at best, and at worst may turn up on the day and start turning the school upside down because things are not suitable!

  4. Be prepared to pay

    While there are a (very) few people who will visit your school for free, most people will ask a fee plus expenses. As with all things in life, you gets what you pays for! The costumes, artefacts, and resources all take time and money to prepare, and travel expenses, insurances and admin costs must all be covered. Some visitors will charge per day up to a maximum group size, whereas some will charge per head of children. Get a few quotes to make sure you’re in the right ball-park. Make sure that when you make your first enquiry that you include your location so that expenses can be included in your quote: many visitors travel country-wide to provide their service, so those petrol and accommodation costs can mount up.
    Do make sure that whatever the quote you have received, that it is clearly laid out and is the total amount. Don’t be caught out by hidden costs such as photocopying worksheets for 100 children if the visitor didn’t mention that at the start.

  5. Speak to or email the visitor personally

    If the visitor is part of a large agency, ensure that you get to speak to the person who will actually be visiting your school. While it may also be tempting to ask the secretary to do the ringing around, you are the only one who knows your children, and it’s important that you get a feel for who that person is, what their presentation style may be and whether they will be right for your group’s dynamic.

So, you’ve chosen your visitor – now what?

You’ve booked the date, the newsletters have been sent home and your little Roman Army/Victorian work house children/Elizabethan peasants are busily getting mum to knock up a costume because they forgot to tell her until the night before. What can you do to make sure everything goes swimmingly on the day?

  1. Let the other staff know what’s happening

    From when the visitor arrives (probably around 8am), he or she will need to find the hall/classroom, unload and set up, which can take up to 90 mins depending on how many props and artefacts the visitor has brought. Delays because the receptionist didn’t know about the day, or there’s nowhere to park, or the breakfast club won’t let them into the hall, can impact the start time severely and shorten the entire day. If you can’t be there first thing then arranging for a premises manager to be around is extremely useful. It can also be disruptive if Year 1 suddenly turn up halfway through the day expecting to use the hall for PE, so make sure all spaces are properly booked out.

  2. Join in!

    This may seem obvious, but I have personally visited many schools where the teachers have not been present for much of the day. I cannot stress enough how important teacher participation is. The visitor will want to discuss the running order, housekeeping (where are the loos? And more importantly the coffee?) and any special arrangements with the teacher before the children arrive. The class teacher(s) should make sure that they are available for the whole school day so don’t schedule in PPA time, meetings, or sit in the corner catching up on that marking. If you are not experiencing what the children are experiencing, how can you prepare follow up work? Visitors are an incredibly valuable resource and it’s not only the children who can learn an awful lot from the day. A good visitor will be happy with you making notes for future use and asking your own questions: after all, that is what they are there for.
    Most importantly, involving yourself in the day helps enormously with immersing the children. Teacher participation (especially when you get to cynical year 6 classes) can make the difference between children buying into the activities or feeling self-conscious and not fully taking part. Good visitors will of course make every effort to build rapport with the children and get the most out of them on the day but having teacher join in can make this process a lot easier.

  3. Decide how you want to manage behaviour

    Even the best behaved classes can get over-excited when faced with a WWII gun or Viking axe. How do you want to manage behaviour between yourself and the visitor? Some visitors prefer to manage behaviour themselves; some welcome additional help from teachers. If it is a large or particularly boisterous group then it’s unrealistic to expect one visitor to have eyes everywhere, and teacher backup will be necessary to make sure everyone gets the most out of the day. If you have a particular method of calming a class down, such as clapping rhythms or holding up a hand or counting backwards, it can help to let the visitor know.

  4. Identify any children with additional needs

    There may be loud noises involved in the day (yelling, blowing horns, shield wall clashes) which might upset some SEN children and you will need to know when these are likely to occur. The visitor will also be “in character”, and as a Roman warrior or Victorian school mistress this may mean talking to children as they are not used to being spoken to, which could exacerbate behavioural issues. Teachers will need to identify children who may not deal well with shouting or being singled out.

  5. Have a back-up plan!

    Even the most professional, reliable visitor cannot be held responsible for Acts of God(s), weather conditions, or transport issues. They understand how much of an event a day like this is for the children and the school – organising fancy dress, moving the timetable around, cancelling regular activities etc. – and no good visitor will take lightly the decision to cancel. In the past five years I have cancelled only a very few times: twice when roads were closed due to high winds and heavy snow; once when my car broke down 5 miles from the school; once when I’d lost my voice; once due to a death in the family and once because London Transport were on strike and the roads were clogged so badly it took 3 hours to drive 5 miles!
    It’s therefore vitally important that you have a back-up plan in place to avoid all those puppy dog eyes when you have to tell them that the Viking’s ship sank. Visitors who have to cancel should be happy to reschedule the day where possible, and where not possible should make a full refund on any deposits paid.

Hopefully these top tips will help you to choose the best history visitor for your topic. A good visitor can fire children’s imagination for weeks after the workshop; a bad one can be dull, uninspiring or just plain laughable! If you’ve had any experiences worth sharing – good or bad – with visitors coming into schools, then leave a comment or email me at dom@vikingschoolvisits.com.

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