The first day of my placement at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House was the first time I had ever visited. In fact, it was my first real experience with the world of Elizabeth Gaskell, having known nothing about her prior to the placement. What drew me to the organization was the opportunity to develop a formal learning resource for key stage one (which covers ages five to seven). I had previous experience in developing and delivering learning sessions within an arts environment but never within this context. I saw it as a challenge and an opportunity to delve into the unknown world of formal learning.
Opened to the public in October 2014 Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is practically new. It is the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell, a famous Victorian author, with well-known novels such ‘Cranford’ and ‘North and South’. The unique selling point of the house is that you can touch practically everything. This is because the furniture and decorations are replica items. Very few authentic items remain of Elizabeth Gaskell’s and what is left is protected in clear cases that are strategically placed around the house to blend in with the surroundings. The effect is a warm, comfortable, family home and not at all what I expected upon thinking of historic houses, which so often have rope cordoning off rooms.
In developing a formal learning resource, I really wanted to play on this truly hands-on opportunity and developed activities that exploited this explorative and active learning environment. The activities allow for child-led learning and focus on the process of the activity and not the outcome. One particular favourite is the Bee Trail. In this activity, the class imagine they are bees and search for patterns and flowers throughout the house and in the garden, which Elizabeth Gaskell particularly loved. This gives them an opportunity to explore the house and use observation skills to detect floral patterns. In another activity, the class become detectives and have to search for unusual objects in the house. With different prompts on their cards in relation to different aspects of the object, each group develops a picture of what the objects, how it was used and who would have used it.
The activities also support aspects of the curriculum, which is an important part of developing formal learning resources and can be quite difficult to navigate! The activities support elements of science, history and art and design, crossing curriculum subjects to make learning more dynamic.
With the activities I developed, I wanted to steer clear of using period costume and dressing-up. This is a frequent feature of formal learning in historic houses and I wanted something different in comparison. I feel that this can distract from the nature of the visit. The main feature of my activities is that they allow for exploration, discovery and questioning and are accessible to different kinds of learner and different levels of learner.
I was able to develop three finished formal learning activities for Elizabeth Gaskell’s House to use and the next step will be to trial and evaluate with key stage one classes.
Working at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House was a truly unique experience and has enabled me to develop invaluable skills. It is a real haven in the midst of Manchester and is well worth a visit, even if you do not have a clue who she is!