I had two conversations with two history teachers lately. It was specially interesting for me, because both warned me before our conversation that they were traditional in their teaching methods. Regardless of their use of digital resources, I want to know how teachers communicate history to their students. Especially when they have 20 or more of years experience teaching, I could see that they had developed a formula that works both for them and their students.

History is a complex subject, also in school. First, there is the huge timeline of events that curriculum covers. Taking alone political history from the classical Greek concept of “democracy” to the Brexit. Adding to this, the students’ changing maturity requires certain subjects to be repeated at different times. It was possible to learn more about what topics were adequate to talk about at different ages, as they were teachers of different age groups, early teenagers and late teenagers.

Taking the subject of Finland at war. With his younger students, one important goal for Timo is to detach the notion of war from the narration they are shown in films. Other than a heroic epic, to show other facets of war. Taking the students to local places where people have been killed during a cvil war, or the spot where a rail-road was bombed by the Russians in the Winter War are things he remembers doing, also because “it makes things more interesting if you have something to show”.

When students discuss about war later, their teacher is more keen that they understand why certain decisions were made. Decisions that, seen from today’s perspective, one can clearly judge as bad decisions. For Hanna’s students, “it’s very difficult to understand why Finland was with Germany” during the Second World War. The socio-political situation of a country in the time of making big decisions is discussed a lot in class.

Hitler visits Marshall Mannerheim on occasion of his birthday 4.June 1942 (Photo: SA-Kuva)
Above, the ruins of the Mikkeli Hospital after a bombing in the Winter war, 1940.
Here, Hitler visiting Marshall Mannerheim on his birthday, 1942 (Photos: SA-Kuva)

Other aspect of communicating one’s own history is deciding what sources to use and I spent some time with my participants speaking about sources, especially about newspapers. For understanding recent events, newspapers, rather than a text-book are used in schools. In fact, many teachers make clippings while reading newspapers at home to bring to class also so “they can see that it’s not just something that Timo is talking about , but that it is a real thing”. But when it comes to history, using historical newspapers, which today are increasingly available in digital libraries, presents some difficulties. Historical newspapers do not necessarily make crucial moments of history accessible for students today. To name a few reasons: in the early years of journalism, the language, Finnish society was divided so that the intellectual elites, more prone to talk about politics, wrote in Swedish that was less accessible to the Finnish-speaking folk; years later, liberalism was considered a threat to the state to the point that writing about politics in 1850 was forbidden; during the war periods, the amount of propaganda spread in the newspapers… all complex issues that have to be acknowledged and explained in history class.

To know about this complexity and contradictions is the only way to understand why it is difficult to find an article in the newspapers after December 6th, 1917 reacting to Finland’s declaration of Independence, an iconic date for Finland today. Back then, a paragraph was written about a conference happening in Saint Petersburg on the second page of a local newspaper (Länsi-Savo 7.12.1917 external). I find ironic that what makes newspapers such interesting historical materials might be precisely what prevents teachers from using them.

The photos of this article are from the Finnish Defence Forces war archives accessible online at: http://sa-kuva.fi/external