Life & Culture

Ballads to give hope in a Year Eight classroom

When I asked my 22 pupils to write stories in the style of the popular 19th century poster format, five of them presented tales about the Holocaust


Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 16, 2023, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** יד ושם מוזיאון שואה השואה יום השואה זיכרון מבקרים ירושלים

Earlier this year my Year Eight English class studied ballads. And taught me quite a bit about human nature as they did so.

Their favourite was The Dreadful Murder of Emma Coppins, a broadside ballad published in 1859.

Sold in large numbers on street corners, in town squares and fairs, and pinned on the walls of ale houses, broadside ballads were the tabloids of their day: a key means of disseminating news about murders and disasters, and of spreading general gossip.

This bestselling broadside ballad tells the story of the murder of a 16-year-old girl and is rife with presumption, judgment and bias.

Emma is portrayed as an angel and Frederick Prentice, the man she rejected and who was convicted of her murder, is depicted as a devil.

It was followed by an equally riveting edition called The Trial and Confession of Frederick Prentice, which imagines things from his point of view as he sits in jail, remorseful, waiting to be hanged for his crime.

After studying the two pieces, my students were charged with writing their own ballads, and being teens, things got quite macabre.

It was quite worrying, in a way, these sweet young minds conducting research on gory murders, tragedies and global calamities. A lot of the research took place in lesson time so I got to hear the gruesome details of their internet finds.

Their topics ranged from the murders of Sarah Everard, George Floyd and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann to — and this made me cry — someone in the Twin Towers leaving an answerphone message for their family telling them they loved them and always would.

Five of my 22 students — the largest sub-group — wrote about the Holocaust, which feels significant, not least because there’s only one Jewish girl in the class.

These girls could have chosen to write about things that happened in their lifetime, but they chose antisemitism, the Nazis and the death camps.

They were thinking about the worst of atrocities, about unimaginable horror and they established that it was the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

Has our school’s stance been a factor here? I think so. Every year apart from this one our head of politics, who isn’t Jewish but who is a knowledgeable historian, gives an assembly about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah.

He didn’t this year because a Jewish sixth-former delivered one on antisemitism instead. She was excellent. We’re planning a follow-up for younger groups in the autumn.

It’s vital that pupils and staff in our Christian school attended by Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and students without faith hear about Jewish experiences from real-life Jews.

And it’s cheering that our annual Chanukah party, the honey cakes that are shared at Rosh Hashanah and the school’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah are having an effect. These things do not happen in all schools.

But here, ballads about the Shoah have flowed from the pens of my Year Eight students. If proof were needed that Holocaust education works, this is it.

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