Using masking tape to get the kids to understand the Second World War

I have tried and failed for three years to teach an overview of the Second Wolrd War. We teach a scheme of work looking at different interpretations of the events of the war. We do a great lesson challenging Taylor’s origins of the war, look at how different current historians disagree about the Home Front and do a nice debate about turning points. But before I do this I want my students to have a ‘big picture’ of what actually happens during the course of the war so they can hang these different individual lessons on to something. I have tried and failed this for three years.

My first attempt used lots of library books and a timeline where the kids had to fill in events. They struggled with the books (“Urgh sir what do you do with this?“) and had a cursory knowledge of a few events but no big picture. Last year, I scrapped this and tried something with event cards and getting the kids into some sort of human timeline. Again, they could list a few events but had no idea about the big picture. On Monday, I did the same thing again. It was straight after half term and I didn’t have time to replan it. It went worse than ever. Kids walked out being able to list one or two events. I felt ashamed.

So back to the drawing board. The major problem I had with the previous lessons was that they had no notion of the geography of these events and that is crucial for WW2. You need to visualise these events moving across a map. One of my colleagues reminded me of the title sequence for Dad’s Army. So clearly a map was needed.

I decided I wasn’t bothered by actual specific events as we’d do this in the proceeding lessons so the events cards that I had used before were ditched. But I did like the idea of moving things around on a grand scale so I wanted to retain this bit of the process.

Then I was struck with a brainwave, why not use my classroom as a map. So I trotted off to the Site Team and asked to borrow a roll of masking tape and spent 15 minutes taping an outline of the world. Well one that was off scale so I could move around it.

Next I printed a boat load of colour flags onto A5 pieces of paper. I printed Nazi Germany, France, Italy, Soviet Union, Britain, USA, China and Japan flags. I was ready.


LESSON PLAN: What happened in WW2?

Starter: Sense of period video

It is important for the students to visualise what the war looks like. So I made this video of a large collection of images over Glen Miller. They watch it and answer the question on the video, preferably including similarities and differences to WW1.


Task 1: Map time!

Get the students to sit around the edge of your ready mapped out room. Start the map with all the flags in their mid-1930s positions. Then simply move around the map moving the flags to represent the narrative of the war. This was not delivered as a lecture but more of a question and answer session, e.g. “Hitler has been defeated in his attempt to invade Britain, where will he try to invade next?” before then doing the Barbarossa bit. Throughout this I dropped in names of events and dates but ensured that the learning of these was not that important.

In essence I covered the following:

  • Invasion of Manchuria
  • Invasion of Poland
  • Invasion of Western Europe and Dunkirk
  • Pearl Harbour and early Pacific war
  • War in China
  • North African War
  • Stalingrad
  • Italian Surrender
  • D-Day
  • Allies invade Germany
  • Pacific War with dropping of the bomb (represented by a very large heavy box I found)

We did this whole narrative twice in the end. The second time I got the kids to tell me where to move the flags and peeled back on the narrative letting them do the talking.


Task 2: Consolidation

It is important after an activity like this to get the kids to consolidate what they have found out. So I gave them a very simple worksheet with four boxes to represent the four periods of the war, 1939-1940, 1941-1943, 1944, 1945. They then had to fill it in. The map really helped with this as the students were constantly looking at and checking that they had remembered where the flags moved to.



Plenary: Discussion

To wrap up the lesson we had a very simple discussion about what was the key turning point in their opinion. Then to bring in an interpretation angle as that is the theme for the term I asked them how someone in a different country might have answered that question which brought in a different angle. This was especially good as we happened to have a German student in the room today.


What was the outcome?

The lesson worked a treat. The kids really got it. Stupidly I forgot to photograph their work but virtually all of them had a big overview of the war. It’s taken three years but I finally am happy with this lesson.

One thought on “Using masking tape to get the kids to understand the Second World War

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