Artefacts, props and gadgets can serve as a great ‘hook’ into lessons. Over the years I have built up quite a collection in my own classroom, some of which are very surprisingly obtainable affordable (and some of which are less so  – even downright rare and extravagant – but worth every penny for the value they add to lessons). What follows is a list of some of my favourites, starting with the cheapest to obtain and then gradually getting more expensive.

“Hard Boiled Humanities” Entries

The ‘Hard Boiled Humanities’ competition takes place at Easter each year (for full details of the competition so you can copy it, click here). As these eggs are ‘blown’ rather than strictly ‘boiled’, they can be placed on display indefinitely.


Weimar Germany Hyperinflation Notes

The story of hyperinflation in Germany is central to any study of the fragility of the Weimar Republic after World War One. A dramatic story in itself, it is infinitely improved if the teacher is able to show a series of notes which chillingly reflect the declining value of the Germany currency in 1923 – from the point where each note represents a few Marks, to when each note represents billions (and is still unable to purchase anything whatsoever of value). Precisely because they were printed in such gargantuan quantities, these hyperinflation notes are now easily purchased on Ebay at a very affordable price and forming a collection can be quite addictive (especially when combined with a collection of beautiful German Notgeld). The following photo shows some examples from my own collection, along with an original Dawes Plan loan bond from 1924 and government bond stamps from 1922.

Sugar Cane

I purchased a piece of sugar cane from a supermarket several years ago and it’s still going strong. It’s useful at the start of my study of the Transatlantic slave trade (and before I tell students what we about to study), when I show it to students and have it passed around the class, ask them to guess what it is, and then encourage the students once they have correctly guessed – or, more frequently, been told – to ‘guess the topic’. I usually give them a series of clues (the British Empire was built on this…it was grown in large plantations…it was harvested by slaves in terrible conditions…).


Reward Stamp

The customised merit stamp from The Sticker Factory (“You are, says Tarr, a History star!”) is a stalwart of my classroom. Whipping this out from my desk is a sign of impending victory for some lucky student, whose book is stamped ceremoniously before they are asked to quickly breath deeply from the drying printer’s ink (“The smell of victory”). More often than not I accompany this with one of my home-made historically-themed commendation bookmarks.

Roman Dice

When studying the Romans, I have designed a game where students research different gladiator types, produce playing cards based on each, and then ‘fight’ each other in pairs using both their knowledge and chance (factored in by the dice) to help them to victory. As a result I purchased these Roman numeral dice so that I could start the lesson with a short exercise in how Roman numerals work.


Codd Bottle

At the start of my unit on “Who was the Greatest Person of the Industrial Revolution?” I ask students two questions about this “Codd” bottle. (named after its Victorian inventor, Hiram Codd). Such bottles are easily and inexpensively obtainable on Ebay. First, I challenge the class to explain how this Codd bottle works (it’s a cheap example of Victorian ingenuity: the marble acts as the seal to the bottle and is kept in place by the pressure created by the fizzy drink inside. Children would frequently smash the bottles for the marbles inside). Second, I ask them why this blue version of the bottle is so incredibly rare (it would sell, if genuine, for thousands of pounds). The answer is that blue was associated with poison bottles, therefore manufacturing a fizzy-drink bottle in blue glass was a marketing disaster.


Topic-Themed Mugs

As an Englishman abroad, my mug of builders tea is a permanent fixture of my classroom. To keep the historical theme alive I have a collection of themed mugs, my favourites among which are Churchill (“If you’re going through hell, keep going”), American Civil War generals (Stonewall Jackson being a favourite), Napoleon and – in homage to the 1980s arcade games I recreate at ClassTools – my Manic Miner mug.


 Classroom air freshener

Along with a couple of pot plants, using a classroom air freshener gives your room a welcoming and distinctive fragrance. The one I use is motion activated and so only operates during school hours. My students often comment on how much they like the smell of my room (which is currently vanilla – but last half term was autumn fruits, or something like that)!


Soviet medals and Tsarist icon

The Soviet Union, to put it mildly, had a bit of a thing for medals. Just about any contribution to Soviet life beyond getting out of bed in the morning was likely to be rewarded with a lapel badge. As a result they can be bought very cheaply on Ebay, and I have build up quite a collection. They are a good way of getting students to start understanding the social fabric of the USSR. In the photograph shown here you’ll see that I have placed most of them on original Soviet hats. Again, these are great for role play exercises too.

In addition, you will see here a religious icon of Tsar Nicholas II (a cheap reproduction). This is a good prop for reminding students that for Russians, the Tsar was the ‘Little Father’ appointed by God.

Hats, Helmets and Judges’ Wigs

As a big fan of role-play exercises, I have built up quite a collection of various hats to represent different nationalities. I use these when, for example, we debate the Origins of World War One. I also have several judges’ wigs (and two academic gowns – one mine, one stolen from my wife!) which we use for added effect:100_1317 100_1318 100_1320

Glass-Bottomed Tankard

I received this pewter tankard, illustrated with a scene of the Battle of Trafalgar, as a birthday present a few years ago, and it sits on my desk as a pencil holder for the most part. However, when teaching the British Empire I empty it out and start by asking students to explain why they think it has a glass bottom. This leads me into a discussion of the ‘King’s Shilling’ before moving on to a teacher-talk about the Battle of Trafalgar, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column and so on:

The expression ‘to take the king’s shilling’, meant to sign up to join the army. Rather like with the ‘prest’ money for the ‘impressed’ man, a bonus payment of a shilling was offered to tempt lowly paid workers to leave their trade (an average daily wage during the Napoleonic period was 2p (at 12p to a shilling, this represented six days wages in one go). Once the shilling had been accepted, it was almost impossible to leave the army.
     Since the army was not seen as an attractive career, recruiting sergeants often had to use less than honest methods to secure their ‘prey’, such as getting the recruitee drunk, slipping the shilling into his pocket and then hauling him before the magistrate the following morning (still hungover) to get him to accept the fact that he was now in the army. Sometimes the ‘King’s shilling’ was hidden in the bottom of a pewter tankard (having drunk his pint, the unfortunate drinker found that he had unwittingly accepted the King’s offer). As a result, some tankards were made with glass bottoms. Other recruits came from the courts, where a criminal’s sentence could be commuted to service in the army – still the case (apparently) with the Blackwatch Regiment.


Teaching Piracy Like a Pirate

To what extent does ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ accurately reflect the Golden Age of Piracy?” is a particularly popular topic of study with my students, especially as the teams have to get into ‘crews’, name their ships, and wear pirate hats and fire their muskets at each other during the strategy game that tests their knowledge and wins them gold coins. The very best Jack Sparrow hat, and the suitably florid coat (and frilly shirt), are predictably monopolised by me, however.


The Royal Seats: Red cushions

I have red cushions attached to just five seats in my classroom. Some of the younger classes especially are rarely late to my lessons because they positively race to get the prize seats!

Hexagon Hole Punch

As a big fan of the hexagons approach, this little gadget is very handy, especially because it cuts out hexagons exactly the same size as those generated by the ClassTools Hexagons Generator. After students have arranged the hexagons provided as the main lesson resource into appropriate categories, they are challenged to add different coloured hexagons to provide titles for each category and / or extra information from additional written and multimedia sources. The hexagon hole punch cuts out (no pun intended) all the aggravation of using scissors on a blank sheets of hexagons from a template: simply punch them out of a blank sheet of coloured paper. For some reasons the students almost fight for the privilege of using the hexagon punch so it’s a nice reward for those teams that finish the main task to a good quality.


World War One Shell / Grenade

The Battlefields Trip to the Somme and Ypres is one of the highlights of my school year (for all my student support materials and itinerary for this trip, click here). In Ypres there are a number of shops that sell World War One memorabilia, and the last time I visited I purchased not just a de-commissioned grenade, but also this rather impressive artillery shell. As a visual reminder of the amount of money and material that went into the industry of murder, it is a sobering artefact, especially when combined with a clinical explanation of exactly how these shells worked – with particular reference to the adjustable dial that it clearly on the top. When asked to guess what this is, students usually think it is to set the distance it will travel. In fact, it is a timer which is designed to ensure that the shell explodes not on impact, but rather above the trenches so that its deadly payload can spray into the enemy trenches over a wider area and cause the most possible destruction.


Online photo frames

Not too cheap, these, but a lovely addition to any classroom. The Pix-Star photo frame is large (15 inches across) and connects via wifi to your photo account with its associated web application. I have separate online albums for different year groups, so that every time I take a photo with my phone or flip camera I can quickly upload them to the relevant area. The photo frame then immediately updates itself with any new images from the cloud. The frame can be configured to play a slideshow from all the photos associated with it, or just one particular album – so I often use the remote control to quickly select the album associated with a particular year group before they arrive in class with each image changing once every few minutes. My oldest year group (on the verge of university) has an album containing folders all the way back to events, lessons and trips they were involved in when they were just eleven years old or so, set to play randomly. I liked mine so much I bought a second one which I use to show all photos in random order from the most recent academic year.

One of my two classroom photo frames

One of my two classroom photo frames

Victorian Stereoscope and Photographs

Forget Google Cardboard, or your Sony 3D viewing wotsits. The Victorians had the 3D experience nailed in the 19th century. What I particularly love about the stereoscope is the uncanny sense of depth you get when you view the photographs. By taking two photographs the same distance as separates our eyeballs, then placing them into the viewing device, the brain is tricked into seeing a perfect 3D image. The viewing device can be obtained on Ebay as the main expense. Thereafter individual 3D stereoscopic photographs can be purchased for a few pounds each. The box set shown in this photo is an original box set of photographs relating to World War One and the Versailles Peace Conference. It’s a unique way of bringing those topics alive with the students!


Roman Gladiator Helmet

The end of unit factual test for my study of the Roman Empire takes the form of a series of battles between different students based on gladiatorial combats (full details on ActiveHistory). The overall victor (the student who wins the most battles in the course of one hour) gets to wear the gladiator’s helmet and gets awarded a wooden sword which represents winning his freedom. This is on display throughout the lesson as the reward!



Medieval props: Norman helmet, chainmail, chalice and number square

A study of why William of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings involves consideration of the advantages in terms of weaponry and armour. The strength of Norman soldiers and the degree of protection afforded by their armour is illustrated by getting students to wear a helmet and chainmail, which I purchased at Carcassonne medieval fortress (places like Warwick castle also have them for sale.


In addition, the chalice shown here is useful when studying Medieval religion or the quest for the Holy Grail (which I use as the hook as my study of the Cathars). A particularly interesting starter prop shown here is the number square. I purchased this from the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, where it appears on a large scale on one side of the cathedral. If you’re curious to know what makes it so special in mathematical and religious terms (or have any other suggestions for additions to this list!), contact me on Twitter – @russeltarr.