This past week, circumstances allowed me to re-use a lesson idea from years past. Let me tell you the story of both Sir Bob and the chain mail shirt.
Sir Bob is the nickname for a suit of armor that lives in my school library. He has been there for longer than my tenure. He wears a small sign on his back that explains how he ended up guarding a school library. He belongs to Lianne Harris, a wonderful individual that conducts history and social studies presentations around the GTA. Her website is https://historybyharris.ca/ if you'd like to contact her and request an informative and entertaining presentation at your school.
I knew about Lianne even before I met Sir Bob. In my very first year of contract teaching, at a different school, I booked her to do a presentation for the junior division students. She captivated them back then. Here's a photo of her from my school scrapbook.
If Lianne is reading this, please rest assured that Sir Bob is still doing his duty watching over the students. He was even mentioned in a research study by Queen's University and People for Education in 2009 ("Exemplary School Libraries in Ontario"), when the observers described the school library environment:
... The front window looks onto the school's courtyard entrance, and beside one of the many "cozy corners" complete with comfortable chairs and a round table, stands Sir Bob, a knight in full armour. ..." (page 3)
Lianne wears and has students try on clothing that matches the time period she is teaching about. To maximize the impact of Lianne's presentation back then, I was able to bring in a different artifact that has an even longer personal history for me.
The Chain Mail Tunic
My husband has some pretty talented friends. One of them, Chris, is a history buff. In the 1990s, he decided to try to make chain mail armor out of wire coat hangers. He first lent me this vest in 1997 so that my students could feel what it was like. I returned it (after a stint in my car trunk), and Chris continued to add to it over the years. I borrowed it again in 2004 as part of a collaborative teaching unit with the Grade 4 classes. My principal at the time, Wayne Hamilton, wore the shirt, to the delight of the students and teachers.
When my own daughter had her ninth birthday, (in 2009) it was a medieval themed affair and Chris came over with the latest iteration of the armour. By this time, it was no longer a vest, but a rather long tunic. Only my good friend and teaching colleague, Renee, was able to handle wearing it. It was too heavy for any child to try it on. I returned it, thinking it was the last I'd ever get to use the armour.
Years go by and lessons come and go. Fast forward to October 2023. My husband decided to have a few friends over for his birthday, including Chris. Chris brought with him a big surprise: a brand new chain mail shirt and coif (head piece) that he had made for me!
Chris used specially-ordered chain links to create it this time, instead of wire hangers, and it took him about six months to put it together. The metal cost over $400. (The metal links cost $100 for a kilogram.) He even added black metal rings around the edges for a more finished look. I was gobsmacked. This project took lots of time, money and effort to create. I was very grateful, and determined that I would use it with students.
It just so happens that I'm teaching Grade 4 social studies this year as part of my teaching assignment. This past week, I brought out the armour as part of my lesson. They loved it! I even roped Renee into demonstrating how protective the amour can be by hitting me with a wooden stick. It makes a satisfyingly loud song and does not hurt at all.
The students and I had great discussions about chain mail vs plate armour and comparing modern soldier outfits to older uniforms. I don't know if I'll be able to top this lesson, but it certainly was memorable, and if it helps students to get excited about social studies and learning about the past, then I'll all for it!