Working History: David Watkins

Toronto high school teacher David Watkins has found a way to get his African-Canadian students passionate about their history.

Written by Sandy Klowak

January 24, 2012

Teaching history to teenagers is one thing, but it's quite another to spark their interest enough to influence their lives with your lesson plans. Toronto high school teacher David Watkins has found a way to get his black students passionate about African-Canadian history, by showing them how their heritage connects to their present and future. In 2007, he was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History. Watkins teaches at Toronto’s Weston Collegiate Institute.

“We are the result of history, so I try to incorporate the characteristics of the students themselves in the present day time and we start to dismantle their definition of who they are based on a historical mindset,” Watkins says. “It's engaging to them because we're talking about them.”

Though his lessons stretch back to ancient Africa, Watkins says it was slavery that had a huge effect on destructive modern day attitudes.

“Slavery and colonialism ... created a slave mentality where you're not valued on your ability to do math or science or to read and to write because those things weren't valued by slave owners,” he explains. “Even though it's 200 years later, in a lot of ways our community is still valuing itself based on a slave value system rather than valuing ourselves in those areas that can actually help us to progress.”

But this time period also provides positive lessons for students.

“Comfort can be very dangerous. There are a lot of people who were very comfortable being slave masters and you can drop into a level of comfort even being enslaved,” Watkins says. Those who pushed the boundaries of the status quo and did not accept slavery as a way of life are to be admired.

“To think that you could be more than a slave and to think that you could actually help these people (escape) was thinking outside the box,” he says. “The biggest lesson that I have for students is, you can do whatever you want but you have to think beyond what you're comfortable (with), or what's given to you.”

And students take his messages seriously.

“I've had students come and tell me they didn't get into fights as a result of some of the things we talked about in class,” he says. “I've had students tell me they've changed how they think as far as some of their motivations, based on the class.”

Watkins hopes his teaching methods will spread to more schools across the country.

“I'm evangelistic about the course that I teach, but I'm also evangelistic about the process, and the impact this can have on Canadian society,” he says, “because if we can bring a lot of these students to an idea of self-awareness and self-determination, it makes Canada a thousand times better as well.”

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